Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Lew Stern, “Dwight Diller’s Early Old Time Music: Field Recordings from the 1970s,” Banjo Hangout, December 2016


“Dwight Diller’s Early Old Time Music: Field Recordings from the 1970s,” Banjo Hangout, December 2016, http://www.banjohangout.org/articles/detail.asp?preview=true&aid=47


By Lew Stern


In August 2014, an old friend, Dwight Diller, a West Virginian old time banjo and fiddle player whose fine music is widely know, phoned me, reminded me of a discussion we had ten or more years ago, and told me that now is the time for me to resume work on his biography, a project I proposed during a visit by Dwight to my home in northern Virginia in the early 2000s. 

That book took shape between August 2014 and September 2015, and was published by McFarland Publishers of North Carolina in April 2016, bearing the title:

Dwight Diller: West Virginia Mountain Musician, Number 39, “Contributions to Southern Appalachian Studies.”   

In the course of my research and writing, many people – including Bill Talley, Len Reiss, Bob Thornburg, Kilby Spencer, Rock Garton – provided me with tape cassettes of Dwight’s music captured at jams and gatherings, in banjo workshops, band practice sessions and elsewhere, as early as 1970, over a decade before Dwight began recording his music – making many of these tapes the earliest examples of his banjo, and fiddle, playing. 

During the tail end of the book project, I introduced Dwight to Gene Bowlen.  Gene runs Bearcade Recording and Sound, owns and operates a studio in Port Republic, VA, and provides sound work for local festivals and recording for musicians in his home studio.  He is also an old time banjo player with his own performing band and an avid, deep love for the old music.  

Gene organized a recording session for Dwight and Terry Richardson in his studio at his home in Port Republic, and set up the afternoon house concert for Dwight and Terry.  That took place on 1 November 2015. 

In subsequent discussions I conducted with Gene, it became clear that some of the original tapes, especially the earliest ones made at the festivals in Independence and Hillsboro, VA, in the summer of 1970s, and in Morgantown in 1973, could be harvested in Gene’s studio, salvaged, cleaned up and made CD-worthy.  Gene and I share the view that there would be an interest in a CD that featured Dwight’s early playing.  Gene set to work to bring some of those tunes together.  What follows represent my notes on the field recordings that were so very generously placed in my hands during the project. 

The Music

The tapes represent Dwight’s playing from 1970 to 1976, from the point at which he became a banjo player to the point at which he moved gradually to playing and teaching banjo and fiddle full time in various settings – retreats at his home, workshops around Pocahontas County, jams and gatherings featuring the Hammons family musicians, and at the Augusta Heritage Center in Elkins, West Virginia. 

Gene drew the music for this special CD that captures Dwight’s music before he began recording commercially from these field recordings that I collected while researching my book from numerous musicians who were “present at creation” during 1970 – 1980:


Kilby Spencer, originally from Whitetop, Virginia, made available to me recordings of the banjo contest taped at the 4th Annual Old Time Fiddlers and Bluegrass Convention in Hillsville, Virginia, in June 1970.  Kilby learned old-time music from his parents, Thornton and Emily, who have been in the Whitetop Mountain Band for over 40 years.  He collects and digitizes rare local recordings, and serves on the board of the Field Recorder’s Collective whose mission is to preserve and release rare field and home recordings of old time music.  Dwight was amazed that his first contest tunes from June 1970 had survived, and was deeply grateful for the chance to hear himself playing so soon after he had solidified what became his signature banjo sound.

In 1970, Dwight went to work as a “Nutritional Aide” for the West Virginia 4-H Club, an organization focused on teaching farm children basic agricultural management skills and animal husbandry and undertaking such projects as teaching women to can groundhog meat in Cass, West Virginia.  Sometime that year, he and his friend Paul Haggard went to an old time music festival near Hillsville, Virginia.  Dwight had met Haggard, an assistant forest ranger, in the summer of 1969.  Haggard was from the north, an “outsider” as Dwight put it.  They met when Haggard, on behalf of the National Forest, was trying to get Sherman Hammons to agree to build a fence to keep his sheep from grazing on federal land.  Sherman was adamant in his position: “If you want to build a fence, that’s just fine,” Dwight remembered Sherman telling Haggard, “But I’ll not build a fence.”  Haggard got to know Sherman, they became friends, and that led to the link with Dwight.  Haggard played guitar and on the basis of their common interest in old time music Haggard invited Dwight to accompany him to the 4th Annual Old Time Fiddlers and Bluegrass Convention in Hillsville, Virginia, in June 1970.  

That festival was Dwight’s first exposure to the burgeoning “old time scene.”  The festival opened up a new world for him, brought him into contact with peers his age, and introduced him to a concentration of old time music talent.  Dwight met the Fuzzy Mountain String Band members and made the acquaintance of several banjo players with whom he became lifelong friends, and from whom he learned some banjo playing skills. Three men in particular befriended Dwight: Bob Thren, an avid caver and banjo player who moved to Lexington, Virginia, in 1975; Len Reiss, an accomplished banjo builder and clawhammer player originally from New Jersey; and Alex Varela, a lawyer by training who showed Dwight how to play Henry Reed’s version of “Frosty Morn” and “Angeline” in an impromptu ten or fifteen minute lesson at the Hillsville festival.  That brief lesson helped Dwight consolidate what he had picked up from Dick Kimmel in Morgantown, and what he had absorbed from close observation of Hamp Carpenter, Lee Hammons, and Sherman and Burl Hammons and Maggie Hammons Parker. Thren, Reiss and Varela had come to listen to the likes of Tommy Jarrell, who played fiddle at the festival.

At Hillsville, Dwight also met Tommy Thompson who was born in St. Albans near Charleston, West Virginia, and whose banjo playing caught Dwight’s attention. Thompson was a graduate student in philosophy at the University of North Carolina in 1965; by 1970, he was teaching college philosophy courses.  Thompson held a number of appointments over several years at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he taught from the fall of 1971 to 1972, and at North Carolina State in Raleigh, where he began teaching in 1972.  Thompson established the Hollow Rock String Band that recorded their first album in 1967. Dwight was drawn to Thompson’s playing, and to his big personality.  

Dwight did not remember exactly how, but he ended up registered as a participant in the festival’s banjo contest.  Someone might have entered his name, or he might have been cajoled into signing up himself; his memory is vague on this point.  A fellow with the name of Mutt Worrell took first place.  Worrell and his sister, old time banjo player Matokie Slaughter, were from Pulaski, Virginia.  Dwight remembered that Mutt played two tunes: “Long Tongued Woman,” and “Monkey on a String,” two tunes he was not familiar with then and has not encountered since that time.  However, a tape of the contest showed that one of Mutt’s tunes was “John Henry,” and that another contestant by the name of Russell Worrell (contestant number 4) played “Monkey on a String.”

Dwight took second place at the Hillsville competition.  He played two tunes, and while he remembered playing “Arkansas Traveller” in that contest, the audio tape that identified him as contestant number nine from Sally Holler, West Virginia, showed that he played “Old Folks Comin’ Down the Road” and “Soldier’s Joy.”   At a later point in the audio tape, Dwight – mistakenly identified as Dwight “Deley” – played “Sixteen Horses Was My Team,” though the tune was identical to what he had played earlier on the tape, identified as “Old Folks Comin’ Down The Road.” Tommy Thompson, identified by the announcer as contestant number eight from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, played “Devil on a Stump.”

The two tunes harvested from Kilby Spencer’s field recordings of this contest:

Ø  “Old Folks Comin’ Down the Road” and
Ø  “Soldier’s Joy.”  


According to fiddler Mark Campbell, during 1971-1972, when he was playing in Armin Barnett’s “The Yellow Mountain String Band,” there was an annual gathering of banjo and fiddle players who were keen on recording the music of the elders in Appalachia that met outside of Charlottesville, Virginia, near the base of the Blue Ridge, called “The Alternative Galax.”  Among those who attended were Carl Baron, Bill Hicks, Alan Jabbour, Gerry Milnes, Peter Hoover, Mark Gunther, Dave Milefski, and Dwight Diller.   Armin Barnett hosted two such gatherings before he left Virginia.  Dwight attended one of these and music he played with Armin Barnett itself survived as on several field recordings made by attendees of one of these gatherings. 

In Bill Hicks’ memory, the event was referred to the Alternate Galax largely because it coincided with the “real” Galax festival.  He also recollected that musicians from outside of the area were frustrated that at Galax, the contests were always won by insiders, people from the host region:  “You couldn't go to Galax and play some other regional style and expect to win anything much, no matter how well you played,” so the designation “Alternative Galax” served to underscore this sentiment.

The event took place at a farm that Barnett was renting, and was attended by Dwight, Barnett, Carl Baron, Len Reiss, Bob Thren, Odell McGuire, and possibly Mark Campbell, according to Talley.   Members of the Fuzzy Mountain String Band were there, too, but they mostly stayed at the house with Barnett while a clutch of other musicians including Dwight and Barnett played up on a hill.   A total of 26 of the tunes played by Barnett and Dwight were recorded.
William Talley, of West Chester, Pennsylvania, who began playing clawhammer back in the mid-1960's, tapped his memory and his audio library to come up with absolutely essential recordings of Dwight playing at the vaunted “Alternative Galax” hosted by Armin Barnett in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1972.  The following tunes were harvested from Mr. Talley’s field recordings:

Ø  Angeline the Baker
Ø  Quince Dillon’s High D
Ø  Jaybird
Ø  Fine Times at Our House (two cuts)
Ø  Locklaven Castle
Ø  Sally Ann
Ø  Frosty Morn
Ø  The Route
Ø  Boatin Up Sandy
Ø  Greasy Coat
Ø  Falls of Richmond
Ø  Sugar Grove Blues (two cuts)
Ø  Old Mother Flannigan
Ø  All Christmas Morn
Ø  Camp Chase (two cuts, Burl’s version and Emmet Bailey’s version)
Ø  Three Forks of Cheat
Ø  Washington’s March
Ø  Pigeon on a Gate
Ø  Miller’s Reel
Ø  Rocky Mountain Goat
Ø  Forked Deer
Ø  Paddy on the Turnpike (two cuts, one in the key of D)
Ø  Sally Johnson
Ø  Cuffy
Ø  Miss McLeod’s Reel


Tom Mylet provided three tape cassettes dating from around 1972:

Ø  Dave Milesky and Amin Barnett, and Bill Hicks, Armin Barnett, Dwight Diller, and the Hammons, no date.  Audio cassette provided by Tom Mylet. 

Ø  Ken Segal, Buell Kazee, J.P. Fraley, Lee Triplett, Wilson Douglas, Franklin Davies, taped at Mountain Heritage Festival, Carter Cove, Kentucky, May 1972.  Audio cassette provided by Tom Mylet.

Ø  Armin Barnett and Dwight Diller, August 1972, taped in Charlottesville, Virginia.  Two audio cassettes provided by Tom Mylet.

The first two of these tapes appear to have been made at one of the two “Alternative Galax” events hosted by Armin Barnett.  Several tunes were harvested from these cassettes.

* * *

In the fall of 1972, while he was still living in Morgantown, Dwight began teaching old time music, especially banjo, in his rented apartment in Morgantown.  West Virginian fiddler Rock Garton joined this informal class:

It must [have] been fate or God that connected me to Dwight Diller. I was a junior in college in 1972 and trying to learn to play a tune on the fiddle with little success. Being a recreation major I enjoyed fun classes, so I took a fencing class to Mrs. Pearse. Dwight Diller was a grad student instructor helping Mrs. Pearse. At the end of the first class Dwight made an announcement that he was starting a string band, was going to teach banjo and fiddle and knowing how to play was not a requirement. Sounded like fun so I grabbed my fiddle and went to Dwight's apartment one night per week for the rest of that year.

Several other musicians joined these sessions at Dwight’s apartment including Jack Ramsey, Jackie Horvath, Andy and Becky Williams from Virginia, and Ron Mullennex from West Virginia. Garton recalled:

Andy and I played fiddle, Becky, Ron and Jack played banjo. There were no guitars nor other instruments, just fiddle and banjo.  Dwight taught us by ear with no written music, one tune at a time.  He would start with one instrument, get them started on a phrase of a tune, and while they were working on that he would go to the other group with their instrument and get them started on the same phrase that the first was working on. Normally each two-part tune could be taught in four phrases or less.  We must have learned a dozen tunes that first year. 

Jackie Horvath remembered studying old time banjo with Dwight in 1972 in Morgantown.  She met him at Ivydale in 1971, but did not get started with banjo lessons until a year later.  Dwight taught at the Mountain Lair, the student union building at West Virginia University’s Morgantown campus.  He would meet students for an hour with members of the band, the A.A. Cutters. 

Band members Jack Ramsey and Ron Mullennex would pair with a student.  Horvath recalls focusing exclusively on two tunes, “Liza Jane” and “Jimmy Johnson,” for the better part of a year:  “I was only allowed to play these tunes for a year, and I was not allowed to drop thumb.”  The second hour of the banjo lessons at the Mountain Lair were devoted to listening to Dwight’s band.  Dwight occasionally taught banjo at Horvath’s home.  They would sit outside on the porch.  He would play a tune and then hand the banjo to her.  Horvath recalled that Dwight stressed the importance of listening closely to the old music.

Rock Garton provided several tapes from around 1973, capturing the music of Dwight’s “practice band,” the ensemble cobbled together from banjo and fiddle students of his during 1973, and called “The A.A. Cutters.”  There are some photographs, taken by Carl Fleischhauer, showing the band in a jam or practice session in a church basement in Morgantown, West Virginia, in April 1973, depicting the musicians Andy Williams, Ron Mullennex, Becky Williams, and Elizabeth Weil, joining Dwight in a session.  The four tapes from which some of Dwight’s music was harvested, contributed by Rock Garton:

Ø  Andy Williams fiddling, Leather Britches; A.A. Cutters, no date (possibly 1973), audio cassette provided by Rock Garton. 

Ø  Dwight Diller, no date (possibly 1973), audio cassette provided by Rock Garton.

Ø  Jack Ramsey on banjo, no date (possible 1973), audio cassette provided by Rock Garton.

Ø  A.A. Cutters, Dwight Diller and Andy Williams fiddle and banjo, no date (possibly 1973), audio cassette provided by Rock Garton.


Bob Thornburg provided me with one cassette that captured some of Dwight’s earliest music: Dwight Diller, Parking lot jam at a festival (NFI), May 1976.  Bob told me:  “A few days after attending one of the Diller camps down on the shores of the Greenbrier River (1990 or 1991), I visited Ben Carr at his home in Wiltsie, West Virginia.  Ben was another one of the students at that camp.  He dug that tape out thinking that it might be of interest to me to see how much Dwight's playing had changed over the years. I'm pretty sure that he dubbed a copy of his tape and gave it to me. I'm thinking that he may have been the one who actually recorded the jam.” 

Dwight’s Own Sound

The central features of Dwight’s playing emerged in the earliest years of his banjo work, and became the bedrock on which he built his playing up across the later periods.  Beyond a growing sense of the need to modulate the speed that began to emerge in the latter part of this first developmental period, Dwight’s style and technique began to crystallize, and he began to think more systematically about the mechanics necessary to produce the sound he wanted.  In later years, in the 1990s and 2000s, Dwight’s playing style has been characterized as sparse, cleanly paced, a combination of rhythm and melody that captures tunes simply and accurately, without sacrificing the intricacies that make the old music interesting.[1]  Those same characterizations apply to the style and technique that was emerging in the first development stage.   His playing technique came to be centered on a rhythmic right hand approach to striking the strings and the head, achieving a consistent syncopated percussiveness.[2]

Dwight’s playing came to be driven by an efficient right hand that snaps onto the strings in the downward arc, and a thumb that drives behind 5th string on every downstroke in a fashion that is often described as double thumbing; though constant, the thumb string is not always audible – meaning that his playing does not produce that nagging and often dissonant fifth string ring.  Dwight occasionally deploys a brushstroke that becomes a “chuck” on 1st and 2nd strings.   The rhythmic pattern, the clawhammer cycle so to speak, “sometimes omits repeated notes or plays them almost inaudibly,” and achieves the pronounced syncopation by the “slight prolongation of the first and third beats of a four beat measure ---  pa pa pa pa becomes paa pa paa pa.”[3] His recipe for this rhythmic clawhammer playing has remained essentially stable, though he has not been inflexible about accommodating to aging limbs, finding new ways of driving students toward the posture and practices he identified as essential to the capacity to get at the rhythmic character of his playing style.

Another element of his learning curve involved teaching old time banjo, and sustained attention to continued efforts to record and preserve the banjo and fiddle playing of the Hammons family musicians and other local elders.  At the same time, he was sorting through the lessons he learned, attempting to make sense of the background music in his life, and thinking systematically about the music and musicians that influenced his playing.

There are two additional variables that need to be taken into account in an effort to describe and characterize Dwight’s playing, and account for the evolution of his as banjo playing style. 

The first is Dwight's capacity to play in other regional styles, such as Round Peak banjo style.  Though he did not often depart from the style and approach of banjo playing most frequently described as West Virginia banjo playing – percussive, not overly melodic, simple and sparse, usually solo or in a pairing with a fiddle (and only rarely with a guitar) – in his earliest period of playing (public performances, festival jamming, banjo teaching) some Round Peak, and perhaps elements of Galax (such as the opening lick in Walking in the Parlor) might have figured in his approach to old time tunes.  

The second is the fact that periodically he loses interest in a tune and it gets sloughed off his tune list for at least a while, perhaps going somewhere in the recesses of his musical brain where it reposes until it returns, rejuvenated, to his active performance repertoire.   Thus, over time, but perhaps more especially in his later playing years, from the late 1990s through the first decade of the 2000s, Dwight would set aside certain tunes that had been “overplayed,” in his view.  In some instances, this meant that they had become “too popular,” and were played incessantly at old time festivals to the point that repetition and widespread currency, and perhaps their usage at dances, tended to take the edge off the tunes, round them out, boil them down to a lowest common denominator – essentially robbing those tunes of their crooked archaic flavor.  That signaled to Dwight the need to retire them for a while.  In other instances, after years and years of playing his repertoire, certain tunes receded of their own accord into his memory and were harder to find on the banjo, were more difficult to recall, especially since so many of these tunes had similar structures, and common and familiar chords, to the point that some melded together and were not easily disaggregated and successfully summoned when reaching for them with banjo in hand.  

Interpreting Dwight’s music through these prisms -- context, influences and developmental stages -- is made more complex by the extent to which his music, especially his banjo music, is entirely his own sound, his own style.  That is, though the influences weighed heavily on him, shaped his thinking about what the music should be and how it should sound, in the end Dwight contoured his banjo playing in a manner of his own making.  He devised his own techniques for getting at the rhythms he sought to incorporate in his sound, in a manner that reflected the music he heard and the elements of mountain culture that were crucially important to him, but in a fashion that allowed his unique musical gift to sculpt these sounds and styles into a musical structure that belonged to him.

Dwight emphasized that his banjoing did not sound like the playing he heard at the homes of Hammons family members.   Since he had not heard any contemporary old time banjo players when he started trying to learn to play clawhammer in late 1968 and early 1969, Dwight reasoned that he was not influenced in his playing approach by anyone from the old time scene – at least at that early point.  He heard the banjo and fiddle playing of Hamp Carpenter, but his visits to that household were spent more in conversation than in playing music.  Later, in mid-1970, he would meet Tommy Thompson and be significantly impressed with the banjo work of this West Virginian-born musician who was then firmly ensconced in the Chapel Hill old time scene, and more than surprised at how close his own banjo playing sounded to Thompson’s rhythmic, percussive, spirited banjo style.  Dwight recalls those intensive early efforts to get the clawhammer playing down, from November 1968 to May 1969, and remembers the point at which things jelled for him, and he began to have the sense that he had grasped the fundamentals and had something he could build on.  He associates that point, that May 1969 date, with a jarring moment when, after a football game at Morgantown during his turbulent college years he had managed to become rowdily drunk on whiskey, been hauled off to jail by the police after the Saturday game.  He was released on Sunday, and recalls that jailing as a critical moment, a most important event “because that kind of thing will stop your world.”   

He stopped drinking.  He never, in his memory, drank to excess, but when he did it produced a horrible mixture that often ended badly, combining alcohol with the rage he remembers carrying around with him those years, and the two things interacted to produce an extremely unpleasant chemistry.  That time, that May 1969 episode, coincided with the point at which he was able to bring together the old music, find the right way of banging the banjo, and locate for himself the rhythmic equation that became his signature sound.  The next benchmark moment for Dwight was the first encounters with festival music in 1970, and his first meetings with three men who became lifelong friends – Len Reiss, Bob Thren, and Alex Varella who showed Dwight “Frosty Morn” from Henry Reed, and “Angeline.”  Maggie Hammons called that second tune “Sixteen Horses Were My Team,” and Dwight remembers mixing “Angeline” with “Sixteen Horses,” and producing the tune that brought him to second place at the Hillsville competition.    

Almost 45 years after he placed in his banjo contest at Hillsville, I played a recording of three tunes of Dwight doing “Soldier’s Joy” and “Angeline” at that 1970 festival contest, recordings that Kilby Spencer, a fiddler from Whitetop, Virginia, generously made available to me.   Dwight was amazed that his contest tunes had survived, greeting them as though they were a singular archeological find.  He was deeply grateful to hear himself playing back then, so soon after he had solidified what became his signature banjo sound.  He heard in those tapes the core rhythmic pattern that became the central, defining character of his banjo playing, and thought back to those early musical steps.  Nobody in his area of central West Virginia played that rhythmic clawhammer style, he said, and so it could not have come from what little he had heard visiting Hamp Carpenter.  And it probably did not derive from the banjo tunes he heard during his weekend visits to the Hammons – because by May 1969 he had only been calling on them for about three months and had not been studying the music so much as just enjoying their company, absorbing the stories they told, and listening gratefully to any music they’d make.  His rhythmic core did not spring from the single lesson he had from Dick Kimmel all those years ago, though that gave him a starting point.  And his energetically percussive banjoing did not derive from, though it was clearly motivated by, the likes of Grandpa Jones, whose playing stimulated Dwight and fed his hunger for the old music but did not inform his own clawhammering.

Dwight’s idea is that the sound he came to play on the banjo derived from who he was, not what he learned.  It sprang from the sum total of the sounds that had penetrated his life from his young days, and the cultural background music, so to speak, that infused his everyday life.  There’s a mystical element to this explanation.  It is not as though he is minimizing the impact of individual musicians on his thinking and playing – he gives pounds and pounds of credit to the Morris Brothers, and he clearly cherished and respected the creaky old music that Burl, Sherman and Maggie coaxed from their instruments for him, and taped at his urging to make sure those sounds survived.  However, Dwight remembers that he learned banjoing in isolation, in a very solitary time:  “Nobody showed me, nobody taught me, I didn’t have anyone else to play music with,” he recalls, thinking of the point when things came together for him in mid-1969.  What emerged was what he refers to as “Diller’s Rhythm,” using his family name in a way that, for him, distances it from a claim to authorship and makes it more an inheritance, a natural biological evolution that essentially - in Dwight’s terms - made him the “carrier” of this music.  That is a term he reaches for, preferring it to the mantle of “Guardian” of the old music, or any of the other terms that seem to credit him with the role of militant protector of the archaic sound largely because that vocabulary strikes Dwight as making him the sentinel for something that was there already, a treasure of antique banjo and fiddle tradition that needed a shepherd to cloak and preserve it.

He “carried” this music, and his special playing touch was the result of a genetic predisposition to a defining rhythmic character that distinguishes this banjo playing and makes it at once a product of his own chemistry and the unique central West Virginian clay that made up the familial emulsion -- part Pennsylvania, and so may other parts unknown -- from which he sprang. 

And he elected to become a bridge to the people who found their way to his home as his banjo students, people for whom the banjo symbolized something simple, a way to get back to a time when the world was not rushing by so fast. 

That, for Dwight, summarizes the trajectory of his musical career, his role as the carrier, and his very cherished responsibility as a teacher conveying the music, and making hopeful moments available to people looking to find some quiet, some respite from the rush of everyday life.

Dwight and West Virginia’s Old Time Music

Dwight’s explanation of how his own sound emerged - how his music reflects the sum total of the cultural influences and the musical background noise that he heard growing up rather than one single banjo exemplar from among the old musicians - makes most sense when viewed in the context of the nature of West Virginian traditional music.  

The fact of the matter is that few of the young West Virginia banjo players from Dwight's generation forward played anything like the old time West Virginia banjoists.  They played the West Virginia tunes, but they integrated banjo influences from elsewhere into their inventory of musical resources and influences.  Stylistically, as Bob Carlin has pointed out, young West Virginian banjo players reflected a range of influences – a range illustrated by the differing styles of Gerry Milnes; Ron Mullennex, who plays banjo in a manner profoundly influenced by Lee Hammons; and Dave O'dell who plays a banjo style more akin to what Grandpa Jones became famous for playing.   Part of the issue is the difficulty in ascribing a predominant musical influence to any one banjo player.  As Gerry Milnes points out:   

My first old-time influences were an old black man in Pennsylvania, Bill Major, and another old guy, Phip Cressman from there.  Beside the fact that I started out playing bluegrass banjo.  But I doubt I play like those two--who lived two miles apart and played very differently.  Like everyone else who was born after 1930 and who had access to recorded music, and could travel to festivals, you heard everyone in the world who played. But it was the Tygart Valley players who I listened to the most and whose repertoire I play. I think I met Dwight around 1970 at a festival in North Carolina, Union Grove, where he was hanging out with the Fuzzy Mountain crowd. I was still playing bluegrass then, but old-time players were turning my head. There were old-time banjo players from all over the world there. To try to tie Dwight's playing to anyone in particular, I think, is as hard as tying anyone else's style to one mentor.

However, another part speaks to the character of traditional West Virginian music itself, and the broad spectrum of styles that emerged in that context.

One explanation is that the old timers, such as the Hammons, hadn't played for such a long time when they were "discovered" and befriended by young enthusiasts, and encouraged to play again - especially in 1969 to 1971.  So their banjoing and fiddling was rusty, uncertain, and it took a while for them to find a groove, re-locate tunes and get settled in their playing.  This was true of the mainstream Hammons folks (Burl and Sherman, and Lee, too) according to some old time musicians who visited them in West Virginia in the 1970s and 1980s, and it was also true of Hamp Carpenter.  Another explanation is that there wasn't much in the form of a West Virginian critical mass of traditional music played and practiced in (for example) eastern central West Virginia by the time the enthusiasts stumbled on the Old People.   And yet another possible explanation is the extent to which West Virginia has a strong fiddle tradition but the banjo tradition is not as widespread, and fiddle with clawhammer banjo accompaniment seems relatively rare in West Virginia compared to other places.

Moreover, if it is the case that young West Virginian banjo players from Dwight's generation forward do not play banjo like the old time West Virginia banjoists, then it is also the case that the old-time players didn’t either.  Gerry Milnes suggests:  “Listen to Russell Higgins, John Christian, Jimmy Dowdle, Sherman Hammons, Cletus Johnson, Dona Gum, Woody Simmons, Currence Hammonds, all old-time banjo players who lived within 50 miles of each other and not one of them played the same. You can deduce a general regional style, but it's hard to get very specific.”   Leftwich echoes this point:

Lee and Sherman themselves had very different styles, and I remember that Maggie and Burl sounded different than Sherman. The old-timers were themselves very individualistic. But it could be that their influences came from a smaller range of influences -- friends, family, and neighbors -- than was the case for my generation. We had more to draw on, and in some cases made conscious decisions about focusing on a particular way of playing. But it's very hard to sound exactly like someone else, and in some ways feels like a forgery if you're not creating a synthesis that somehow expresses your own musicality.

In the face of this, musicians who wanted to learn from the example of the Old People would have a lot of blanks to fill in. 

Dwight’s musical friends and colleagues offer interesting perspectives on this matter.  As old time banjo and fiddle player Jimmy Costa explains it, there is not one particular West Virginia sound.  Traditional old time music has certain “fiddling commonalities,” but that it is particularly difficult to assign a character to a music that derives so much from “old, squirrelly European tunes.”  He thought that fiddlers including French Carpenter, Ernest Carpenter and Tommy Sampson, as well as Melvin Wine, had some of these regionally unique tunes in their repertoire, tunes such as Yew Piney Mountain and Old Christmas.  Some of that diversity in sound came from the fact that old West Virginia banjo players such as Lee Blankenship often played clawhammer and two finger style, and experimented with different stylistic approaches.  In the final analysis, Costa averred, musicians just naturally have inquisitiveness.  They “listen to things they do not themselves play,” and learn things that they integrate into their playing:  “A musician just has that ear.  It’s hard to shut down when you’re going to the county seat and hearing [music] played on phonographs, radio, and player pianos.  You couldn’t help but be distracted by other sources, fascinated by these sounds.”

Ron Mullennex makes the case that the for the most part, each of the “old folks” who played the old music in Randolph County where he grew up had their own distinctive sounds, their own unique ways of making music to the point that after a while, without seeing the player, it grew easy for him to know sight unseen whether, for example, it was Lee Hammons or Sherman or Burl playing.  Mullennex was taken with Lee Hammons’ music, and emulated that sound.  However, though he sought to imbed Lee Hammon’s sound in his music, Mullennex recalls that he did not necessarily have as his goal duplicating Lee Hammons’ way of playing:  “I wanted to play but did not necessarily want to capture the essence of one sound.”  He acknowledges that he had more of the “Lee sound” in his music, and believes that Dwight had more of Sherman Hammons’ sound.  The difference had a lot to do with the rhythm, in Mullennex’s estimate.  He allows that integrating what he calls Lee Hammons’ sound or Sherman Hammons sensibility into one’s music may not be a conscious act; younger West Virginian musicians growing up “played what we heard.”  The younger players in his generation who learned West Virginia music in their teenage years did have “other influences” external to local traditions – including radio music and phonograph recordings, but “were true to our influence” in playing what they heard.

And what they heard, as some of the now older musicians who learned the old tunes in their youthful years recall, was as varied as it was distinctive.  Much of the music, and the way the older musicians these players emulated rendered the music, was distinctive.  Each of the older musicians that people of Mullennex’s generation listened to closely played uniquely – or at least not consistently – from one time to the next.  Burl Hammons would switch things up, add new parts, play the high part of a tune crooked once, and the low part crooked another time.  The old timers were extemporaneous in their playing, playful in cooking up unique renditions, and not at all bound by formulas or beholden to the manner in which they first heard the tune.[4]   Mullennex said that the lesson of all this was that there is no right sound:  “We don’t all have to sound alike.” To Mullennex, that means there is not one particular West Virginia sound: “People in my generation sounded like themselves, but the people we learned from sounded like themselves, too.”  

Everybody had a particular sound.  It was not the intent of banjo players from my generation to sound like someone in particular.  West Virginia musicians were not modeling a technique.  Round Peak players were modeling a technique.   Even in my wanting to capture Lee Hammons’ technique, I was looking for the sound I heard, and I did some things differently, in my way [to get that sound.]  In the same way, Dwight Diller is playing to the sound, not the technique.

Ron Mullennex goes further in this argument, saying:

I don’t think people tried to capture the Hammons sound.  If you went to the festivals you’d hear Round Peak.  You did not hear that focus on West Virginia when you went to fiddle conventions in Virginia [and at the festivals] in West Virginia people were playing their own sound.  People didn’t have to play a certain sound to authenticate themselves.

To Mullenex, the musicians John Morris, David O’Dell, Jimmy Costa
would all say “’I’m a West Virginia’ banjo player,’ and they’d all be right.  But none of us sounded alike.”


Dwight’s personal life shaped his interest in pursuing banjo, and the realities of his West Virginia existence contoured his particular interests, defined his sound, and established the importance of local traditional old time musicians as part of his life.  He sought out old fiddlers and banjo players, story tellers and singers in his area beginning in the late 1960s, found himself in the warm, friendly embrace of Hamp Carpenter, the Hammons Family, and other West Virginian musicians such as Lee Triplett and Glen Smith.  He organized local gatherings featuring these people, brought avidly interested young musicians from Virginia and West Virginia to meet and learn from the Hammons through the 1970s, and performed on stage and at such informal local gatherings with these older music makers. 

Dwight began attending old time music festivals in the early 1970s, and became a fixture at some of these events through at least the 1990s; he resumed attending a select few festivals in the early 2000s.  At such events, he met and learned from all manner of talented musicians from a wide variety of places, competed in his first banjo contests, and learned tunes and techniques in the tight, friendly circles of musicians that intersected at these festivals.  The close relationships he formed with old time musicians in Lexington, Virginia, in the early 1970s got him involved in gatherings at the home of Odell and Mata McGuire, exchanging ideas with Lexington old time musicians, listening to, playing with and teaching musicians in that community, and inviting those people to Pocahontas County to meet and spend time with the Hammonses. 

Dwight’s banjo playing evolved across these years, through a “learning period” at the feet of the old musicians in Pocahontas County, increased involvement in contests, gatherings and festivals, and involvement with bands – the Morris Brothers and the Black Mountain Bluegrass Boys in particular. 

Dwight’s style and technique began to crystallize, and he began to think more systematically about the mechanics necessary to produce the sound he wanted.  In later years, in the 1990s and 2000s, Dwight’s playing style has been characterized as sparse, cleanly paced, a combination of rhythm and melody that captures tunes simply and accurately, without sacrificing the intricacies that make the old music interesting.  Those same characterizations apply to the style and technique that was emerging in the first development stage.   His playing technique came to be centered on a rhythmic right hand approach to striking the strings and the head, achieving a consistent syncopated percussiveness.

While it appears that Dwight is committed to an essentially stable repertoire - a core of tunes to which he is devoted because of the depth of meaning they convey, the way they resonate with him personally, or the intrinsic importance these tunes had for the older musicians who were formative influences in his musical life – his repertoire does get “refreshed” periodically as he puts aside tunes that, in his view, have become “overplayed” at festivals or worked to death in modern recorded old time music, and revives other tunes in his inventory of sound, tunes he dusts off and works at reviving the energy they imparted to him in days passed.   

In recent years, because of personal reasons – including increasingly complex health challenges – Dwight has circled the wagons, taught fewer classes to smaller gatherings of students in his home; refrained from attending all but the most beloved of the local festivals (such as the Stonewall Jackson Heritage Arts & Crafts Jubilee); not done anything to keep his CDs in circulation.  However, in the latter part of 2015, a burst of energy, a “second wind,” so to speak, prompted him to agree to do some recording work in Port Republic, Virginia, stage a small house concert in the same setting, and lay down some tracks for a new CD or two in a separate project focused on developing a “boxed set” of gospel tunes, instrumentals, and tunes for children.   He has given thought to working on a book of his own stories; he captured the stories of the Hammons family, but by now his own stories have "come of age."  Dwight also began thinking about putting out a CD of some of his earliest banjo and fiddle playing, assembled from "field recordings" made by from folks who taped contests and jam sessions in the 1970s and 1980s.  Dwight has some “unpublished” sound cuts from earlier recording sessions, and John Morris, Dave and some other friends seem to have a stock of recordings from their live performances that might lend themselves to this effort.  Importantly, he placed all his long out of print CDs on “bandcamp,” making them readily available again, and dedicating the proceeds from such sales to the Yew Piney Mountain non profit organization that he established in the early 2000s to encourage the preservation of West Virginia song and story.

That could lead to an entirely new stage of development, and a brand new repertoire, for Dwight Diller.

[1] Andrew Diamond, et. al., Yew Pine Mountain: Obscure Underground Clawhammer Banjo From Mysterious Central West Virginia, revised, produced and printed in Pocahontas County, West Virginia, 2006.  

[2] Others, including Dinah Ainsley, for example, have pointed out that these characterizations of Dwight’s playing that emphasize the right hand work, including Dwight’s own teaching approach that does underscore the essential role of the right hand, neglect the style and technique he follows with his left hand which places a primacy on economy of movement, very deliberate combinations of hammer-ons and pull-offs, quick and short slides among other techniques.  Some of that is clear in this video of Dwight playing “Wild Bill Jones”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjxQMq_bfhM

[3] Andrew Diamond, et. al., Yew Pine Mountain: Obscure Underground Clawhammer Banjo From Mysterious Central West Virginia, pp. 2 – 8.
[4] Bill Hicks said of Burl’s playing:  “I witnessed that aspect of his playing and was very struck by it.  What it taught me was that playing was an "active" ability, that one played in the moment and could do things in the moment, and if it was a group of people who all understood that, there could be  a  kind of "conversation" going on even.  I'm pretty sure I witnessed Burl and Dwight having such a conversation as they played tunes at Burl's house one evening during that visit I made to Burl's house in either '70 or '71.”  12 December 2015 (9:03 A.M.) email from Bill Hicks to Lew Stern. 

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