Remembering Willie Kerr

Becky Buller and Willie Kerr - photo by Dan BonerWillie Kerr died last week and a part of bluegrass died with him.

Unless you played or attended the two annual festivals at Gettysburg or shows in and around York, PA, you probably didn’t know Willie. But artists and fans alike should honor him. Willie Kerr, you see, was a bluegrass superfan.

Willie, just 60 when cancer claimed him, came late to bluegrass after his own stint as a professional musician – he played electric guitar in a heavy metal/punk band that a longtime friend described as, well, “awful.”

But then, someone turned him on to bluegrass and he became one of the most dedicated fans I’ve run across. Willie didn’t drive, so he had to arrange rides with friends. And, on a few occasions when rides weren’t to be had but there was a big bill at Gettysburg, he hailed a cab for the trip. From Lebanon, PA! That’s a lot of miles and a trip that no doubt ended with a big number on the meter. But it was bluegrass, so Willie was there.

It was always easy to spot Willie, a lanky guy with curly hair and a penchant for bluegrass-themed T-shirts. He knew the music well, but had a special soft spot for female pickers and singers. Rhonda Vincent was tops in his book, but he had a long list of other favorites, including Claire Lynch, Michelle Nixon and Jeanette Williams. In recent years, he added Becky Buller and Flatt Lonesome to his must-see list. What can I say, the guy had great taste.

Willie didn’t have a lot of money. He worked a series of odd jobs after Bethlehem Steel’s departure from southcentral Pennsylvania left him and thousands of others in the unemployment line. He lived in a modest rowhouse apartment. But he always had money for bluegrass, even coming up with $500 to help one female artist fund her CD. He also amassed a sizeable collection of CDs and memorabilia, most of it autographed.

Willie, I guess you could say, lived for bluegrass music.

“His knowledge of our music knew no boundaries,” said Dick Beckley, a friend and longtime president of the Seven Mountains bluegrass association. “He was like a walking encyclopedia of bluegrass.”

Willie faded quickly, dying just two months after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Word of his passing caught many who did know him by surprise. Beckley found out when he called Willie’s caregiver to check up on him, and shared the sad news on his Facebook page.

“So sorry to hear of his passing, and sad that I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye,” wrote Jeanette Williams. Her husband, Johnny, recalled spending a lot of time talking music with Willie. He remembered him as “such a great fan (with) a heart as big as the sky.” Danny Paisley hailed him as “a true supporter of bluegrass music.

Willie always had a kind word for me when we ran into each other every year at the Gettysburg festival. I’ll miss our chats and the joy that was evident when the music started.

Per his wishes, Willie was cremated. But his memory will live on in those who knew of and shared his passion for bluegrass.

I said at the outset that artists and fans alike should honor Willie. I’m about to do that right now. I’m going to start with a punk rock classic, just because I think he’d chuckle at that. Then I’ll cue up songs by Rhonda, Claire, Becky and some of his other favorite artists.

And I’ll imagine Willie, front and center for the next show by the Angel Band.

RIP, Willie Kerr.

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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.