Galax, Virginia is a town with a real mystique for lovers of Appalachian musical traditions. There is the Old Fiddlers Convention, of course, held every summer in Felts Park for more than 80 years, which draws lovers of both bluegrass and old time music in their thousands. But there is more than just that to the charisma of Galax. People who come for the convention often fall in love with the town, and its people, and the way they so easily hold on to the old ways.
Folks who live in the wider region have long known Galax as a center for traditional music and arts, many listening to WBRF, which has beamed bluegrass into their homes each night on FM radio for years. Or maybe because of people like Willard Gayheart who has made his home there since 1962 after leaving his native Kentucky. Recognized internationally for his pencil drawings, he also operates a small frame shop just outside of town where he serves visitors and locals with the same southern hospitality he learned growing up poor in Appalachia himself.
Until recently, many of his customers probably didn’t know that Willard was also a singer and songwriter. They may have known his son, Scott Freeman, as such, or even more so his granddaughter, Dori Freeman, who has a fine start on a career as a singer/songwriter in the Americana world. In fact, Gayheart gives the credit to the Galax community for his own interest in music as well as art.
“When I came to Galax, I couldn’t believe it. Every family had a musician of some sort. Music was in the air around here. It was mostly old-time and bluegrass, mostly traditional music but others too.”
Gradually other musicians in the region learned about his original material, and its honest, unromanticized portrayals of the simple, mountain life. A few have turned up in collections of mountain ballads, but now, at 87 years of age, Willard is looking forward to his first solo album of his songs.
At Home In The Blue Ridge is set for a May 24 release from Blue Hens Music, a Galax-based label, which was recorded with Scott and Dori Freeman in Gayheart’s frame shop not long ago. Producer Teddy Thompson and engineer Ed Haber made the trip down from New York to capture his music for posterity. They set up in The Front Porch Gallery & Frame Shop, and cut the tracks while customers wandered in and out.
Ahead of the release, Willard has agreed to share a debut single with our readers, one called The Workin’. He added a few words about the concept for any city folks reading along.
“I wrote this one about my memories growing up in Kentucky. Most of the folks around us lived off the land. It was really a different time then—a time where people would depend on one another in a time of need. When someone needed help tending crops or some other big task around the farm, the neighbors would have what we always called a workin’ where everyone would join together and do what needed to be done. Usually the men folk would be out in the fields doing the work, and the women would make a big meal and help out how they could. I remember my great uncle died one spring. He got pricked by a poisonous locust thorn and died of an infection. All the neighbors came out and had a workin’ on our land to harvest the crops. It was a sad time, but a good memory too.”
Look for At Home In The Blue Ridge wherever you stream or download music on May 24.