Roy French Kirkpatrick
A gifted banjo player and gospel singer, Roy French Kirkpatrick has performed with several bands over the past 40-plus years, a career that has taken him to bluegrass festivals, radio stations and the Ernest Tubbs Record Shop in Nashville.
Born Oct. 13, 1938 in the White Oak community of Haywood County, Kirkpatrick was one of 17 brothers and sisters. He gained an interest in music while watching his father perform and played the rhythm guitar with his brother Billy and Carroll Bests band in the early 1950s. Kirkpatrick later switched to the banjo and went on to play with the Mountain Valley Boys which opened up for such acts as Porter Wagner, Don Reno and Red Smiley in the 1960s. His Haywood County roots, commitment to family and strong Christian faith drew him back home, even if it meant giving up big record deals and touring with The Bill Monroe Band during the 1960s.
retired as circulation manager at The Enterprise Mountaineer
SPEAKING OF FRENCH
He's a very fine gentleman. The thing that impresses me is he doesnÕt play for money or fame. He plays to keep the tradition alive.
He's always working out new music and new things he comes along and learns. I've always had tremendous respect for him as a person as well as a musician. He's just a really fine person.
French is one of my favorite people. He's just so nice and polite. And he always was willing to play with Johnny (Wiggins). I always thought he was a good banjo player.
The thing that brought French and me together was the Lord. He has been a great inspiration in my Christian walk and the Lord put us together as music partners to do his work.
A low, muffled noise, it had just enough rhythm and melody to attract a keen listener. The sound, coming from a small hallway behind two swinging doors at the front of the church, tugged at the Sunday morning worshipers'ears as they slowly poured into the wooden pews inside the cream-colored sanctuary of the small Southern Baptist church.
hallway doors swing open, the cramped space comes alive with the harmonies
of old-time gospel tunes.
The Different Approach, Roy French Kirkpatrick's five-piece string band, practices the songs they were planning to play that morning at Barberville Baptist Church.
"Is that all (the practice) we need?," shouts Kirkpatrick, banjo player for the quintet. "I reckon it is," barks back Dallas Greene, the band's bass player.
A moment later, the music stops and the band laughs and jokes about the size of the narrow hallway they're standing in. It's almost time for French, Dallas, Sam Burgess, Karen Greene and Phil Hunter to perform the half dozen gospel songs they've promised the Rev. J.A. Kuehn. It's a performance they've repeated at many churches throughout Western North Carolina over the past decade.
"He enjoys his music and he puts his heart into in it," Karen Greene said of French. "I don't think I could stand being married to him, 'cause Judy (French's wife) says he sits around all day and picks that thing, "she said, pointing to French's five-string banjo.
It's the obsession for his religion and banjo music that drives him to carry on a tradition his daddy, William Kirkpatrick, taught him, French said.
"It's kind of like making a silver purse out of a sow's ear," French said of his banjo picking. "All I've ever done is be a good support musician. I can put behind them the notes they need."
At 58 years old, French" as his friends know him"claims to know at least 150 different banjo tunes and the words to close to 60 songs.
He credits his knowledge of the old-time music he plays to his Haywood County upbringing and some of the local musicians he's performed with during the 40-plus years he's been picking.
"If there's anything I've learned in my life, it's not to draw attention to yourself. Let people come to you,"French said during a recent interview at his Enterprise Mountaineer office where he works as circulation manager.
French began to play when he was 16 or 17 years old, but he was around 11 when he fell in love with music by listening to his father play.
He recalls many trips to downtown Waynesville with his daddy during World War II.
"My daddy played music around here for years," French said. "He'd play at the courthouse to gather a crowd to help sell war bonds. I'd come with him just to listen and watch him play."
As French grew older, he continued to follow his father and older brother Billy, a fiddler, to the barn dances, harvest suppers and PTA benefits in the county. The family often played for free to help different groups raise money.
Eventually, French was allowed to sit in with the family band, playing rhythm guitar.
"And I felt real important just to do that,"French recalled.
A member of Billy Kirkpatrick's band was the late Carroll Best, who played the banjo.
Best's unique three-finger style of picking fiddle tunes on the banjo had a great influence on French. And shortly after learning to play the guitar he gave it up for the banjo.
"I learned to play the banjo from the legends," he said. "I was fortunate they were around and enjoyed showing me."
French worked to learn Best's three-finger style of picking the banjo. Then master banjo players Don Reno and Earl Scruggs joined in the teaching process.
Before long, French said, he had learned enough about the banjo to play a decent lick.
"Don Reno enjoyed showing me new licks cause he knew I couldn't capture more than one or two,"French said. "The rest I learned from listening to records and the radio."
It also didn't hurt to be bold and ask questions of the professional musicians he mingled with in Nashville and at area bluegrass festivals where he played.
wasn't intimidated by those guys. I'd go right back stage and ask them
to show me what they'd just played," French remembered.
Playing regularly on WNOX, a country-western formatted radio station based in Knoxville, Tenn., the band gained a reputation as a quality bluegrass act.
And in the early 1960s, The Mountain Valley Boys began appearing on Ernest Tubbs' Record Shop, a country music radio show in Nashville, Tenn., and the New Dominion Barn Dance, a radio barn dance in Richmond, Va.
The band also opened for headliners such as Porter Wagner, Don Reno, Red Smiley and Little Jimmy Dickens.
"We were recognized as a quality bluegrass act," French said of the band. "We were a band that could support other musicians."
Supporting other musicians became a trademark for the band over the years. And soon, acts like Johnny Wiggins and the Mountain Valley Boys and Jimmy Haney and the Mountain Valley Boys, appeared at bluegrass festivals in the region.
1970s the band's name changed to the Tall Timber Grass. This
band included Troy 'Doc'Burgess on the mandolin, Don Mills on guitar,
Tommy Brooks on bass and French on banjo.
Haywood County roots and Christian beliefs always seemed to draw him
back from a professional music career, he said.
His strong Christian beliefs as well as his commitment to family stopped French from accepting a golden opportunity to play with The Bill Monroe Band during the 1960s.
But under a spotlight isn't where French Kirkpatrick feels at ease. It's in the churches where his gospel band plays. It's in the parking lots of festivals like the Smoky Mountain Folk Festival and the The Fiddlers Grove traditional music festival in Union Grove. It's in his living room or a neighbor's front porch.
"What I do with a banjo is simple," French said. "It's not pure bluegrass. What I do you'd have a hard time convincing some folks it's bluegrass at all."
French's music is a blend of big band swing, old-time mountain music, bluegrass and gospel. Glen Miller's classic In the Mood, is a standard tune French's bands play, he said.
ÒA banjo is such a hard instrument to master. Just when you think youÕve got it, that thing hems you up and you have to go back and work it again. ... What I like about the banjo is that clear, crisp, clean tone. A dense sound, but with a mellow flow.
"You can play pretty music on a banjo,"French said.
Someday, he would like to truly be 'A Legend of Mountain Music,'he said.
Today, however, Roy French Kirkpatrick says he's just a country boy who enjoys making music.
"There's a level of music up there, somewhere, and few can reach it," he said. "If you want to hear about a legend, my daddy was a legend. He had soft hands for playing the banjo. And growing up around a musical setting propels you to want to go out and do it."