For years, I've been trying to get Joe Newberry to let me do a Tar Heel of the Week profile on him, because he's a very fine musician who is universally beloved -- and he also carries himself with a quiet dignity that I think is exactly the face we should all aspire to putting forward to the world. Modest fellow that he is, he's always demurred. But then he went and won a pretty major award, best gospel song at the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards; and so he has finally relented.
Sad but not unexpected news from the world of Piedmont old-time music: Fiddler Joe Thompson has died at the ripe old age of 93. If you've ever listened to Carolina Chocolate Drops, then you've heard some of his influence, and not just because their upcoming album leads off with one of the songs they learned from Thompson ("Riro's House").
The Chocolate Drops spent time woodshedding with Thompson in their early days, playing with him at his Mebane home as well as various festivals including Merlefest (where they recorded a live album together in 2008). Rhiannon Giddens remembers the first time Thompson heard Dom Flemmons playing a jug during an early Chocolate Drops jam session.
"Joe had never heard jug in a fiddle tune before and he would turn around while playing and just give a look," Giddens said, laughing at the memory. "He'd go back to playing, then turn around and look again. He finally decided it was o.k., and we knew without him having to say anything. That was Joe, always real subtle and gentle. He'd never say, 'You're not playing that right.' It was always, 'That might be just a little too fast.' Not saying it was good or bad, just nudging it along until we were where he wanted us to be."
The Chocolate Drops weren't the only youngsters to learn from the master, either.
"Nobody was too big or too little for Joe to sit down and pick with," said Larry Vellani, a musician from Mebane who often played with Thompson. "He never met a stranger. If you were into music, Joe was into you. Just that straightfoward. Everywhere he went, he left kernals of wisdom, good sense and good musical taste."
In recognition of his influence, Thompson was awarded an NEA National Heritage Fellowship in 2007, to go with a North Carolina Heritage Award he won in 1991. He was a peerless fiddle player, and also one of those rare people about whom unkind things are almost never said.
"Joe Thompson was a gentleman, and a gentle man," said Joe Newberry, another of Thompson's frequent playing partners. "To hear his legacy in a younger generation of musicians is very satisfying to all of us who play this kind of music. He really was a one-of-a-kind fiddle player, and we're all lucky and honored to have just walked in his garden."
Continuing our theme of premature Christmas music, I'm still not ready to start hearing it on the radio or in the air -- but I do think I'm ready to hear some Christmas music played live. Fortuitously, the release party for the third volume of "Have a Holly Raleigh Christmas" is Thursday night at Tir Na Nog. The album is wonderful, the best yet in the series, with 14 diverse tracks ranging from the conjunto of Rey Norteno's "De La Mano De Dios" to the mournful pop of Day Action Band's "Your Last Childhood Christmas Eve" and Don Dixon's majestic "Winter's on the Run." It also has a handful of sharp instrumentals, including Triangle Tuba Quartet's "Jolly Old St. Nicholas" and Tracy Thornton's steel-drum delight "Jingle Bells."
Proceeds from the album benefit the Community Music School. And here's the lineup for Thursday night's show, which will also feature Dan Bryk (an alumus of the first "Holly Raleigh" album, from 2006) appearing as Santa Claus:
7:00 Joe Newberry
7:15 Nathan Oliver
7:35 Day Action Band
7:55 Regina Hexaphone
8:15 Gray Young
8:35 Terry Anderson/OAK Team
8:55 Port Huron Statement
9:15 Killer Filler