Alabama Folkways Articles
August 10, 2000

The Family That Plays Together

A strong tradition exists on Northern Alabama's Sand Mountain of family bands performing old-time country, southern gospel, and bluegrass music. These groups include notables: The Johnson Family String Band, Charlie and Ira Louvin, and The Maddox Family and Rose. A fairly new Sand Mountain family, touring group is The Gary Waldrep Band. Gary, and his sister Susan Waldrep, perform with their aunt, Donna Townsel, and Georgia native Bill Everett. Gary sings vocals, plays banjo, fiddle and guitar. Susan sings vocals and plays the guitar. Donna Townsel plays stand-up acoustic bass. Bill Everett sings baritone and adds his mandolin to the mix.

Gary Waldrep was raised on the musical traditions of Sand Mountain, including old-time claw-hammer banjo playing, fiddling and close harmony singing. Gary, his sister and aunt, grew up on their 80-acre family farm in Dekalb County in the town of Kilpatrick near Boaz, where they all still live. Gary attributes much of his musicality to his mother, Carolyn Waldrep, and to her side of the family, the McCulloughs. It was Gary's uncle the late Wayne McCullough who inspired many family musical performances, and who first pushed Gary up on stage at the age of five years old using a silver dollar as incentive. Gary traces his McCullough musical roots back further to the Watsons of Gainesville, GA. The Watsons, Gary's grandmother's, (the late Mrs. Maurice McCullough) grandparents, were music makers. Mrs. McCullough's grandfather Watson was an old-time fiddler and her grandmother a five-string banjo player. Gary's great-grandfather Leonard Watson, (Mrs. McCullough's father), played the organ in Church. Mrs. McCullough played the piano. Gary's mother, a fine singer in her own right, taught Gary and his sister Susan to sing gospel harmonies and traditional country music as children.

Gary has created a name for himself outside of Alabama as a purveyor of traditional "old-time" banjo styles. He was nominated for a Grammy in 1989 for the tape cassette recording, "Gary Waldrep Vintage Bluegrass." He previously performed with the Warrior River Boys (1981-1989), Wendy Bagwell and the Sunliters (1985), and The Sand Mountain Boys (1990-1994).

Gary was the recipient of the Old Time Banjo Award from the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America (SPGMA) in 1993 and 1994. Waldrep teaches 15 students when the band is not touring. Because of his dedication as a teacher of an important folk tradition he is the recipient of Folk Art Apprenticeship Awards as a Master Artist from the Alabama State Council on the Arts.

Gary Waldrep is interested in the preservation of Sand Mountain traditions. He is in the process of organizing an association to preserve and educate people about those traditions. One way he seeks to accomplish his goal is by promoting an annual music festival, now its fifth year, called, the "Festival on the Farm." Each year Gary's house on his family's farm in Kilpatrick is the backdrop for this bluegrass festival. His front porch is the stage. Cattle are moved from an adjoining field that is used as a parking lot. The Gary Waldrep Band with the help of the town of Kilpatrick, the Kilpatrick Fire Department and a number of dedicated fans who volunteer their time to make the small festival an annual success, produce the "Festival on the Farm". This year the "Festival on the Farm" begins on Friday, September 8th at 5 PM with the "Gospel Sing," featuring the Keytones Quartet, The Fishermen, The Cash Family, Telina Wilson, Southern Comfort, Donna and the Harmineers, and Miller's Hollow Band. On Saturday, September 9th, rain or shine, the main musical event starts a 1 PM. Featured bands Saturday will be The Larkin Family (TN), Bill Grant & Delia Bell (OK), The Birdsong Family (MS), The Gary Waldrep Band (AL), Southern Comfort (AL), The Distant Cousins (AL), Foggy Hollow Band (AL), Harmony Ridge (AL), Miller's Hollow Band (AL), Donna & the Harmineers (AL), and Telina Wilson (AL). To get to the "Festival on the Farm" from Boaz take Hwy. 168 East. Go 5 miles to Dekalb County Road 479. Turn right and go 1 mile. Admission is a $6 donation for each day.