Mike Palmer of North Wilkesboro, a central figure in the local music scene for decades, took his place in the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame Friday night after accepting the Dr. T.R. Bryan Wilkes Heritage Music Award.
Others inducted at the Wilkes Heritage Museum, home of the hall of fame, were Patsy Cline, nationally known artist; Fiddlin’ John Carson, pioneer artist; Kenny Baker, sideman and regional musician; Bluegrass Unlimited, media and scholar; Bill Clifton, songwriter; and Union Grove Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention, special contributor. Cline, Carson and Baker are deceased and Clifton wasn’t able to attend.
The 12th annual ceremony was hosted by Joe Kendrick, a radio host at WNCW, a public radio station in Spindale. The stage manager was Nancy Watson, an honorary inductee in 2009.
Palmer has been a performer, teacher, retailer and promoter in his decades-long musical career in Wilkes. He owns Main Street Music & Loan in North Wilkesboro, which hosted WKBC Radio’s “Hometown Opry” for 12 years. He was introduced by Bill Williams, last year’s Dr. T.R. Bryan Award recipient.
“I want to thank everybody that nominated, voted, the whole nine yards,” said Palmer. “It’s quite an honor to get this award. All I can say is, you’re a good-looking crowd—reminds me of the days we did the Hometown Opry, and a lot of you were there.”
Palmer is a member of four bands, including the Banknotes, a local “super group” comprised of musicians who were friends with MerleFest co-founder Bill Young, a virtuoso flatpicker in Wilkes who died in 1992.
On stage Friday, Palmer strummed “Big Red,” Young’s famed Country Gentleman Chet Atkins-model Gibson electric guitar. He played three numbers with the house band Virginialina, comprised of guitarist David Johnson, banjoist Eric Ellis, mandolinist Scott Freeman and bassist Billy Gee (another Banknotes member and 2016 T.R. Bryan honoree).
Palmer said it was particularly meaningful to receive the award named after his late friend Dr. Thomas Rhudy Bryan Jr., a Wilkes native and pediatrician here for nearly 50 years. Bryan was the first recipient of the award in 2012, and Palmer the eighth such honoree.
Patsy Cline’s only daughter, Julie Fudge, accepted the award from Watson on behalf of the Cline family. On March 5, 1963, Cline was 30 when she was killed in a plane crash near Camden, Tenn., that also claimed the lives of country music stars Cowboy Copas and Hawkshaw Hawkins, as well as pilot Randy Hughes.
“I always love to come back to this Appalachian area,” said Fudge. “It’s something that Mom would have really felt wonderful about. She loved where she was from, and she loved the people and the valleys and the mountains. We are just thankful for this honor, and feel great about being here.”
Cline was born in Winchester in northern Virginia “all the way up the other side of the Blue Ridge,” noted Fudge. “We have family history in the Blue Ridge, so this (induction) is very appropriate.”
In the early 1960s, Cline had a string of hits on the country and pop charts, three of which were performed Friday by Elizabeth Carter, a member of the Wilkes-based band, Uncle Joe and the Shady Rest: “She’s Got You,” “Crazy” and “I Fall to Pieces.”
Cline became the first female artist inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1973. She received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1995.
With her “Greatest Hits” album selling over 10 million copies worldwide, Cline is among the most popular female country singer in recording history.
Art Menius, who chairs the hall of fame committee and was an honorary inductee in its inaugural year of 2008, accepted the award for “Bluegrass Unlimited,” a music publication he used to write for in the 1980s. Menius worked full-time for MerleFest from 1991 to 1996, the last three years of which he also taught at Wilkes Community College.
“Bluegrass Unlimited” began as a nine-page newsletter first published in July 1966, but soon after Pete Kuykendall took over as publisher in 1970, the magazine was transformed into a professionally-produced journal with thousands of readers. Kuykendall died in 2017, but his wife, Kitsy, and staff carry it on in Warrenton, Va.
As a nod to the bluegrass publication, Virginialina then took the stage to perform “Big Spike Hammer” and Bill Monroe’s “I’m on My Way to the Old Home.”
Union Grove Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention
The founding family of “Fiddlers’ Grove,” the Van Hoys, was represented by Hank Van Hoy, only son of Harper Van Hoy.
“This is a great honor,” said Van Hoy. “I wish my grandfather (H.P. Van Hoy) and grandmother (Ada Van Hoy) and my uncle (J. Pierce Van Hoy) and his sons and my dead mom (Wansie) could be here tonight. They would be especially touched.”
Van Hoy was introduced by John Cockman, whose family band, the Cockman Family, then took the stage for rousing renditions of “Fiddlers’ Grove Medley” and “Victory in Jesus.”
Van Hoy invited the audience to join him at the 98th Union Grove festival over the 2020 Memorial Day weekend. The festival, held at Fiddler’s Grove along N.C. 901 in the Union Grove community of northern Iredell County, is among the longest running traditional music festivals in the country. It attracted more than 100,000 people annually in the 1970s.
Clifton’s daughter, Chandler Marburg, said she was honored to accept the award from Dennis Cash for her father. She read a message from her father which said, in part: “I played a time or two at Doc Watson’s festival (MerleFest), but I have not been back. You have now given me an incentive to visit Wilkesboro once again. I am deeply appreciative of the honor you are bestowing on me today and very much look forward to the day I can visit the Blue Ridge museum. Thank you so much for considering me worthy of your recognition.”
Marburg’s band, the Marshgrass Mamas from Johns Island, S.C., performed two songs written by Clifton: “Little Whitewashed Chimney,” made popular by the Nashville Bluegrass Band, and “Don’t This Road Look Rough and Rocky,” popularized by Flatt & Scruggs.
Clifton was born on April 5, 1931, in Riverwood, Md., and is credited with organizing one of the first bluegrass festivals in the United States in 1961. It was the outdoor “Bluegrass Day” concert at Oak Leaf Park in Luray, Va. He wrote and played on several labels, including Blue Ridge, Starday, Mercury, County and his own Elf Records. He was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Fame in 2008.
Fiddlin’ John Carson
Johnson accepted the pioneer artist award on behalf of Fiddlin’ John Carson. Carson was born near Fannin County, Ga., in 1868, and learned to play the fiddle in his teens. Between 1914 and 1922 he was proclaimed champion fiddler of Georgia seven times, prompting the governor of Tennessee, Robert L. Taylor, to dub him “Fiddlin’ John.”
Between 1923 and 1931, Carson recorded almost 150 songs for Ralph Peer in Atlanta and New York City, mostly with the Virginia Reelers or his daughter Rosa Lee Carson. Two of his recordings—“You Will Never Miss Your Mother Until She Is Gone” and “Old Joe Clark”—each sold more than 1 million copies. Only nine of his songs were ever copyrighted, though.
Fiddler Jeff Pardue of Wilkes joined Virginialina on the stage for two of Carson’s best-known songs: “The Little Old Log Cabin in the Lane” and “(The New) She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain.”
Jim Beaver accepted the award on behalf of Baker’s family. Baker was born June 26, 1926, the fourth family generation of old-time fiddlers hailing from Burdine, Ky. After a stint in Don Gibson’s band, he became a Blue Grass Boy with Bill Monroe in 1957, and would later become Monroe’s longest-tenured bandmate.
Baker ended his performing career in August 2008, but he received a National Heritage Fellowship award before his death in 2011, and was inducted into several music halls of fame.
Virginialina honored the legacy of Baker by playing two Bill Monroe tunes: “Jerusalem Ridge” and “Old Ebenezer Scrooge.”
The ceremony, a fundraiser for the Wilkes Heritage Museum, was capped by most of the artists returning to the stage for a rendition of the Carter Family’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”