Mike Palmer

MIKE PALMER plays Bill Young’s Country Gentleman Chet Atkins-model Gibson electric guitar in the basement “studio” of his home in North Wilkesboro. Palmer says, “When I’m doing what I call the real serious stuff, I’ll play Bill’s Big Red.”

Mike Palmer has been a performer, teacher, retailer and promoter in his decades-long musical career, but after June 7 he can add the title of Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame inductee.

On that first Friday in June, Palmer will become the eighth recipient of the Dr. T.R. Bryan Wilkes County Heritage Music Award during the annual Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony at the Wilkes Heritage Museum.

The North Wilkesboro resident said in an interview Tuesday that receiving an award with Bryan’s name attached is especially meaningful. Palmer said Bryan “would come to our pickin’ parties (at Palmer’s home) and sing at the top of his voice when we were playing.”

Dr. Thomas Rhudy Bryan Jr. was a Wilkes native and pediatrician here for nearly 50 years. He delivered over 9,000 babies, including one of Palmer’s children, and helped Palmer’s family through the child-rearing years.

Palmer owns Main Street Music & Loan in North Wilkesboro and is a fixture in the local music scene, so it’s no wonder that he and Bryan, an avid traditional music promoter who died in 2011, would strike a friendship.

Palmer is well-known locally as a musical chameleon, capable of changing guitar styles and genres at the drop of a hat. He called himself a “hang on” player, as in “hang on, let’s see what we do” next, musically.

“I’ve got four different groups of guys I play with, and we have a lot of fun,” he said. “Tomorrow night I’m playing rock ’n’ roll, and last week I was finger picking. Next week it might be bluegrass.”

Never the front man or center of attention—mainly because he doesn’t sing, despite his deep baritone speaking voice—Palmer said he strives to be what he calls the “unsung hero” on stage. He sums it up like this: “I just like music, like promoting music and playing all styles of music.”

Palmer recalled that his grandmother, Nona Palmer, bought him a Montgomery Ward guitar when he was 5 years old, but he didn’t get serious about playing it until he turned 9. He still has that guitar.

“My parents took me downtown to the Call Hotel and Whitey Morgan, who played at the V (VFW Post 1142) every Saturday night, was my teacher,” he said. (The Call Hotel was at the corner of Ninth and Main streets in North Wilkesboro, where the Michael’s Jewelry building now stands.)

“My daddy would run me around from here to Winston, Statesville and Elkin to the different music stores and I’d constantly trade my guitar and amp. That’s just the way musicians are—we’re never satisfied, always looking for that edge.” Palmer’s parents were Jimmie and Grace Palmer.

Palmer shined shoes for a quarter in front of his father’s barber shop, and eventually made enough money to buy his second guitar at Bob Yale’s Jewelry and Loan on Main Street. “I bought a Kay guitar and a Silvertone amp for $65—that’s a lot of quarters!”

He played that guitar/amp setup for a while before purchasing a Fender Bandmaster amp in Winston-Salem. “That was about 30 or 40 amps ago,” he chuckled, suggesting that musicians measure time not in years but amps.

The first rock ’n’ roll band he played in was called the Tombstone Shadow, and for some reason unknown to him the band later changed its name to The Conspiracy. Then he played with Big Mary and the Entertainers. All of the bands were based in Wilkes.

“Big Mary was a big-physique lady who could have you crying and laughing all in the same 10 minutes,” he said, adding that over the years he has “just played with anybody who would let me play.”

One of the best-known bands he’s played with is 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.

The current Banknotes lineup is Palmer, R.G. Absher, Randy Gambill, Billy Gee (another T.R. Bryan Award winner), Tony Joines, Jeff Pardue, Donnie Story and Wes Tuttle, representing some of the best musical talent in Wilkes. They’ve all been involved in MerleFest since it began in 1988, and help open the event every year with a Cabin Stage performance.

“Bill asked me to get some guys together, because we’re going to have a one-time concert to honor the memory of Merle (Watson),” said Palmer. “Bill was a banker (retired from Northwestern Bank), and he wrote a song called ‘Banknotes’—the only song he ever recorded on an album.”

He said the band lacked a name for that first MerleFest and was introduced as the Good Old Boys. The festival emcee advised them to get a real moniker for next time, so they picked the Banknotes.

Palmer said he gave up a “real job” in management at Gardner Mirror Co. because he wanted a career that involved music.

“I remember telling my mom, ‘I’m going to tell you something: If you like it, you like it, and if you don’t like it, you’re not going to like it. But this is how it’s going to be: I’m hanging up my suit and tie and I’ve bought into the pawn shop and I’m going to run a music business. I’m going to make music and have fun. I can make hundreds of dollars a year doing that,’” he laughed.

Palmer went into business with Jerry Minton and transformed what was then known as Minton Pawn Shop into a destination for musicians, filled with walls of new and used musical instruments. (While Palmer was being interviewed Tuesday, Zeb Snyder of Lexington’s Snyder Family Band was giving a pre-owned double-necked Ibanez AR-1200 a test drive.)

In 2002, WKBC radio owner Bob Brown asked Minton and Palmer if the station’s growing weekly musical show, “Hometown Opry,” could be relocated to the store. In two weeks, Palmer said, he and Minton built a stage, installed lighting and ran sound for the new home of the “Opry,” which lasted another 12 years, broadcasting over 600 live shows.

“We had everybody from Ricky Skaggs to Rhonda Vincent to Doc Watson play, but it was mainly to showcase local musicians and show their talents,” said Palmer. “It was so popular there was a six-month wait to play here. Nobody got paid, but everybody wanted to be part of it.”

Palmer noted that 12 years was a long time to run such a show—“not many sitcoms on TV last that long”—but between the Opry and MerleFest, many doors were opened for him in the music industry, allowing him to not only sell instruments but play with great musicians.

Also, he’s made an indelible impression on the local music scene as a teacher, mentor, advisor and what he calls “musical priest” duties. “I listen to all the musicians’ stories, both good and bad. People come to me and say ‘I want to get a band together.’ I tell them, ‘You get the gigs, and I’ll get you the musicians.’ That’s the way a lot of bands have started here.”

At one point, Palmer said he had four full-time music teachers at Main Street Music instructing over 160 kids a week. About 50 aspiring musicians still come there for music lessons each week.

One of Palmer’s most vivid musical memories was getting to meet flatpicking legend Chet Atkins backstage after a show at the John A. Walker Center. At the time, Palmer was working at Modern Globe, a local textile company that made various types of clothing.

“Bill (Young) used to come to Modern Globe and get underwear for Chet and Doc (Watson),” remembered Palmer. “So, when I met Chet, I told him, ‘Mr. Atkins, I’m the underwear man.’ He said, ‘Nice to meet you, Mike. I’ve heard all about you.’”

After Atkins told him it was the best underwear he’d ever worn, Palmer replied, “‘I personally inspect every pair of your underwear before you get it.’ And I did! I would make sure it was perfect—Doc’s too.”

Palmer also met and spent some memorable time with the father of the solid-body electric guitar, Les Paul, in New York City. On the pickguard of the Les Paul guitar Palmer had bought in the early 1970s, Paul inscribed, “To Mike, Keep pickin’, Les Paul.”

The guitar was a Recording, the only model for which Paul had full design rights. He said Paul told him, “You’re the smartest man I’ve met tonight, because you bought the best guitar in the world.”

There’s an old adage in the music industry—“you can’t have a show without a band, and without a band you can’t have a show”—which drives home that Palmer has deftly and tirelessly worked both sides of the stage. The consummate sideman and promoter adds, “I can’t tell you why I do what I do—it’s just what I do.”

What Palmer has done so well, in many different ways, is preserve the musical heritage of Wilkes County and prime the stage for its bright future. For that, the unsung hero will take his spot in the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame on June 7.

Editor’s Note: Palmer will be inducted alongside 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 Fiddlers’ Convention (special contributor, promoter and organizer). Tickets are $15 for the 7:30 p.m. ceremony on June 7 at the Wilkes Heritage Museum in Wilkesboro.

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