META NAME="DC.Title" CONTENT="Mountain Grown Music- Charles Gidney"> Mountain Grown Music - Charles Gidney

MOUNTAIN GROWN MUSIC • CELEBRATING THE TRADITIONAL MOUNTAIN MUSIC OF HAYWOOD COUNTY NORTH CAROLINA

Mountain Grown Music - traditional mountain music of Haywood County North Carolina
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By Michael Beadle

One of Charles Gidney’s prized possession is a three-neck, remodeled steel guitar from the 1950’s. Each eight-stringed neck is tuned differently, and sometimes late at night, when all is quiet, you can hear it playing songs from its former life.

Gidney bought the instrument sight unseen and took six months to polish it and replace damaged parts on it.

“It was an absolute piece of junk,” he said. “But I had a real good time redoing it.”

His dimly lit living room is decorated with music-related artwork and paintings of guitars. In front of his fireplace, two guitars rest on stands that bookend his remodeled steel guitar.

Thought Charles Gidney has never played music professionally, the Canton native is widely known as a talented acoustic guitar player. Over the years, he’s performed with such musicians as the late Luke Smathers, a legendary fiddler, and Grammy Award-winning musician and storyteller David Holt. Gidney has worked on numerous committees to preserve the Appalachian traditions. He has directed music festivals in Canton and has served on the Asheville Folk Heritage Committee, which oversees the country’s oldest continuous folk music festival — the Asheville Mountain Dance and Folk Festival — as well as the annual downtown Asheville Shindig on the Green. Looking back on a musical life that has led him to perform at the World’s Fair in Knoxville, Tenn., and the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, Gidney recalled his early days growing up in Canton.

The eldest in a family with three younger sisters he calls “Charlie’s Angels,” Gidney spent much of his time on his grandfather’s farm. He started playing guitar at the age of 10 after listening to his great uncle, Luke Smathers, perform at ice cream socials held at his grandmother’s house. Though music was always in the home, people back then looked down on a fellow who carried around a guitar. That kind of person was never going to amount to anything since music was seen as a trifling thing, Gidney explained.

“And you didn’t dare touch an instrument until all the work was done at the house,” he said.

But music became a way of life for Gidney. When you love music, he said, it doesn’t matter where you are.

He credits much of his love for music to Luke Smathers, who passed away in July 1997. The two first collaborated in the spring of 1944 when Gidney was asked to organize a school dance. He assembled some pretty good talent — Luke Smathers, steel guitar player Paul Hawkins and fellow classmate Jimmy Haynie, who later became known as a well-known singer and radio deejay. For the show, Smathers taught Gidney how to play the standup bass. “Came off real good, real good,” Gidney recalled.

But the band would have to wait. During the late years of World War II, Gidney volunteered for military service and enlisted in the Air Force. By 1946, he was serving as a military photographer stationed in Naples, Italy. The Americans had taken control of Fascist Italy and by the time Gidney got there, the devastation was everywhere. Ordinary people like himself had lost their homes, their jobs, and their way of life.

“You saw people that had nothing to eat,” he said.

But he found comfort in a guitar one night. As he played some tunes, a fellow soldier walked up to Gidney and introduced himself as a steel guitar player from St. Louis. In the next few weeks, the pair found an accordion player from Pennsylvania, a guitar player from Ohio, and another guitar player and singer from Georgia. They called themselves “The Blue Eyed Boys” and for a part-time gig, they performed at service clubs and could be heard on broadcasts over the American expeditionary radio station.

After the war, Gidney came back to Canton, where he and a couple of business partners formed Haywood Distributors, which sold candy to country stores and restaurants throughout Western North Carolina. Business became so hectic, he gave up playing the guitar.

Then in 1968, Luke Smathers reorganized his band and invited Gidney to play guitar with them. Only problem was Gidney had forgotten all those chords, so he had to relearn everything. “It was scary, man, let me tell you — you didn’t drag around with Luke,” Gidney said.

Practicing two or three hours a night after work, Gidney tried to catch up and eventually did. The two became so close that when they played songs years later, Smathers could pick up the fiddle, play three notes and Gidney could jump right in with the melody without even needing to know the key of the song.

The band hit its peak in the mid-1970s and continued to practice every Sunday for nearly 30 years in Bea’s kitchen, named after Luke’s wife. The furniture would be pushed back to the walls and the band set up their own studio.

Smathers and Gidney shared a love for Western music. Inspired by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, John Wayne movies, the Palladin radio series, Zane Grey novels and the romance of the wild west, Gidney is still a cowboy at heart.

When Gidney first heard Wills’ band play “San Antonio Rose” on the jukebox, he threw in a quarter to hear it five more times. Wills was able to mix a pinch of Hawaiian music, a dash of New Orleans blues and a handful of cowboy Texan tunes into a big band sound. The Luke Smathers Band took that Wills sound and altered it even further with a unique brand of Western North Carolina mountain music. Luke Smathers and his brothers — and the band that formed around them — took old-time mountain music, perked it up with western ballads and brought it some big band sound from the 1920s and 1930s to create mountain swing.

At the time, nobody had tried to take big-band tunes from orchestras and play them in small string bands, Gidney explained. And while many musicians in the area stuck to old-time Appalachian tunes or took up the high lonesome sound of bluegrass, Luke Smathers and his band became innovators by reinventing songs such as Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” and Duke Ellington’s “Caravans” with some Appalachian flavor.

“No one ever thought of a country band doing ‘Caravans,’” Gidney said. By the time he was playing with Luke Smathers in the 1970s, the band’s sound set them apart from the rest. And they toured all over—Cincinnati, Baltimore, Charleston, Louisville, Knoxville. One time at a family festival in Kentucky, the band followed bluegrass legend Bill Monroe.

Recalling those fond memories, Gidney chuckles and a wide grin spreads across his face, a face somewhere between John Wayne and Glenn Ford. Having won several second place plaques at the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival competitions, he calls his 1978 and 1979 first place finishes in the old-time category “a couple of lucky nights.”

But Charlie Cooke, a longtime friend who takes guitar lessons from Gidney, gives him due praise. Cooke calls Gidney one of the best acoustic players around and appreciates Gidney’s teaching patience. For those willing to learn, he takes the time to teach.

“I don’t teach,” Gidney said. “I just share what little I know.” He’s a man in love with music.

And sometimes, late at night in the stillness of his living room, that haunting sound of a steel guitar comes alive, reminding him of a song he’ll learn to play.

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