Jerry Stuart at the 2023 Granite Quarry Fiddlers’ Convention – photo © G. Nicholas Hancock
Jerry Stuart, 85-year-old mandolinist from Siler City, NC, was honored at the 57th annual Granite Quarry Fiddlers’ Convention Saturday evening near Rockwell, NC. Each year this award is presented to someone for their particular contributions to bluegrass music.
Though not a traveling musician, this year’s recipient has spent most of his life creating, playing, and sharing his music with others while maintaining a professional career as an engineer. Starting with a plastic ukulele at age 12, Jerry Stuart was playing the mandolin a year later in the style of Bill Monroe that he heard on 78 rpm recordings. By 14, he was performing with a country band three days a week on a local AM radio station.
Stuart relocated to the Washington, DC area to attend college. While there, he recorded an original mandolin tune, Rocky Run, with Mike Seeger, Pete Kuykendall, Tom Gray, and Smiley Hobbs, as part of a Folkways Records compilation album, Mountain Music Style, in 1959. The Smithsonian Institute bought Folkways Records when its owner passed and Stuart’s recording is still available today through Smithsonian Folkways. In the late ’50s, Stuart also co-wrote a couple tunes, Silence or Tears and You Left Me Alone with bassist, Tom Gray. Gray recorded these songs with the Country Gentlemen in the early ’60s.
Stuart composed another fast-paced instrumental, Galax, named after the legendary southern Virginia fiddlers’ convention. He recorded a single and sent it to the Grand Ole Opry. He and his band, the Bluegrass Gentlemen, were then invited to appear on Bobby Lord’s portion of the Opry in the Ryman Auditorium on July 21, 1972. The following day his band also played several tunes for the Ernest Tubb Record Shop Show.
In 1978, the mandolinist recorded an album, Rocky Run, named after his original instrumental on the County label with Barry Poss as the producer. The project included special guests Bobby Hicks on fiddle and Tom Gray on bass, along with members of Stuart’s band at the time, the Green Valley Ramblers (Albert Vestal, and brothers, Tony and Gary Williamson). Songs on the album included several other tunes penned by Stuart such as Sweet Marie, Stuart’s March, and his Opry debut song, Galax.
“This gentleman has been in bluegrass all his life. He is one of our pioneers. Here at Granite Quarry Fiddlers’ Convention and the Civitan Club, we are all about honoring musicians before they retire and before they are gone. We want them to know how much they are appreciated while they are here with us,” stated Vivian Hopkins, convention coordinator, as she introduced Jerry Stuart and presented him with his award.
Hopkins shares a special connection with the man and his instrument. Her father, the late Ralph Pennington, was a talented musician and luthier who converted Stuart’s Gibson mandolin, Old Red, from an F-4 to an F-5.
Stuart introduced his mandolin to the audience. “It left the Kalamazoo Gibson Factory about 1916 to ’18. I’ve had it since 1968 so I’ve been beating on it for a long time. Before I got it, it was modified. When it left the factory, it had a round (sound) hole like a typical flat top guitar. Bill Monroe played an F-5 model that had F holes, so the old mandolins with the F holes became more valuable. Vivian’s dad, Ralph Pennington, converted this mandolin from a round hole to F holes. That conversion was done before I bought it. It is a pleasure to play it here tonight. Ralph and Vivian are long time folks of this area and glad to have something that her dad crafted. I’ve enjoyed it for all these years.”
Former Bluegrass Gentleman band mate (and Bluegrass Today photographer), Nick Hancock, stepped on stage to add to the mandolin’s legacy. “We played down in Lavonia, GA, about 1971. There was a gospel group called the Sullivan Family who had a 13-year-old mandolin player named Marty Stuart. He came over to Jerry and said, ‘I really like that mandolin. Would you let me hold it?’ Marty played it a little bit and asked if he could play it on their next set on stage so that ‘Old Red’ was played by Marty Stuart when he was 13 years old.”
Jerry added, “There was another young guy that was playing with Ralph Stanley at the time. His name was Ricky Skaggs. He heard me playing mandolin on stage and he came up and asked, ‘Can I look at your mandolin?’ And then the next question was, ‘Can I play it on stage with Mr. Ralph?’ For years, when we were playing the same festivals, Ricky would borrow my mandolin to play on stage. Later, Ricky got an old Gibson Loar that is the top of the line like Bill Monroe played. He brought it to me and let me play it. He asked, ‘Is yours a ’23 or ’24?’ He thought mine was the real thing. He thought the work Ralph had done made it equal to what he had. I told him mine wasn’t the real thing. It was a modified mandolin. Skaggs said, ‘It, along with Bill Monroe’s, was one of the yard sticks, the two mandolins I had in mind, when I was buying this old mandolin.'”
Stuart & Friends, comprised of his son and daughter-in-law, Doug and Stacey Stuart, his former band mate, Albert Vestal, IIIrd Tyme Out fiddler, Nathan Aldridge, and powerhouse banjoist, Len Camp, then performed a set of tunes composed entirely by Jerry. He began by finger picking the guitar with The Elbow Song, a tune he said, “is a silly song that gives advice to young fellows on how to choose a mate.” The chorus included the lyrics, “I’ve never seen an elbow with a girdle on it yet, so check the elbows on the ladies to see just what you get.” He then played his classic instrumental tunes Galax and Rocky Run, his down stroke tune, Stuart’s March, and closed with his lyrical Sweet Marie with Vestal on lead vocals.
Doug, the youngest of Stuart’s three children, explained the significance of Rocky Run and its specialized tuning. “Dad wrote this song in the mid to late ’50s at a time frame when Monroe did Get Up John with an alternative tuning. About the only other person writing original mandolin tunes besides Monroe in the bluegrass realm was Frank Wakefield.”
Stuart concluded his 30 minute set with praise. “I’m happy to have been recognized. I’m glad to be here and to play a few numbers for you. I just want to thank these guys that came to help me tonight. Give them a big hand.”