The Complete History of the Plank Road String Band and the Lexington, VA Music Scene

Plank Road (FRC606)

By Brad Leftwich, Al Tharp and Odell McGuire

Brad Leftwich’s Memories

In the early 1970s it seemed like communities of people who loved and lived old-time music and dancing were popping up like mushrooms all over the country. One of the most vibrant was in Lexington, Virginia. I ran across a bunch of musicians from Lexington at the 1972 fiddlers convention in Independence, Va. (Wade Ward’s stomping grounds) and had such a great time playing music, drinking, and hanging out with them that I followed them home. I visited my new friends in Lexington whenever I could, and there were always great parties and jam sessions. I finally moved there in 1975, along with my friend David Winston. Al invited us to share the dilapidated farm house he inhabited outside of town.

Odell McGuire was the spark plug for the whole scene. He attracted musicians, and his wife Mata made them at home. Their house was party central, and at any given time any number of itinerant musicians would be crashing there. Like me, many of them eventually took up residence in town. Mata and Odell called the community that sprang up around them in Lexington “the horde.” During summer, they would descend on old-time festivals in small towns like Chilhowie, Marion, and Pulaski, and several pickup bands would emerge from the horde to enter the contests. I got to know Al and Andy pretty well, and enjoyed playing music with them. Somewhere along the line, Al met Steve Gendron, who I think lived near Raleigh at that time. Steve played guitar and liked to sing, both of which were kind of rare in Lexington in those days.

I think of Al as being the heart and soul of Plank Road. He certainly conceived it, and supplied the name (he lived for a while on Plank Road, outside of Lexington in the direction of Natural Bridge). I was doing archeological contract work that would take me out of town for a week or two at a time. On one of those jobs I got a letter from Al saying that Steve had lined up some jobs, and would I like to join a band: the three of us plus Andy Williams (and a bass player if we could scare one up)? Absolutely!

Steve was the business engine behind the band, sniffing out venues, wheeling and dealing, booking jobs. Events surrounding the national bicentennial made work easier to find. Steve had some connections with the Green Grass Cloggers in Greenville, N.C., and a number of our jobs involved doing joint shows with them. We’d play music for them to dance to, and then we’d perform a few numbers while they were regrouping for the next routine.

The four of us did a number of jobs. Then one night we were sitting around home, playing music as usual, and Mike Kott showed up with his cello. No one’s really sure how he came to be there, I think maybe someone from Charlottesville may have brought him. We jammed with him that evening, and after he left we quickly consulted to make sure we were all on the same page, but everyone already knew he was man to hold down the bottom end of our band.

The rest is kind of a blur. The distinctive Plank Road sound began to solidify; Steve kept us busy with better and better jobs, up and down the eastern seaboard. We were taking prizes at fiddlers conventions. We played at the Red Fox Inn and the Birchmere in D.C. We played hard, partied hard, traveled a lot in any combination of vehicles: Al and Andy’s Ford pickups, my ’64 Ford Galaxie 500, or Kott Equipment Company’s van. One of our notable gigs came when the Cub Hill Cloggers in Baltimore asked us to perform with them at a congressional dinner on the White House lawn (Carter administration). What a zoo! Our car — Mike had tied American flags to the antennae — broke down a block from the White House and we arrived like the Beverly Hillbillies, pushing it. A photo of Andy and me ended up on the front page of the fashion section of the Washington Star, wearing blue jeans — it was a fashion statement!

Along the way we recorded two LPs. The first was supposed to be for Kanawha Records, but the owner took our money and vanished. We got the master tapes and our artwork back somehow, and put it out ourselves (on the Carryon label, which Al still uses). The second was for June Appal, and by comparison to the first LP we thought it was really slick.

It was a brief moment, a couple of years. I thought I wanted to go to grad school to study anthropology, and if I was going to do it I better do it now. So I left for Chicago the summer of 1977. The band continued without me, eventually morphing into a trio version with Al, Mike, and James Leva which did several tours in Europe.

Al Tharp’s Letter to Brad Leftwich

Attention! Urgent message follows… You must get in touch with me as soon as possible (or Andy – he has a phone). Steve Gendron has lined us up at least two jobs playing old time music in N.C. I know you are probably swamped with work just now but we would be getting $200 for each job, and it could be an auspicious rebirth for the New Old Plank Road String Band, so give the matter your sincere consideration. I am needless to say gaga with enthusiasm about the whole thing as playing old time music for money seems to me to be about the closest thing in life to free lunch that I have ever run across. Not to mention the incredible ego strokes involved. Details follow:

  1. The band: You (I hope) Andy, Steve and Myself (on banjo of course) and a bass player if we could pick one up. However do not flatter yourself; you can be replaced, so act quickly to secure YOUR place in this once in a lifetime opportunity. Actually if you cannot play I will probably play the fiddle and we will get somebody else from here to play the banjo. It would be a shame though and I would certainly never forgive you.
  2. The jobs:
    1. Greensboro on the fourth of Oct. for a two hour concert some time in the afternoon. This is still slightly in doubt but I will find out definitely tonight as I am going to call Steve. If we play – $200.
    2. Goldsboro N.C. on the 17th of Oct. at some country club or some such. This one (I think it is this one) would be in conjunction with the Green Grass Cloggers and would also be $200 plus all the country club type likker we could drink. Little do they know. Also that same weekend on Thursday we can get a job playing in a bar in Greenville if we can come a day early. I am going to tell Steve to go ahead and try, and we will play with whatever personnel we can muster.

As you can imagine I am really anxious that you be able to play as I think we could be a fine band with good times for all. Please call Andy as soon as you can and let him know whether or not you can make it. If you can I will send you a couple of tapes of some Skillet Lickers tunes that we are trying to work out for the singing. I think a little loose Harmony sing would add to our appeal a good deal. Also you might call Steve, whose number is 919-275-9082. Address: #3 Springdale Ct., Greensboro, N.C.

Also Andy’s number 463-7055.

So, until fortune brings our paths together once again, I remain
Ever so faithfully
Your humble Servant

Plank Road Origins By Odell McGuire

I went over to the Morris Brothers festival in Ivydale, WV in September, 1970 with a friend and student, Coley (Cully) Blake, who’d served with Dave Morris in Viet Nam. I met Dwight Diller there. I had just learned the drop-thumb banjo lick from Steve Keith at Galax in August. Dwight was learning to play from Lee Hammons and was some months further along than me. We formed a friendship which has endured. Within a couple weeks, through Dwight, I met the Hammons family: Maggie, Ruey, Sherman, Burl and their older cousin, Lee. I also met their friend, Mose Coffman. He was the first fiddler I ever played with and he taught me much.

Back in Lexington, VA, I had a freshman Geology student, Scott Ainslie, already an experienced guitar player and singer and an aspiring fiddler. Coley also had a student friend, Chris Murray, who was learning to play the fiddle. We had some “musical evenings” at my house at Meadowview in Rockbridge County. Dwight visited often. And at some point during that first year, for the first time, Dwight and I took down a bottle of IW Harper to Toast, NC, and spent a weekend with Tommy Jarrell.

Chris, Cully, and I went to Union Grove at Easter, ’71. I had been to the festival 2 years ago in ’69 when it was still held on the High School grounds. There I’d met Wade Ward and Willard Watson and was encouraged by them in my beginning efforts to learn old-time banjo. I had a long talk with Willard, the first of several over the years. But in ’71 Union Grove had become a freak show. Ken Kesey’s bunch was the big attraction; not old time music. We enjoyed what was there to be enjoyed. But I never went back.

I’d heard about the Marion festival (the old one at the ball park) from Albert Hash and went there alone in Summer ’71.

I wound up camping with Mack Benford, Bob Potts, and Walt Koken at Hungry Mother State Park. They were from California; called their band “Fat City.” After the 1st of many visits to my place in Rockbridge, they moved on back to where they had roots in the Trumansburg, NY area. There they soon picked up Jenny Cleland and Doug Dorschug and changed the band name to “Highwoods.”

That fall after school started, the musical evenings at my place centered on what came to be known as the “Bird Forest String Band,” consisting of fiddlers, Chris Murray and Scott Ainslie; Jews Harp and footwork, Coley; and me. Another W&L student, Al Tharp, an experienced and multitalented rock musician, lost one of the boys he’d been working with to a motorcycle accident. He started playing with us and learned the banjo lick in a matter of minutes. Within a week or so, I knew he was already a better banjo player than I was ever going to be. We became a two-banjo band. My instrument had a deeper voice and I played rhythm banjo. Al got a lot more notes. But we both had the same sense of when to make the turns, the lead changes– whatever you call them, which define a particular tune or version of tune ム what makes all OT tunes NOT sound alike. So it all hung together pretty well.

There was a festival in the county, near Buena Vista, that Fall. Bird Forest competed. Armin Barnett came with an OT band from Charlottesville, and Henry Heckler and John Schofield, one from Lithia. And, to my complete surprise, another one of my geology students, a Lexingtonian, Scott Nelson, showed up in a Bluegrass band. We soon got him into OT, took him up to visit the Hammons, etc. Bird Forest began to take on gigs and compete in festivals from that time forward. Brad Leftwich, then a 19 year-old, first met us at the ’72 Independence Festival. He remembers jamming one evening with Bob Thren, Len Reiss, Chris Murray and some others. He came back to Lexington with us and stayed a week.

By then we had left suburban Meadowview and moved to the first house on W&L’s Faculty Row. It was a 2 1/2 storey, 19th century frame house with a big front porch. I never counted the rooms, but my three my kids had two of them and there was a guest bedroom, seldom unoccupied. My wife Mata became accustomed feed up to 8 or 10 musicians on short notice several times a week. Al, meanwhile, had moved into a little servant’s house, way out in the county on Plank Road. It was his habit to shoot a rabbit or a fat squirrel several times a week before supper. His Brunswick-stew get-togethers became famous.

That summer Dwight started bringing the fiddler Andy Williams and his then-wife Becky–banjo player, and some others over from WV to Lexington to travel with us to the VA festivals. They entered their own band in the competitions. Eventually Andy and Becky decided to settle here. Brad had not met Andy yet. The latter was going to see his folks in Michigan over Christmas, ’72. We gave him Brad’s phone number at Oberlin and suggested he and Becky stop over and play some with Brad. They did. Brad thought Andy had captured more of Tommy Jarrell’s style and flair, than any other young fiddler he’d heard. He resolved to spend the following summer in Rockbridge with us. When he came he brought David Winston, a fellow student at Oberlin and aspiring banjo player, with him. He also brought new tunes and versions from Tom Fuller, an old fiddler from Mina, Arkansas, in the southeastern Ouachita, a region much like the Southern Appalachians both geologically and culturally.

’73 was the first summer of “The (Mongrel) Horde” as they called themselves. Musicians and their supernumeraries rented three large farm houses in various parts of the county. We traveled to festivals most every weekend and, counting Bird Forest, we entered three or even four bands with various personnel groupings and various names. For example, an all girl outfit, including Liz Shields and Becky Williams called themselves “The Leather Bitches.” Dave Winston and Brad Leftwich stayed in one of these houses near Fairfield until Al Tharp invited them to move into his little place on Plank Road. They did so, and the idea of a band called “Plank Road” probably dates from that time. Also, as many readers will be aware, Uncle Dave Macon once recorded a tune called “Way Down on the Old Plank Road.”

In an old log church at Edray, WV, on Dec 29, ’73, Dwight Diller married Molly Trimble. Many musicians from all over attended. All were invited to a reception and OTM bash at my house on faculty row in Lexington. The party lasted til New Years–many old as well as new faces. Among the latter I remember Lisa Ornstein and Mike Burns. To look ahead, Bruce Molsky, having moved to The County around ’75, married Jan Lee Trimble, Molly’s younger sister, in April, ’77, and became Dwight’s brother-in-law. ’74 was another “Horde” year. But changes were made. We were reinforced by Bob Thren, Len Reiss, Lisa Ornstein and Chad Crum, among others.

James Leva recalls:
“I remember when Chad came on the scene. It was the early days of Ace Weems and the Fat Meat Boys. We played in the band contest at the Lithia Fiddlers Convention, near Buchanan. The band was me, Forrest McGuire, Steve Seal and either Dan Newhall of bass or Michael James Kott on cello (can’t remember cause both played with the band at different times). As we came off stage Chad, who’d come to the festival with Jeff Claus and Judy Hyman, came running up to us and said “I want to play with your band!” He came back to Lexington with us after the festival, went home, got his stuff, and came back. He lived with me and Forrest McGuire in an old shack (outhouse and spring for water) in a holler of North Mountain. We called it the North Mountain Disco. Chad played with the Fat Meat Boys and took classical composition with the late great teacher/composer Rob Stuart.”)

Odell continues his story:

Mata and I broke up in September and she gave up the Faculty Row house. But early in October she opened the White Column Inn in an ancient Jeffersonian Classic building on Lexington’s Main Street. It was conceived as a combination bar, picking parlor, and restaurant, and so the Rockbridge County musicians had another place to play and pass hat and enjoy Mata’s cooking. The recollection is hazy but it seems to me that two W&L students and fiddlers-to-be, Robbie Caruthers and James Leva, first became aware of the Rockbridge County OTM scene during the early months of the WCI. Andy and Becky broke it up and she moved on to Charlottesville at year’s end or the early months of ’75. Andy rented a little house in NE Rockbridge, not far from the Smith Farm, a big Horde abode. Then Steve Gendron, a guitar player, moved up from Greensboro. In NC he’d been dating Toni Jordan, a founding member of the Green Grass Cloggers. Plank Road began playing gigs with the Cloggers, with enthusiasm, energy, friendships, and romances resulting. In 1977 Toni moved to the County, and she and Andy eventually married, raised a family. They still live here, and own a greenhouse out on Plank Road. They are close neighbors of Dave and Mary Winston (nee Troy) who likewise elected to make a home and have a family here. Steve Gendron lived with Andy for several years. He died in 1978 from diabetic complications.

In summer of 1975 a CBC-TV producer named Mike, nobody remembers his last name–Cavanaugh?– something Irish, came here to make a Canadian special on American grass roots, to be aired during our bicentennial in ’76. He filmed many traditional usages to be found in the area. Our music was to be on the soundtrack. The main recording session was set for The Chicken Farm, a mile south of Lexington near Lee Highway. It was the new home of Al, Brad, and Dave after they left the little place on Plank Road. Every OT musician in the county, maybe numbering 30-40 at that time, was given a chance to play, in shifting groups of 2 to 5. One group would play 3 or 4 tunes, then yield to another which was formed and waiting. We wanted the maximum of spontaneity consistent with any kind of organized session at all. But what was to be Plank Road played it differently. Al, Brad, Andy, and Steve Gendron had been practicing together and had decided to form a more or less permanent road band in the Highwoods mode. They played 8 or 10 tunes from which they hoped to get some demos and material for self-criticism of their sound, as well as furnish some music for the ultimate soundtrack.

Almost from the start of the session, they were joined by cello picker Mike Kott, who had never played with some members of the band before. Al Tharp tells that story on the back cover of the FRC Plank Road CD. I’d met Michael James the previous August at Galax. One night I crashed in a stall with Dave Winston. Early next morning I was awakened by horrible loud sounds from out-of-tune guitar and cello. My first thought was that we had died and gone to Hell and this was retribution for all those bad notes we hit on our banjers. I said as much to Dave. He said: “No! It’s only Michael James Kott.” We emerged from the stall. The guitarist was a rocker who called himself Johnny Bee. Michael James grinned and said: “I knew if we played the right tune it’d get y’ns up!” And we tuned properly up for a jam.

I know this isn’t the place for opinions, and I’ve so far tried to avoid them. But permit me this one. Everybody who knows Michael has stories about him: busking with his cello on a skateboard in a Santa Fe parking lot; Sufi dancing with Martha Toomey in Tampa; I could go on. I’ve had the good fortune to know right many “originals” in my life–Chad Crum, Joe Ayers, Sherman Hammons, Richard Hartness, Earl White, and Rodney Sutton come immediately to mind. But I have to say that Michael James Kott is the most startling original I ever met. He did something new, imaginative, and unexpected almost every time I saw him, which was very often.

Plank Road quickly made a name for themselves on the road but it wasn’t til the following June, of ’76, that they taped a cassette intended for public release. They used a very small studio at W&L. There was no air conditioning and no windows and it was very hot and stuffy. Dave Winston engineered according to Al’s instructions. Michael James was stripped to the skin playing his cello. The rest ム sweat drenched underwear. Some tunes were added in December in a more comfortable venue, and a few of those recorded in June were dropped. The product was released in April ’77 by Rounder. A second recording, “Plank Road 2”, same band, different tunes, was made in Doug Dorschug’s studio in August ’77 when we were all up to a Highwoods party. It was later released by Appalshop, I think. Also Plank Road , at some point during ’76-’77 played a gig in the White House.

I also should mention that Mike Burns, Gary Humiston, Bruce Molsky, Steve Seal, and James Leva became “Horde” denizens during this period. Gary (now Marie!) is still here in The County with his wife, Becky Mackenzie, and family. And James and Al Tharp *et al* have a band here named “Purgatory Mountain” after a local landmark. Al recently bought a house on Collierstown Pike and commutes from New Orleans where he still has a recording studio and business which survived Katrina.

I’m deeply indebted to Molly, Mata, the Winstons, and most especially Brad Leftwich for this account. I’ll close it with a remark made by Brad recalling the ’74 summer of the Horde: “—it was idyllic— working on your cabin in Collierstown, parties at your place and the White Column Inn, Len Reiss’ banjos, Mata’s cooking– pretty fractured and fragmented memories, but full of excitement and a wonderful sense of adventure. — Odell McGuire

Plank Road Memorabilia Gallery: