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April 23, 2024

Young, old-time musician Robbie Herman

IT’S OLD-TIME FOR HIM — Robbie Herman is a young musician from western Alexander County who loves old-time folk string music that hails from the late 19th and early 20th Century — some songs date even earlier. (Photo by G Nicholas Hancock.)

By MICAH HENRY

Ellendale Community resident Robbie Herman has come a long way from the little plywood guitar he banged on as a boy. Turning 20 this month, the young musician is quickly becoming an accomplished old-time banjo and guitar player and is learning the fiddle, too.

Recently, Robbie and his dad, Gary Herman, sat down and talked with me about Robbie’s musical pursuits.

They explained that old-time string music, with the fiddle, banjo, guitar, acoustic bass and similar instruments, has a special sound that’s not like bluegrass or country music. You can think of it as forerunner of those musical styles.

“A lot of people say all old-time music sounds the same,” Robbie related.

“Yes, they do,” Gary agreed. “But it’s a genre that’s really grown on me, as a person and as a father of a musician. I used to just walk away when he started playing but I’m tapping my toe and enjoying it now. People ought to listen to it a little more, and not just say, ‘Oh, I like bluegrass better.’”

“Or anything better,” Robbie added.

Among his mentors, Robbie counts fellow Ellendale resident Chad Ritchie, as well as Linda Cabe (banjoist from Millers Creek), and Richard Bowman (renowned fiddler who lives in Mt. Airy).
Together, Robbie, Chad, Linda, and local bass player Richard Cockerham play as the Brushy Mountain Buddies. They have performed at many regional venues including WPAQ Radio in Mt. Airy (home of old-time music since its founding on Groundhog Day in 1948), the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, Virginia, and Piedmont Folkways on WAME in Statesville. Chad, Robbie, and Linda recorded an album at the Chapel of Rest in Happy Valley, NC, which is available online at: chadritchie.bandcamp.com.

But getting to that point took a few years and a lot of practice.

Robbie was about age 12 or 13 when he acquired a little blue Ibanez guitar from a local music store.

“I learned a couple chords on it. Chad Ritchie showed me a few more chords and asked me if I knew what old-time music was. I had no clue. I knew what bluegrass and country music was.”

He began practicing the guitar in earnest, playing a lot of country, “three chords and the truth” type of songs, staying away from other musicians until he felt confident enough to play around those with experience.

Robbie said he’d always like the late banjoist Earl Scruggs. Robbie’s cousin had a banjo and Robbie tried to learn bluegrass style banjo. “I guess I could halfway play some tunes, but it never really clicked. By the time I’d found old-time music, I had bought a banjo.” He felt that, since he had a banjo going unused, he might as well try to learn Clawhammer (old-time) banjo playing.

“The rest is history,” Robbie said. “It’s been a couple years since I tried to do that. It’s probably what I enjoy playing the most now.”

His two years of banjo practice has paid off. This year, Robbie has won the following:

• First place in Banjo and third in Folk Song at the Surry County Fiddlers’ Convention;
• Third in Old-Time Banjo and third in Folk Song at the Grayson County (Virginia) Fiddlers’ Convention;
• First in Folk Song, third in Old-Time Banjo, and fifth in Guitar competition at Tazewell County (Virginia) Fiddlers’ Convention;
• Fifth place in Old-Time Banjo at the Alleghany County Fiddlers’ Convention;
• Second place in Old-Time Banjo and third place in Folk Song at the Ashe County Bluegrass and Old-Time Fiddlers’ Convention;
• Second place in Old-Time Banjo and third in Folk Song at Fries Volunteer Fire & Rescue Old Time Fiddlers and Bluegrass Convention in Fries, Virginia; and
• Eighth place in Clawhammer Banjo at the Galax, Virginia, Fiddlers’ Convention.

Robbie notes that some conventions only allow contestants to enter in only one category, others allow multiple category entries.

Not only is the musical competition an important draw for these conventions but also the knowledge and camaraderie that is shared among musicians.

“You get to hear the stories of all the stuff that’s happened that you weren’t around to see,” Robbie explained. “You just feel a big sense of community.”

His father is amazed at Robbie’s musical talent and breadth. Gary noted that there aren’t any other musicians in his immediate family.

“He knows the words to so many tunes, and it’s all in his head. That’s what astounds me,” Gary said.

Interested in old-time? Where do you start?

Robbie said if others are curious about old-time music, they can look up songs or videos on Spotify, Apple music, YouTube, or other online resources. He cites the late Doc Watson as a big influence. Other artists include Tommy Jarrell, Dock Walsh, Clarence Ashley, Mike Seeger, Fred Cockerham, Kyle Creed, and others.

Of course, there’s always physical disc recordings from the past, like 78 rpm shellac records or newer LP records, tapes, and CDs. He points to the field recordings done by musicologists Alan and John Lomax as well as Slippery-Hill.com, an online repository of songs sorted by songwriter, key, and title.

He also suggested taking lessons from local teachers to begin with.

“You can teach yourself a lot, too,” Robbie added.

What’s next?

Robbie graduated with an Associate’s Degree this summer from Catawba Valley Community College and is continuing his education at Applachian State University. He plans to continue practicing and playing old-time music at events and jam sessions.

Listen to this interview with Robbie and Gary Herman on The Times’ Audiorama podcast!

Check it out on Anchor/Spotify or your favorite podcast app.

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