Herschel Sizemore tribute

In a long day of great music and great moments at Sunday’s benefit concert in Roanoke for Herschel and Joyce Sizemore, two backstage discussions captured the spirit of the man being feted and the music community that supported the event.

One of those moments came just after Herschel left the stage after performing with the fictitious Roanoke Mandolin Ensemble – with Alan Bibey and Dale Reno. Herschel spotted Lou Reid and Fred Travers of the Seldom Scene, and stopped to thank them for volunteering their talent – as all the musicians did for the show. After Lou allowed that he “wouldn’t have missed it,” Herschel said, “Well, if I live and something happens to you guys, I’ll be right there to help you.”

It was vintage Herschel, who “would do anything for you,” according to Dudley Connell of the Seldom Scene, who also appeared as part of Springfield Exit and a reunion of the Johnson Mountain Boys.

The other moment came when the Punch Brothers, in town for a sold-out show of their own at another venue, dropped by for a quick four-song set.

Frontman Chris Thile said one of the highlights of his mandolin-picking career was getting to play Herschel’s signature song, Rebecca, with him at a workshop in Roanoke some years back.

“Despite our different approaches to making music on this instrument, it’s a deep, deep honor to be asked to do this,” Chris told me backstage. “We love bluegrass, even though we don’t play it all the time. It means a great deal to be here.”

The Punch Brothers didn’t have to be there. It was a miserable, snowy day and they had their own show to prepare for. But like the dozens of other musicians who stepped onto the stage at the Roanoke Performing Arts Theatre, they wanted to be there to help a fellow musician fallen on hard times.

“It’s an incredibly tight-knit community,” Chris said. “The music that these people make affects you profoundly, and it lives with you.”

After the Punch Brothers played, Chris and Herschel met briefly backstage, while Del McCoury stood nearby, waiting to join with Herschel in a renunion of the Dixie Pals. “You are a colossus in our world,” Chris told Herschel.

Later, Herschel admitted he didn’t play like a colossus, after a layoff of several months while he underwent treatment for tonsil cancer. “It wasn’t like I used to do, but that’s alright,” he said, as a few relatives and friends stood by with tears in their eyes.

“It felt good. It felt real good,” he said. “Once it got to where the microphone did all the work, I was OK. Back there in the hallway, playing against that banjo, it was killing me.”

The Punch Brothers surprise set and the reunions of the Dixie Pals and the Johnson Mountain Boys were just some of the musical treats enjoyed by a crowd of about 700 that would have no doubt been larger without the snow.

There were spirited sets by up-and-coming bands like Republik Steele and the Stacy Grubb Band and veterans such as the Bluegrass Brothers and top-notch harmonies from The Travelers, who sang tight three-and-four part harmonies around a single microphone, and The Seldom Scene, who dedicated Walk Through This World With Me to Herschel and Joyce.

Herschel was given a clean bill of health a month or so ago, and is working on getting back into playing shape. Joyce, who has breast cancer, has one more chemotherapy session and then will have surgery.

At the end of a long day, Herschel seemed in awe of the outpouring of love and money. “For your peers to drive as far as most of them have, and to give up a day of earning their livelihoods, what can you say other than it’s a very humbling experience,” he said. “I’ve always tried to help my fellow man. I guess it’s like they say, what goes around comes around. It’s a wonderful thing. It’s almost breathtaking.”

Indeed, it was.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.