Jim Fraley retiring from Deeper Shade of Blue

It’s never easy to give up something that you enjoy and have done for the better part of your life, but sometimes you just know when it’s time to walk away. It has reached that point for Jim Fraley. This month, the longtime banjoist with North Carolina-based Deeper Shade of Blue bluegrass band is retiring.

“Due to some health issues and traveling a long ways, sometimes it has gotten to be more than I really want to do right now,” confessed the Monroe, NC resident.

Fraley, a southpaw, began picking as a teenager. “Actually watching Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs on Saturday evenings on TV was what really sparked my interest. I started playing around 1970 and actually started left-handed, but when I tried that, the fifth string was on the bottom of the neck so I just learned right-handed. At that time, I did not know they made left-handed banjos!”

To become more involved with the bluegrass community, the budding musician began attending local events and making connections with other pickers.

“I got started going to fiddlers’ conventions and friends’ houses. (I jammed with) one man in particular, Jerry Edmondson, who at that time played (banjo) with the group, the Bluegrass Tarheels.”

Fraley soon graduated to playing with several local bands.

“The first band I was a part of was a band called the Bluegrass Travelers. Then I performed with the Boyd Brothers and the Lincoln County Partners.”

The five-string picker made significant strides within the music industry.

“I had the privilege to play with Chubby Wise, Mac Wiseman, and Bobby Hicks. In 1977, I was fortunate enough to win the North Carolina state championship. Also about 1991, I was fortunate enough to receive the first annual Snuffy Jenkins Memorial Award.”

For the past two decades, Fraley has been banjoist with the quintet, Deeper Shade of Blue. Recording for Mountain Fever Records, the band includes his oldest child, Jason, on mandolin.

His son shared a little history. “What a ride! Back in late 1999, Brian Hinson called dad and asked to join forces and develop a new group. I tagged along, as I did my whole life, to the first rehearsal. Before the night was up, I was the lead guitar player. I was stoked as this was my first job in a ‘real’ bluegrass band. Unfortunately Bobby Lasley, the mandolin player, left and I moved to mandolin, my true passion. Now marks 20 years we have traveled the roads together. We have been privileged to share the stage with heroes we both admire.  

“Due to this pandemic, Dad was not able to play his last few shows with us. The whole situation has been strange, but that’s the cards we were dealt. We know that things eventually come to an end. Like many other bluegrass powerhouses, you must eventually rest. Steve (Wilson, Fraley’s replacement) knows the shoes are big that he is filling and has been patient, respectful, and willing to compromise as we transition.”

Guitarist and lead singer, Troy Pope, expressed, “Along with being one of the finest banjo players on this earth, you can’t overlook his baritone singing. He knew that part like no other and was a huge part in the band’s signature harmony. Standing beside Jim on stage for close to 20 years, we have made many, many memories and I have enjoyed every bit of it.”

Frank Poindexter, DSOB’s dobro player, praised his bandmate. “Jimmy is one of the smoothest and most accurate five string banjo players I’ve had the pleasure of working with! And anybody that knows Jimmy will attest to his love for the music, and his brother-hood relationship with all the people. Wishing him a well-deserved and pleasant retirement.”

“I have known Jimmy for many years now, and I have been a fan of his playing as long as I’ve known him. So when I was presented the opportunity to come on board with Deeper Shade of Blue, I immediately said yes, and Jimmy was one of the main reasons. I have had the pleasure of standing on stage with him for over five years now and it’s been an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. Jimmy’s timing, tone, and drive are among the best I have ever heard and he will forever be one of my favorite banjo players. I also will never forget the memories we have made traveling the roads together during that time. They produced some really good ‘Jimmy’ stories,” added bassist, Scott Burgess.

North Carolina Bluegrass Association president, Vivian Hopkins, interjected. “From the time I met Jimmy Fraley over 40 years ago, I was impressed with his banjo playing. He had his own style developed by the influence of the banjo masters. Throughout his career, he has been quick to offer advice and help young aspiring musicians reach their goals in music. He has always given a masterful and professional performance in every band he’s fronted or played in. We wish him all the best in his retirement.

Joan, Fraley’s wife, has been by his side, supporting him for over 40 years.

“The first time I saw Jimmy he was playing a festival that my Daddy put on, and he was literally just standing out in the field by himself picking his banjo.”

“The next time I saw him, he was playing with the Bluegrass Travelers at the Sandhill Opry (her father’s music venue). We didn’t talk there, but we both kept eyeing each other. Then I saw him at a festival in Cheraw, South Carolina. We kind of got together that night and have been together ever since. When I went back to work the next Monday, I told the people I worked with that I would be married within 6 months.

 “Well, it ended up being about a year. Before we got married, he told me that he would always be picking his banjo somewhere, and that I was welcome to go with him or stay home if I’d rather. The first thing packed in our car on our honeymoon was his banjo!

“I have always gone with him, dragging the kids along with us. I’ve been very proud to be classified as ‘the banjo picker’s wife.’ After 20 years with Deeper Shade, it saddens me to see him quit playing. His health just doesn’t allow him to travel the long distances, and he doesn’t want to keep playing since he’s not able to play to the best of his abilities.”

Picking for more than four decades, Fraley isn’t about to close his case forever.

Poindexter stressed, “Will miss you in the band, but looking forward to some more good jamming together!”

 “I still plan to play and fill-in with other bands when needed. I am planning to jam all I can,” Fraley vowed.

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About the Author

Sandy Hatley

Sandy Chrisco Hatley is a free lance writer for several NC newspapers and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. As a teenager, she picked banjo with an all girl band called the Happy Hollow String Band. Today, she plays dobro with her husband's band, the Hatley Family.