Folk Heritage Award - Herb Trotman

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Herb Trottman
photo courtesy of Mark Gooch

Herb Trotman became the 17th recipient of the Alabama Folk Heritage Award during the, biennial, Alabama State Council on the Arts' Celebration of the Arts event at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival on May 20th, 2015.

This award was established to recognize master folk artists who have made outstanding contributions to their particular artistic tradition. The award is intended to honor long-term achievement within art forms that are rooted in the traditional or ethnic culture of Alabama.

Herb Trotman, a central figure in Alabama’s old-time and bluegrass music scene for over 50 years, is a highly regarded banjo player and guitarist, who could have easily made a career as a professional musician. However, his ties to his home town of Birmingham and growing a now legendary business, Fretted Instruments, made him eschew the life of a musician living constantly on the road. Because he is a superior traditional musician, owner of a vital music store, an instrument repairman, a teacher and supporter of music education, and the center of a very large community of acoustic musicians, Herb Trotman is being awarded the 2015 Alabama Folk Heritage Award.

Herb was born in Birmingham in 1944, the only child of parents who enjoyed music of all kinds and kept instruments out and available around the house. Herb picked up a ukulele at age 4 and, on his own, was able to listen to recordings and figure out when to change chords. By his early teens, he was learning to play the guitar. His father, Herbert Trotman, Jr., who worked at U.S. Steel and called square dances on the side, preferred to call to live music, so Herb was around country music and musicians throughout his childhood. Since his dad started the first Alabama Jubilee square dance weekend in Birmingham in the 1950s, held at the YWCA where contra dances are now held, it is fitting that Herb has been a strong supporter of the Birmingham Friends of Old-Time Music and Dance. Today, he leads a band that continues to be a favorite of the dancers.

During his teenage years, Herb began playing the banjo. It was the sound of the banjo heard in his friends’ recordings of the Kingston Trio that really caught his ear. He wanted to hear more. He started watching Flatt and Scruggs on Saturday afternoon/evenings with his mom and dad. Their shows, sponsored by Pet Milk and Martha White, aired between The Willis Brothers and The Porter Wagner Show on the local station during the late 50s and early 60s. Then Herb became friends with well-known banjoist Jim Conner who took him to meet Sand Mountain traditional musicians such as Arthur Kuykendall and Monk Daniels and he learned those older styles of playing. He continued to play folk music and bluegrass through high school (Marion Military Institute) and college at University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and Birmingham, where he graduated with a degree in Sociology/Anthropology with a minor in Psychology. During the 1960s, he often appeared on stage with Jim Conner and Richard Lockmiller at the Lowenbrau Haus pub in Homewood, helping make it an important venue for folk musicians from the early 1960s through the early 1980s.

In 1974, after serving in the Air Force, Herb started a music store in Homewood, Alabama, initially with Homewood musician David Walbert and later Ricky Stone. This was to become a watershed moment in the Birmingham area string band music scene. Today, Herb owns the business himself and is not contemplating retirement because Fretted Instruments has become more than a job to him being a vehicle for fun and connection to musicians across north and central Alabama which it serves.

On the surface, Fretted Instruments is a quality music store best known for its high-end Martin and Collings guitars. Herb acts as a consultant, taking a special interest in finding the right guitar for each customer. He repairs instruments and many musicians who have encountered last-minute problems with instruments have been grateful to him for getting them in working condition before a big gig. This list of grateful customers included Odetta and Bo Diddley. But even more important, Fretted Instruments has become a touchstone and point of reference for a large community of area musicians. When traditional music scholar Joyce Cauthen, a fine musician in her own right, asked Herb if he ever intended to start such a community he replied that, “it just happened.” But everyone knows that it would not have happened without Herb’s commitment to helping musicians learn to play and find good instruments and the high standard of musicianship he modeled for them.

Because Herb has created such a community around Fretted Instruments, old-time and bluegrass musicians, guitar pickers and singer-songwriters drop in during the week and on Christmas Eve and Fourth of July, bringing their instruments, refreshments, and families to celebrate together. He is quoted as saying, “I sometimes view myself more as a custodian for a rather large amorphous therapy group.” That expression became the subtitle for 12 CDs (and counting) of Christmas music played by area musicians and given out for free at Fretted Instruments. Each year, for over a decade, the “Large and Amorphous Group” has recorded, with the help of Dr. Wayne Anderson, Christmas music especially for this CD. The music includes holiday standards and original songs ranging from sacred to sentimental to downright funny. For many people in Alabama the appearance of the new Christmas CD at Fretted Instruments means the holidays have begun. Herb and his “Large and Amorphous Group” have graciously allowed “Alabama Arts Radio” to broadcast selections from this CD during the Christmas season for several years.

Kathy Hinkle moved to Birmingham in the late 1970s and became involved in area choral music performance. She eventually joined the local country dance group now known as the Birmingham Friends of OldTime Music and Dance or FOOTMAD where she was exposed to a different type of music. Kathy met Herb in the early 1990s when Joyce Cauthen, her new guitar instructor, suggested she visit Fretted Instruments to buy a guitar. Herb and Kathy became friends almost immediately. Their mutual love of music and dance led to the altar. As Kathy recalls, “One of my dance gypsy trips took me to the Augusta Heritage Festival in Elkins, West Virginia in 1996.The next year I invited Herb to go along. We decided to attend Old Time Week instead of Dance Week… We began the week by applying for a marriage license during our Monday lunch break and we ended the week with a noon-time wedding in the judge’s chambers of the Randolph County Courthouse, before heading back to our afternoon classes! I have a wonderful memory of that evening’s dance. As we passed Jim and Joyce Cauthen on the dance floor during a waltz, Joyce asked us what we had done that day. Our response: “Oh, we got married!”

For the last 13 years, Kathy has performed in The Herb Trotman Band now consisting of herself, Herb, Andy Meginniss, and Jimmy Warren. For this and his many prior years of performance with various bands and artists such as Claire Lynch, Herb Trotman was inducted into the Alabama Bluegrass Association’s Hall of Fame in 2010.

Herb’s favorite activity at the shop is teaching. He is a kind and patient teacher who can take new musicians (young and old) as far along as they wish to go. One former student, Daniel Wallace, author of Big Fish, stated, “Along with Betty Caldwell, my English teacher in 11th grade at Altamont, Herb Trotman is one of the most powerful inspirations in my creative life. He was my banjo teacher for two years, and he was one scary character, intimidating in the best possible ways. He demanded my best. Six months passed before I saw him smile, because it took that long for me to learn how to do an acceptable Scruggs roll, and it pleased him to hear it. I borrowed from him a work ethic without which art is just a hobby. Now we’re friends and that, to me, is really exceptionally cool.”

As a teacher, Herb immediately saw the value of the Alabama Folk School at Camp McDowell when it was founded in 2007. He and Kathy serve on the Board of Directors, volunteer their time to raise money for its programs and direct the bluegrass and guitar sessions. Thanks to Herb’s dedication and support, the “Bluegrass & Gee’s Bend” workshop has brought hundreds of people to the folk school to learn bluegrass-style music from talented musicians like Charlie Cushman, Claire Lynch, Mark Schatz, Roland White and many more. These talented instructor musicians come to the folk school because they respect Herb as a person and as a musician.

As Alabama Folk School director Sarah Nee put it, “not only has Herb organized this workshop for many years, but he also participates as an instructor, spreading his invaluable knowledge about bluegrass music to folk school students. He is such a big part of what we do here at the folk school that we put him on our poster! Herb’s involvement in the Alabama Folk School is a small part of his lifelong promotion of bluegrass music in Alabama. He is truly a living legend, highly deserving of the Alabama Folk Heritage Award.” Joey Brackner is the Director of the Alabama Center for Traditional Culture Alabama State Council on the Arts.

Listen to a radio interview of Herb with Deb Boykin using the link below.

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