Sounds of Virginia: G.B. Grayson & Henry Whitter
While we are down in the southwest corner of Virginia I would be remiss not to mention two of my favorite Old Time performers and, in my humble opinion, two of the most influential songwriters and collectors of mountain music.
Down in Grayson County is a little town that is well known to Old Time music enthusiasts. Fries, (pronounced “freeze”) Virginia may be a small town (current population around 600), but it is known to all as the home of Henry Whitter.
Henry Whitter was a millworker who turned to music for his livelihood. Whitter was one of the first mountain musicians to use a harmonica rack so that he could play guitar and harmonica at the same time. He was also amongst the first country artists to record commercially. His 1923 version of the now classic ”The Wreck of the Southern Old 97” was a good seller and provided Vernon Dalhart with the material to record the song the following year and make it the first country record to sell multi-million copies. In fact, a good number of Henry Whitter’s songs have gone on to be considered standards of both Old Time and Country music and a few have made the transgression to Bluegrass as well.
While attending the 1927 fiddler’s convention in Mountain City, Tennessee Whitter met up with Gilliam Banmon (G.B.) Grayson and one of the most influential, and unfortunately short-lived, partnerships was born. Fiddler and singer G.B. Grayson was born in nearby Ashe County, North Carolina. Legally blind since he was a small child, Grayson relied on his mastery of the fiddle for his livelihood. Grayson was a traveling musician playing throughout the Southern Appalachians at fairs, barn dances, and other events. He was also a regular entrant, and often winner, at fiddler’s conventions throughout the mountains.
Over the following three years G.B. Grayson & Henry Whitter recorded an impressive 40 songs. Their recording of ”Handsome Molly” sold over 50,000 copies! The recordings made by G.B. Grayson & Henry Whitter had a tremendous effect on country music and still does to this day. The songs they recorded during those short three years read like the title page from a guide to Old Time Country music: "Tom Dula" (Tom Dooley), "Cluck Old Hen", "Rose Conley", "Omie Wise", "Banks of the Ohio", "Little Maggie", "The Nine Pound Hammer", and of course, "Going Down The Lee Highway" (Lee Highway Blues), to name a few. The songs that Grayson & Whitter recorded have been covered by such diverse artists as Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson, the Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan, and Mick Jagger.
Sadly, this remarkable partnership was brought to a sudden close on August 16, 1930. G.B. Grayson had walked from his home in Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee to visit his brother in nearby Virginia. On his return trip he was offered a ride by neighbor Bill Millhorn. Milhorn drove a little one seat roadster, so Grayson stood outside the car on the runningboard for the ride back to Laurel Bloomery. While rounding a curve on US Hwy 58 south of Damascus, Virginia Milhorn’s car collided with a heavily loaded log truck, throwing Grayson from the runningboard and killing him. Henry Whitter was devastated by the news and performed only a few rare appearances during the remainder of his life.
The songs that these two recorded during those amazing three years have gone on to be some of the most recognizable songs in the history of American music. I have long been a fan and collector of Henry Whitter and G. B. Grayson, that is why I was so excited when I saw Whitter's 1924 release "Lonesome Road Blues" amongst the stacks of 78s loaned to me by our friend Walt's cousin Wes. Once again, thanks go to Wes for sharing his wonderful collection with us.