Trish Kilby Fore grew up surrounded by music in her hometown of Lansing in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. Her new CD Clawhammer Banjo: Blue Ridge Style features her very rhythmic, “up the mountain” style of banjo playing that is typical of the Ashe, Grayson, and Carroll County area. She learned to play banjo directly from Emily Spencer and had the pleasure of playing along with Emily and her husband, Thornton Spencer, right from the beginning of her banjo journey. Other early influences included Enoch Rutherford and Harold Hausenfluck. In the interview below, she goes into the enviable details of her experience with old-time music.

Review of Clawhammer Banjo: Blue Ridge Style by Trish Kilby Fore

Trish Kilby Fore’s new CD offers a whole lot of old-time musical variety with Trish’s driving clawhammer style acting as a constant thread that stitches it all together. It features a wide range of great fiddlers: Andy Edmonds, Kirk Sutphin, Lucas Pasley and Tim Donley. The instrumentation is equally varied, too, ranging from solo banjo and fiddle-banjo duets to a full band line-up. 

My absolute favorite tracks are the fiddle-banjo duets with Lucas Pasley from the Gap Civil Old Time Band, but I also love the tracks with one of my favorite fiddlers, Kirk Sutphin, as well as her takes on some lesser-known banjo players like Carlie Marion and Sidna Myers. There are also several great tracks on this album that embrace that “in-between sound” that blurs the lines between old-time and bluegrass. Those who come to old-time music later in life – like myself – tend to draw hard lines between old time and bluegrass, but in the southern mountains – it’s all just music. This CD walks that line beautifully. 

Trish and Kevin at the Kyle Creed Banjo Show in November 2018

The instruments also play a special role in Trish’s CD. All the banjos she plays were made by her husband, Kevin Fore, who specializes in making banjos in the style of Kyle Creed. On the track When the Snowflakes Fall Again, Kirk Sutphin plays the same fiddle that Frank Jenkins used on the original recording of that tune by Frank Jenkins’ Pilot Mountaineers in 1929. And Jackson Cunningham plays a Cunningham “Southerner Jumbo” guitar that he made himself on tracks 2, 6, 8, and 11.

You can get Trish’s CD on CDbaby, or simply write her an email: t_kilby (at) hotmail (dot) com

Now it’s time to let Trish do the talking (and playing!).

“Rock the Cradle Joe” at the 2017 Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention with Jackson Cunningham on guitar (appears on the CD, Track 11)

Interview with Trish Fore

Why did you start playing banjo and what made you continue through the years?

I started playing the banjo on July 29, 1992. That was the date of my first banjo lesson with Emily Spencer. In the summer of 1991, I tore my ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) in my right knee playing softball. At that time in my life, I loved softball and was very disheartened by this accident. My orthopedic surgeon, J. Marc Kadyk, from Boone, North Carolina, advised me to learn how to play an instrument and leave sports alone because I would need surgery to repair the ligament, but before the surgery could be done I would have to wait until I had reached my full growth in my legs. 

At that time I didn’t give playing an instrument much thought, but a few months later my grandparents, Reeber and Norma Kilby, took me with them to an old-time music jam session they had been invited to by our cousin and fiddler Dean Sturgill at the old Mill Creek store near Rugby, Virginia, one Thursday night. That’s the place where I saw Dee-Dee Price playing the banjo and the thought occurred to me that I’d like to do that too.

4 banjo pickers and 3 banjos when they had the Music at Mount Rogers. Left to right: Dee-Dee Price, Trish Kilby Fore, Tina Steffey, and Larry Pennington.

Those Thursday night trips to “the Music,” as we called it, were unlike anything I’d ever been around before. It was there that I had my first close-up and informal exposure to live music and the atmosphere that went along with it. The Music happened at an old abandoned store that didn’t look like much on the outside, but on Thursday nights when the Music happened, it came alive. Inside, there was one big room, old store shelves still lined the walls, and all around the perimeter of the room there were old recliners, couches, and straight back chairs lined up where people could sit. On one side of the room, musicians gathered and formed a medium-sized circle where they played on and off for hours. On the other side of the room, there was a big woodstove with a hot fire, minded by Mr. Roosevelt Dolinger, where everyone warmed themselves when they first came in.

My grandparents seemed to know most of the folks there that night and had a great time talking and laughing with old friends. I only knew a couple of folks there, but before we left that night, I had met a few more people and I was simply entranced by what was happening around me. On the very first tune played, several people jumped up and started dancing! The place was buzzing with fun, laughter, friends, and music! I was hooked and I desperately wanted to be a part of that; I went back week after week with my grandparents, for they were hooked too. It wasn’t long until I told my parents that I wanted to learn how to play the banjo and I asked for one for Christmas.

So, I guess the main reason I have continued playing the banjo through the years is because music is a source of enjoyment for me. I love to play and I want folks to enjoy my banjo-picking. Music helped me realize that I love meeting and talking to people. Back in the early days, when I first started playing, I was very shy and backward. Sometimes it took all the gumption I had— and all the encouragement my daddy could give me—to muster up the courage to talk to older musicians I didn’t know. Music is much more than just a hobby for me; it’s a way of life. Playing the banjo is carrying on a tradition and an activity that generations of people before me also enjoyed and found entertainment in. 

“John Henry” at the Phipps Store, Lansing, North Carolina, July 2014, featuring Ronnie Miller on vocals and guitar (appears on the CD, Track 4)

Where did you grow up and how did your surroundings influence your playing and love for music?

I grew up a few miles from the small town of Lansing, in Ashe County, North Carolina, Ola Belle Reed’s hometown, near where the states of North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia meet. Although my parents, Charles and Judy Kilby, didn’t play music, there was music in my family and recorded music in our home. My mother’s father, Staley Powers, played the fiddle, and his mother, Hildreth, played the piano and organ. My grandma Norma’s father, Bill Wilcox, is said to have played the banjo early in his life. 

As I mentioned earlier, the Music was really my first live and informal experience with music, but my family often listened to the radio and a variety of records. Two radio stations we listened to when I was growing up were WBRF from Galax, Virginia, and WPAQ from Mt. Airy, North Carolina. On Monday nights Daddy would faithfully tune in WBRF to listen to old-time and bluegrass music played by radio announcer Harold Mitchell. Then, on Saturday afternoons, we’d listen to the Merry-Go-Round program on WPAQ and Ralph Epperson’s show, The Blue Ridge Spotlight.

We’d listen and listen until the signal gave out between 3:30 and 4:00 and we found ourselves listening to static! Other times, Daddy would play some of his bluegrass records and we’d sit and listen to them together. One I remember that we listened to a lot was one of Ralph Stanley’s records entitled Down Where the River Bends.  

Who are your main influences on the banjo and who did you first learn from?

Emily Spencer was my very first banjo teacher. She and her husband, Thornton, really taught me a lot about playing music and they filled me with encouragement. I wanted to play so badly that I worked very hard at home practicing the banjo. Emily showed me tunes and then she and Thornton would play and let me attempt to play along with them, keeping time on the banjo and following along on tunes I didn’t really know. 

In addition to Emily, I’ve been lucky to have several other main musical influences. Over time, I finally felt comfortable taking my banjo with me to the Music on Thursday nights. There, I had help from Dee-Dee Price, the banjo player I saw on that first night we went to the Music. My cousin and fiddler Dean Sturgill helped by calling out chords to me so I would know when to change chords on songs I didn’t know. He also helped me with my timing and always encouraged me. As my ear got tuned to the music, and I learned how to keep up, I was able to pick up some licks and ways of playing from another regular attendee at the Music, and that was bluegrass banjo player Larry Pennington from Warrensville, North Carolina. I learned how to follow bluegrass songs and tempos from playing along with him.

Enoch Rutherford, of the Gold Hill community just west of Independence, Virginia, was also a big influence on my banjo playing. I was especially drawn to Enoch’s driving rhythm on the banjo. He was on his way out of playing when I was on my way in; he was getting arthritis and had a hard time doing the drop thumb with his right hand, but we did visit a good deal, became friends and even talked on the phone a lot. Once, he let me borrow a few tapes of home recordings of him playing the banjo. This was great for me because there were several tunes that featured Enoch playing by himself, and I was able to learn several tunes off those tapes. 

Dale Morris, long-time friend and bandmate of Enoch’s, wrote a great article entitled “Enoch Rutherford—Banjo Man” that appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of The Old-Time Herald in which Enoch told about his life and memories of making music. Near the end of the article, Dale writes and quotes Enoch, “In addition to his son Harvey’s musical talents, Enoch says that Trish Kilby’s banjo playing most resembles the style he used. ‘She’s got the right lick, the old-time way of playing that I like,’ he says” (27). Enoch’s comment was the highest musical praise I could have ever received and it made me feel like I was indeed staying true to the tradition and the music of the old-timers.     

Thornton Spencer, Enoch Rutherford, Emily Spencer: Three of Trish’s main influences join together

I met a lot of musicians at area fiddlers’ conventions and on the Tuesday night of the 1995 Galax Fiddlers’ Convention I was fortunate enough to meet Harold B. Hausenfluck. Harold is a blind musician from Richmond, Virginia, and one of the most generous folks I have ever met. That night we had an amazing jam session at Bill and Janice Birchfields’ camp that lasted hours! To the best of my memory, most of that jam included Harold on fiddle, Bill on guitar, Janice on washtub bass, and me and Joe Shifflett on banjos. 

Later that week Harold bought me two records: one was of the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers and the other was County 717, More Clawhammer Banjo Songs and Tunes from the Mountains. Before the week was over, we exchanged addresses and telephone numbers and in the following weeks, months, and years Harold would send me many recordings of old-timers so I could be introduced to this music and the way these older folks played. He told me stories about the old-timers and reinforced that music is not only about the tunes, but about the people who play it. He knew and impressed upon me the importance of playing as much like the old-timers as I could. Many times he told me, “Trish, don’t use the tune to show off your skill, use your skill to show off the tune.” He introduced me to the music of Wade Ward, Pappy Glen Smith, Joe and Creed Birchfield, Matokie Slaughter, Rufus Crisp, and Abe Horton, to name just a few.

Harold took the time to pick out tunes and send me recordings of him playing tunes slowly and at normal speed. He also showed me different variations that I could incorporate into the tunes. After receiving a lesson tape, I would work to learn what it was he was doing and then I’d play what I had figured out and send him a tape back. He would answer my tape and critique my playing, telling me what parts of the song needed work and what I had done well. Although this sounds like a slow going way to learn, it worked for me for a couple years until Harold unfortunately suffered a stroke in the summer of 1998. We still stay in touch and visit when we can by phone, and, once in a while, in person. I will always be indebted to Harold for the help and training he provided to me in music.    

I’d also like to mention a couple of other musical influences at this point. Bill and Janice Birchfield really encouraged me a lot and helped me gain confidence in my playing. There was never a dull moment around Bill; he could tell a great story and was always entertaining! He had a unique left-handed, upside-down and backward style of playing the guitar with a strong rhythm with a little bit of melody and runs thrown in that really helped move a tune along. Another influence on my music was a banjo player that I never met named Howard Wallace. 

Bill Birchfield and Trish at the Mt. Airy Fiddlers’ Convention

Wallace was originally from Ashe County and moved to Ohio. He recorded three records on the Jewel label and my grandparents had two of them which I promptly took home with me. When I was first learning to play and was taking lessons from Emily, I would often tune with the record and play along with Wallace on “Cripple Creek,” “Cumberland Gap,” “John Henry” and “Lonesome Road Blues.” I loved doing this because I could play the song over and over, and the musicians on the record would never get tired of playing or wouldn’t care if I messed up. That was important to me back then.     

What inspired you to release a CD? Who encouraged you the most?

I had wanted to release an album for a long, long time, and in late 2017 I began planning a timeline and setting goals to make it a reality in 2018. In July 2017 I celebrated my 25th anniversary of playing the banjo, and in November 2017, I turned 40 years old. After reaching these two important dates, I was simply feeling reflective over my life and my time spent playing the banjo. I thought a lot about how badly I wanted to learn how to play, how strange it felt to hold a banjo at first and how natural it is now, how long I practiced out on the front porch and in front of the record player, and how happy I was when I could knock out part of a tune. I thought about all that, the good times, the hard times, the sad times, and I tried to pull it all together in this album that features some of the songs and tunes I love most.

I was lucky to have a lot of encouragement from family, friends, and fellow musicians. My husband, Kevin Fore, who had released two recordings of his own in 2008 and 2009, was able to provide valuable help and guidance. Recording engineer Wesley Easter at Eastwood Studios in Cana, Virginia, was helpful, supportive and encouraging every step of the way in the recording process. Jerry Steinberg offered well-thought-out advice to include a variety of tunes and musicians on the album. Almost every musician I asked to help me on this recording did, and each one did an excellent job. I am so thankful for all the kind help I received that helped make this recording possible.

How does your new CD, Clawhammer Banjo: Blue Ridge Style, reflect your influences and personal taste with regard to the choice of tunes and the different band line up on nearly every track?

Well, I feel like this CD reflects and summarizes many of the musical influences that have made me the musician I am. I hope it will pay some tribute to those musicians I have learned from and those that have gone before me that I never had the opportunity to meet. I tried to include a few old-time string band hoedowns, a few lesser-known banjo solos, a few banjo-led instrumentals, and a few tunes with a bluegrass swing. As for the tune choice, I purposefully chose some old favorites as well as others that you don’t hear so often.  

I asked Mickey Galyean, son of bluegrass banjo player Cullen Galyean, to sing the more bluegrassy tunes “Poor Rambler,” “High on a Mountain,” and “Bile Them Cabbage Down” because he’s got such a strong, traditional voice and is a powerful guitar player. I asked Andy Edmonds to play fiddle on these numbers because he’s got such an amazing grasp of the old-time bluegrass sound that I love. To me, his fiddling sounds reminiscent of Sonny Miller and Wayburn Johnson. In particular, these numbers highlight the influence of going to the Music on Thursday nights, where old-time and bluegrass music were happily played together.  

I included “Twin Sisters” to honor the memory of friend Charlie Faurot, who had the foresight to record older traditional musicians so youngsters like me could spend many happy hours listening to musicians long gone on and learning their songs and tunes.

It was also important to me to feature a song that had roots in Galax, Virginia, and that’s why I picked “When the Snowflakes Fall Again,” written and performed by Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman and Frank Jenkins’ Pilot Mountaineers. Kirk Sutphin did a superb job fiddling this tune on the same fiddle that Jenkins used on the original cut back in 1929. Jackson Cunningham, a talented singer and musician, really nailed the vocals and phrasing on this song. 

Do you have a favorite track on the CD? (and/or) Which track do you feel best represents your style?

It’s difficult to pick one favorite track on the CD because I love each one of the tunes so much!

I feel that “Johnson Boys” may best represent my style because it is a hard-driving, full old-time band rendition of the tune. Enoch was my main influence on this tune and it’s definitely a family favorite.

I can tell from your new CD that you also enjoy bluegrass music, and that you don’t mind a little overlap to create that “in-between” sound. What made you stick to clawhammer and old-time music? Or do you also play other banjo & music styles?

I’ve always loved both old-time and bluegrass music. Both of those sounds are a part of me. I stuck with the clawhammer banjo style because that’s what I learned to do and I threw all of my energy into it. I didn’t feel like I had to learn how to play a bluegrass banjo style, because any tune I wanted to play, I could always figure it out and play it in the clawhammer style. I don’t currently play any other banjo style, but I do love hearing bluegrass banjo picking in an old-time band; that might be one of my next projects!

Some people say the strum (raking across the strings for the “dit” of bum-ditty) is going out of style. You not only play the strum, you play it incredibly well. You sound like more than one person, actually. Is there any reason that you decided to keep the strum in your playing – as opposed to your husband, Kevin Fore, who is a master of playing in the styles of Cockerham & Creed, which involves very little strumming?

To me, the strum is an integral part of my regional Blue Ridge style of banjo playing and I never had to think about doing it or not doing it… It was just natural. All of my banjo influences had a healthy strum. My husband, Kevin Fore, plays the banjo in the Round Peak style which emphasizes noting over the strum; in essence, he strives to match the fiddle note for note. He has a more delicate style of playing while my style is characterized by an equal mix of rhythmic strum and melody.  

We attribute the difference in our playing to our own regional styles, the styles of music native to the geographic areas where we grew up. Kevin grew up “down the mountain” and I grew up “up the mountain.” Around here, “down the mountain” referred to the Round Peak, Surry County, North Carolina, area and “up the mountain” referred to the Ashe, Grayson, and Carroll County areas.

“Mississippi Sawyer” at the 2014 Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention with T.J. Lundy on fiddle, Wesley Clifton on guitar and Todd Hiatt on mandolin. One of Trish’s favorite tunes, but doesn’t appear on the CD; T.J. is one of her favorite fiddlers.

On the CD and in everyday life, you sometimes play an openback and sometimes a resonator banjo. What makes you choose one or the other?

I like the sound of both an openback banjo and a resonator banjo. I really don’t have a preference. Sometimes when I know that I have to play for a long time, like at a square dance, I will prefer a resonator banjo because it’s a little bit louder than an openback. I don’t have to play so hard to be heard just as well.

Do you play any other instruments?

I play old-time back-up guitar.

Are you surprised that old-time music has spread all around the country and the world? As a native to a region steeped in the music, how do you feel about the outside influence?

No, I’m not surprised that old-time music has spread all around the country and the world. So much of old-time music is up-tempo, feel-good music that it’s easy to like. Generally, there’s a friendly atmosphere surrounding music and musicians are often eager to share their experiences in music. Music is participatory; everyone can clap their hands, pat their feet, and some will even get up and dance a jig.

Music is always growing and changing. I feel that it’s important for musicians to play the music they like. For me, it’s important to stick to the melody of songs and tunes. I think if you like a tune, learn it and learn it to the best of your ability, but look back to an older source, try to find an old-timer playing it. I’m sure some outside influence influences all musicians, but I don’t worry about it…I just do what I do.

As a final question, do you have any advice for someone learning to play the banjo?

My best advice for someone learning to play the banjo is to listen to players and songs that you like. If there is a regional style of playing in your area where you grew up or live, learn that. Go out and get involved in musical events, attend that jam session, go to that square dance, overcome that shyness and talk to the folks at these events. If possible, take lessons from a teacher and learn in a face-to-face manner. Invest time practicing on your own; it will pay off later. And last but not least, make sure it’s fun and that you’re enjoying yourself.

“Arkansas Traveler” at the 2018 Ashe County Fiddlers’ Convention with Steve Kilby on guitar.

As mentioned above, you can get Trish’s CD on CDbaby, or simply write her an email: t_kilby (at) hotmail (dot) com

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