The gift of music is carried on by families

Published 10:57 pm Wednesday, June 13, 2018

It’s interesting how a gift of music can be passed on from generation to generation within the same family. I witnessed a good example of that on Tuesday. I was privileged to attend Bobby’s Day on the River to celebrate the 15th anniversary of the Backyard Brotherhood. A big part of these very enjoyable annual events is the picking and singing that goes on along the riverbank in Valley’s Langdale community.

Performing were four guitarists – W.L. Gillenwaters, Bo Bowens, Leonard Thrower and Owen Gray – mandolin player Freeman Parker and fiddle player Cliff Thacker.

After their performance many of us made it a point to talk to the musicians, to tell them how much we appreciated them being there and commended them on being so good at playing instruments and singing. One of them, Owen Gray, got to talking to me how he’d always been around music. He started playing the guitar, he told me, while growing up in the Shake Rag community in Randolph County, or God’s country to those of us who have family ties there.

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“I learned to play on my father’s guitar at a very early age,” he said. “My mother played the mandolin.”

His son Charlie carries on the family tradition. To audiences all over the South he’s known as Charlie Starr, the lead guitarist for the well-known rock band Blackberry Smoke.

“My son got his talent from both sides of the family,” Mr. Gray told me. “His uncles were members of a gospel group known as the Suwannee River Boys. Merle, Buford and Jasper Abner did gospel with a unique beat and sound. It was much like the black gospel music that time. They were popular in their day, and my son is doing pretty well today.”

Gray said he’s often wondered where his dad got that guitar that helped carry on a family tradition.

“He probably ordered it from Sears Roebuck or Montgomery Ward,” he said.

There’s plenty of reason for the Gray family to be glad he did.

“I love bluegrass and the old kind of country music,” Gray said. “I never played in front of groups until the year 2000. I met a fiddle player from the town of Abingdon, Va. in the part of the country where music legend Ralph Stanley was from. He told me I was good and that I should be playing in front of people. That made me feel good because he was really, really good.”

As for son Charlie, he’s doing really well these days. A Southern rock/country band based in Atlanta, Blackberry Smoke has played all over the U.S. They have released five studio albums and have played as the headliner act on many occasions and as the supporting act for the Zac Brown Band, Eric Church, ZZ Top and Lynyrd Skynyrd. Their 2016 album “Like an Arrow” landed at No. 1 on the Billboard country chart and American folk chart.