A singer, guitarist and songwriter who performed at MerleFest for the first time Saturday and Sunday represents the deeply-rooted connectedness and influence of Americana (or roots) music.
Gabriel Kelley was here as a member of the Hogslop String Band, a big hit at this year’s festival. The Nashville-based band of four energetically mixes Southern old-time string music with other musical genres to produce a uniquely fun sound.
Kelley is a Georgia-born, Grammy-nominated musician who wrote songs for artists such as Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. He also spent years touring in support of Chris Stapleton, the Allman Brothers, Sturgill Simpson, Steve Earle, Old Crow Medicine Show and others. Along the way, he also started a music school at an orphanage in Guatemala.
While the Hogslop String Band was on the Watson Stage Saturday afternoon, Kelley said he has been coming to the festival at Wilkes Community College since age 6 and that his mother learned to play the banjo from Doc Watson.
I caught up with Kelley after the Hogslop String Band performed on the Dance Stage later Saturday and learned that his mother is Beth Kelley, a cornshuck doll maker from northeast Georgia. Gabriel Kelley was a little boy when he started coming to MerleFest and other festivals she attended as a craft vendor.
Kelley said his mother, influenced by the Foxfire program in Rabun County, Ga., became part of the folk movement decades ago and met an Englishman named Barry Murphy, an understudy of noted folklorist Ralph Rinzler.
Beth Kelley became friends with Murphy and his wife, who was from Alabama. This led to her meeting Rinzler and through Murphy and Rinzler she met and became friends with Doc Watson and his family in Deep Gap. Doc taught her to play the banjo, clawhammer-style.
As has been well documented, Rinzler is credited with playing a key role in Doc Watson, Bill Monroe and others becoming part of the folk music revival in the 1960s. Rinzler met Watson at the Union Grove Fiddler’s Convention just down the road in Iredell County when Watson was part of Tom Ashley’s band and arranged to record them. Watson became a hit in the folk music scene.
We’re fortunate that Rinzler, Murphy and others recognized the richness and quality of traditional cultures in the United States and other countries and the value of preserving and introducing their music and other aspects to the world.
Largely because of them, people like the late Doc Watson have been able to develop and use their musical talents to enrich the lives of many others and earn a living.
The rippling effect includes events like MerleFest, which began and prospered largely due to Watson’s popularity and influence.
MerleFest inspires and provides opportunities for people like Gabriel Kelley. The circle is thus widened, including for young people in Wilkes County.
As a final note, I was struck by the advice that a music teacher gave Kelley when he was still discovering the joys of music and developing his own tastes. The teacher advised Kelley, then a teenager, to “find the music that makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck.”
Kelley said these words have had a profound impact on his sense of mission in life.