Episode Six: Mac Traynham & Ashlee Watkins
There’s a family-like connection in the music community, and master musician Mac Traynham said he’s a “lucky daddy.” His daughter plays, he played music with his wife Jenny, and he’s got a robust community of players who play with him, many of whom are family themselves.
Ashlee Watkins is his apprentice. She grew up listening to bluegrass and old-time music with her family in Australia, and she now spends her time in Floyd, Virginia, where she has immersed herself in the music.
Pat Jarrett from The Virginia Folklife Program went to Floyd to document the sound of Mac and Ashlee playing music together. Pat recently chatted with WMRA’s Chris Boros about Mac and Ashlee’s Folklife apprenticeship.
Pat Jarrett: I went and visited another one of our apprenticeship teams, Mac Traynham and Ashlee Watkins and they're actually down in Floyd County as well. It's quite a concentrated group of musicians. Mac is an old-time musician, but he kind of plays anything. Ashley is learning old-time rhythm guitar from him specifically backing guitar so that she can sing over it. But Mac kind of fills in any gap in an old-time jam. He plays guitar, fiddle, banjo, a little bit of mandolin, a little bit of whatever needs filling in because he is much more interested in playing in a jam in a community than playing a concert.
Chris Boros: How did you find them?
PJ: Well, Mac is kind of everywhere down in Floyd county. He grew up actually in the church. He learned music in the church. He learned how to harmonize with the hymnals and then he picked up a guitar and learned the pop music of the day, learned about the Beatles, start playing in high school. And then he got a banjo and then he was splitting his time between North Carolina and a family's farm here in Virginia. And he said, he grew up with a fond feeling for the hills and the mountains of Southwest Virginia. And he realized that young age that that's where he wanted to spend his life.
Mac Traynham: I grew up in a small town in North Carolina. My dad was a minister of a Presbyterian church in a town church. He is born on a farm in Southside Virginia, above the North Carolina line, and my mom was from another county also born in a rural setting. So we went back to the farm a lot to visit. So that's kind of how I ended up loving the country and want to make it a part of my lifestyle. Church music was what I heard the most, piano with the singing and as a preacher's kid and we were involved in all the stuff including the choirs and got some sense of how harmonies fit in and you could follow them in the hymn books.
PJ: He wanted to play the music of Southwest Virginia for the rest of his life.
CB: And that's what he's been doing.
PJ: That's what he's been doing. And that's kind of how Ashlee sought him out. Ashley is not at all from the mountains of Southwest Virginia. She's from Australia. And her father was a flatpicker. She kind of grew up around bluegrass music. She said the family vacation every year was to the only bluegrass festival in Australia. But also the Bluegrass that they would listen to in Australia was a little bit different than the bluegrass and old-time and traditional music that is played in Southwest Virginia where it was born.
Ashlee Watkins: The music is so rooted over here. Australia gets to hear whatever makes it over to Australia and there's a whole lot that gets left out and I'm very fortunate for the time that I've been able to spend here. I only wish that all of my bluegrass and old-time pickin’ friends in Australia could be exposed to this kind of culture and they would hear the difference in it too. It's hard to put your finger on what it is. You know it when you hear it. But I guess it's more traditional. I'm definitely more. My ear is definitely more tuned for that traditional sound. We're kind of more exposed to the more contemporary style. So if it's an old-time string band, probably more on the contemporary side of the spectrum and same with the bluegrass too. But the majority is definitely got more of a progressive edge and that's not bad, that's just what it is.
PJ: She really took to Mac’s approach to music. His approach is very unpretentious, he plays music to support the other musicians and to support the dances.
MT: But I like the fact that it brings people together and dancing communities for his banjo, fiddle stuff. And people they like the old-time songs it’s nice to share the songs and keep them alive. I'm attracted to the sound more than the words, in a lot of cases, don't like to sing some of it, scary words and things much, but I will, but it’s the fact that it’s part of the record, it's part of the history. We don't need to ignore that.
PJ: Mac is like the opposite of a rock star, but that fact alone makes him very popular in Southwest Virginia.
CB: It makes him a rock star.
CB: So he's not up on stage trying to get accolades for his virtuoso soloing, he's there to back up everybody else.
PJ: That's correct. And actually, he was talking to me about it. I said, well, who's your influence? Who can you point to? Mac plays with his wife Jenny. He plays with his family. He picks with anybody who will have him, but he named Hick and Sue Edmonds. Specifically Sue Edmonds of Smith County and she would back up her husband on rhythm guitar while he played fiddle, and he said he would just noticed these sweet runs and she would do on guitar that we're really understated but they really helped the song, they're really pretty, but they were very understated. So it's like, it's not like he was saying oh, that this person really rips and I love the solos they’re doing. No. He likes the sweetness of it.
AW: You played a lot with your wife too.
MT: Yeah, we had a good duet thing going. I would sort of capo up and teach her what I’d say was a good run and she got a good sense about it anyway. I played bluegrass guitar with some bands in the past and gospel groups up at the Floyd store. I played with Janet Turner for a few years. Got to be the only guitar player and I could make the choices of what runs and what chords to use. And I felt like I was part of a team. It wasn't out front like the banjo and the mandolin but it is supportive of the music. Then I also wanted to be able to support to other musicians and give them the downbeat and the backbeat both in a way that doesn’t have to depend on a bass to help define that.
CB: It's kind of rare to find a musician who is totally okay with taking a step back and being the rhythm guy; the guy that isn't up front.
PJ: It’s rare, but I think in some of the circles in Southwest Virginia you're more likely to find those, even in the Shenandoah Valley I've seen that where you play to be a part of a community not to aggrandize one self.
AW: My understanding is that this music came from communities getting together to have fun at the end of a really hard long work week and it's kind a reminder of what we’re all here on Earth to do. We’re not all here to just slave away. We’re here for community and a good time. And I’ve definitely felt that as a listener but now that I play there’s definitely is a sense of community that you get and you'll support each other along. You know, we go and compete at fiddler’s conventions but it's really not about who’s better or anything. We’re all supporting each other.
PJ: She met her husband in Australia, Andrew Small. He was there performing and actually there seems to be a lot of musicians from Southwest Virginia who are wildly popular in Australia. Jackson Cunningham and Martha Spencer. Eddie Bond has been out there. Burke Sutphin. All these well-known names in Southwest Virginia have friends in Australia and they go and play every couple of years and they go on tour and they're well received. So there is an interesting bond there and I'm not sure what that is. But Ashlee kind of represents to me at least that flow of music, that exchange of song and she does beautifully with it.
CB: Did Ashley know about Mac before coming to Virginia
PJ: Ashlee met Mac in Floyd and they still perform regularly together at the Floyd country store or at the jams around there.
MT: We’re not trying to preach with the stuff we're singing, not being a protest singer or something. Just trying to carry on a sound and recognize some of the groups from the past. Put those out in their time and good music makes me feel good to link it to the history of this area.
CB: Does Ashlee bring something unique to her playing old-time music due to the fact she's from Australia?
PJ: Yeah, I think so. She was telling me that the music that she had access to in Australia and what you grew up listening to had a more progressive vibe to it. Not politically, mind you, this is musically progressive. And she said around Southwest Virginia it seems to have deeper roots. I think that she's responding to that. And certainly she has a love for it. She's playing everywhere she can and I find that exciting. I think she's got a beautiful voice and her guitar playing is just excellent.
AW: Well, I'm from Australia. And my dad got really into bluegrass music back in the 70s. He must have heard Tony Rice. He was definitely a big Tony Rice fan. And he just brought all of us kids up on bluegrass music. It's what I heard growing up and that's what I was singing along to and everything, but I didn't get playing until I was 21 and I met my husband. And I was always trying to play. But he certainly showed me how to hold a rhythm which is the most important thing. I really wanted to play a fiddle and he said, well, if you're going to play fiddle, you should learn how to play the guitar because it's a great way to get into a jam and start really being in a place where you can be active in the community. But you're listening a lot to the fiddle and banjo and how it all works together. My dad, he was a great flatpicker and still is. And he would sing for us as growing up and everything and my brother got really into it and he became her pretty hot flatpicker. And that's actually how I met my husband. He from North Carolina, but he started a band with my brother and they were touring in Australia and I came over here and so my dad and my two brothers they both play music and my mom was always very supportive. Our one family holiday, every year was taking a 10-hour trip down south and going to the one bluegrass convention in Australia.
CB: I wonder if Ashlee coming to Virginia from Australia, and she's coming into a community where this music is everywhere. These people are rooted in this music. I wonder if that's helped her dig even deeper into it.
PJ: I think so. When I visited Mac and Ashlee at Mac’s shop, they had a book of Carter songs out that they were learning. And these are songs that certainly are a bedrock for people who make music in Virginia. And she just seemed to be soaking it up. I don't quite know what's going on in her head, but I feel like her enthusiasm is different because she came all the way here to learn more about it and play it. And there's something to be said for that. I've been around the world and I felt connections to places, but I'll tell you, Chris, when I moved here I felt a deep connection as well and I can kind of relate to her on this. I didn't come here for music necessarily, but there's a connection here that really holds you tight and I think that she's feeling that.
AW: I started learning the guitar. And then when I picked up the fiddle again, I had rhythm that I didn't have before. And then when I picked up the banjo it was just this another piece of the puzzle and it all came easier once I learned one of the instruments. But also once I started playing the guitar, I realized I like to sing a lot and I didn't know that before.
CB: One thing that I've noticed so far from all of the audio that you brought us is that no matter what these people do, it seems for all of them, it's about Community. It's about the relationships they get through the art.
PJ: That's it. I'm glad you picked up on that, Chris, because that's kind of a hallmark of folk art, is that there's a community, it comes from a community, it is an expression of a community and it supports that community.
MT: I just kept going on and wanting to know more about the mountain music of this area in particular. So I’d listen to the Carter Family for sure and other groups from Virginia and this region. I sort of want to identify with the records from this particular region of the world. And that means something to me.
CB: Have you talked at all with Mac about what he's gotten out of the relationship with Ashley?
MT: Mac has worked with young people making music in the region for a long time, specifically with the Jam Inc. program. Mac is a kind of a quiet man, and I think it takes a lot for him to express emotions about things. He's a good man, he's a great musician. But he said that Ashlee shows that she cares by practicing the tunes.
AW: Mac is great. He teaches by example, which is exactly how I want to learn. And he gives me space to make mistakes and try it again. I know he's spent a lot of time listening to a whole bunch of music so he’s just got a whole lot of experience.
PJ: And how is Ashlee as a student?
MT: Oh she’s wonderful. I can just show her something and it might take her one or two times but she goes home to practice and she's got it and shows me that she cares about practicing and wanting to do it. And has that desire to improve. That’s great in a student.
PJ: And I thought that was so sweet. I think there's a really deep connection there and I think that he's expressing that through how she treats the music. And this is a life's work for him. It's almost like the fact that she's showing respect for the music means she's showing respect to Mac because he is so tied to the place and the music of Southwest Virginia.
MT: As I got into the 60s, I got attracted to the harmonies of The Beatles and singing kind of drew me in a lot. And then I wanted to have a guitar or some way to have their songs and play something along to do with the melodies I heard. And then I saw people like Bob Dylan and John Lennon and playing guitar and harmonica together, and that kind of led me into that path. And I just explored a lot of stuff over the years and got a banjo finally when I was a senior in high school. Kind of went more into the bluegrass world and guitar came along with that and got into flatpicking fiddle tunes and Doc Watson. And Wayne Henderson made me a guitar back in 1976 when he was not well-known really, and now his reputation is worldwide. I'm proud to have one of his guitars and I use it for playing that kind of music.
CB: It must mean so much to him to see someone come to this country and to dig this deep into this music that has been a part of his life forever.
PJ: I think so. I think that's a nuance that we didn't quite get deep into, but I see it in how they play music together and I hear it.
CB: When they do play music together, what's that vibe like?
PJ: You know, it's nothing fancy, Chris. That's kind of what makes it special. It is unpretentious and I went there with a camera and I interviewed them but I also set the audio recorder up and asked them to play me a couple songs. And one of the ones that Mac and Ashley played was called Shootin’ Creek.
AW: I know it's really great because Mac, you really kept alive the tune Shootin’ Creek, whereas, I feel like if you hadn't come along, I don't know that anyone here in Floyd would be playing Shootin’ Creek. If you went like, hey, this is a local tune and you're teaching it to all of the jam kids and everything. And now it's like this is our tune people don't tend to play outside of this area either, so it's kind of like a connection to place in history.
MT: Yeah I like to let the kids get some familiarity because they can know there's a Shootin’ Creek right close and the tune is something that they live right here near it. And it’s an important thing and other areas don't have it. But it's our unique thing that we can put in our repertoire and play for a good flat foot dance.
PJ: Shootin’ Creek is there in Floyd and it's nothing that fancy. But it's not often played anywhere else but in Floyd County and so that was special to hear that.
CB: Sometimes the simplest things in life are the most beautiful.
PJ: Chris, I can't agree with you anymore. I operate by the kiss rule. Keep it simple stupid.
CB: There's something really special about seeing it stripped down to the bare minimum.
PJ: That's it. Interesting you say that. I am a sucker for a great guitar solo. And I look at musicians like Danny Nicely from right here in the valley who will just bend a song and make it interesting and do things with scales and arpeggios that I wouldn't even think to. But to hear the stripped down bare bones version of a song, that can really hit your heart.
MT: I have mixed feelings, sometimes that young folks are going off to the progressive wing of things and they're teaching stuff out of them and maybe they’re missing something, because it’s natural to leave things out as you go into the progressive way. But then I run into people like Andrew and Ash. They’re on the track I'd want the future to be more on but it's nothing wrong with the other way. They're seriously trying to hang on to the older sounds and listen hard and have the way they listened and learned and practiced to do the things that you hear that I hear. So I feel good about the future.
AW: Well, I definitely want to continue to dive deep into the traditional guitar banjo and fiddle styles. Also, I want to continue to be a performing musician and make recordings. So, no one’s going to record a Reno and Smiley song better than they've already done it. So, if you want to continue to put yourself out in that way, you have to come out with new and original music. So I guess the challenge for me is to create new music in a traditional kind of sound.
CB: Maybe it hits your heart because that's probably how it was done at the beginning. People weren't taking solos and they were just playing into play.
PJ: They were playing to play and they were playing so that people could dance. And that's a big part of how music is consumed in Southwest Virginia, then and now.
AW: To be a bearer of tradition and not lose touch of what once was, and not that we have to be stuck there, but just to remember what the music was about and what it was for.
MT: And It can be new again to some people have never heard it the first time. And we’re not exactly creating new but we’re trying to keep it going and turning people onto something we think is good. And there are plenty of people that need to at least run their ears by it and hope we would do something that would catch their ear and make them want to hear more.