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 shared 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 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 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. 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.
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 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 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. 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.
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.” 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.
 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.
 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
 Andrew Diamond, et. al., Yew Pine Mountain: Obscure Underground Clawhammer Banjo From Mysterious Central West Virginia, pp. 2 – 8.