G.B. Grayson


G.B., or Gilliam Banmon, Grayson was born on November 11th, 1887. The precise location of his birth is unclear, but was either in Ashe County, North Carolina, or in bordering Johnson County, Tennessee. Regardless of his birthplace, Grayson spent almost the entirety of his life in Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee. Grayson’s father, Benjamin Grayson, had served in the Union army along with his brother, James W.M., the man who would be responsible for the capture of Tom Dula as he fled North Carolina in 1866.  Benjamin died when G.B. Grayson was seven. His mother, Martha Roark Grayson, died when G.B. was fifteen. From birth, Grayson  had suffered from severely impaired vision, and this handicap, along with his young age at the time of his parents’ deaths, allowed him to collect his father’s Civil War pension until his own death in 1930. 

Grayson began learning the banjo at a young age, and by his twenties was an adept fiddler as well. Given the early death of his parents, the source of his musical knowledge is unclear, but he was soon well versed in a wide variety of songs and tunes. Although he played the banjo quite often, Grayson became more well known for a unique style of fiddle playing. Unlike many fiddlers, Grayson held the instrument against his chest. His style was characterized by a very clean and straightforward melody presentation with little ornamentation. Grayson was especially unique in his ability to sing while fiddling. His vocal repertoire included traditional ballads, Victorian parlor songs, temperance songs, and even songs from Tin Pan Alley composers working in the early 20th century. 

Grayson and Whitter tour flyer. Courtesy of Kinney Rorrer

As a result of his poor vision, Grayson relied on his musical performances to earn a living and spent much of his adult life traveling the roads of southwest Virginia, northeast Tennessee and northwest North Carolina, with occasional trips to the coal fields of West Virginia. During these travels, Grayson played for social functions, house parties, and other community gatherings. These trips allowed him to interact with a wide variety of other local musicians. At various times he performed with Hobart Smith, Clarence Ashley, and James Robert Moore, father of the well known Virginia musician, Spencer Moore.

At the 1925 Mountain City Fiddler’s Convention, Grayson was given the opportunity to perform over a primitive radio transmitter set up in a local hotel by Elvis Alderman, a member of the Hill Billies. Following this experience, Grayson became increasingly interested in pursuing a professional career, and began seeking out opportunities to record. However, his inability to drive a car and his lack of contact with other professional musicians limited his opportunities.

Grayson’s impressive abilities were ultimately discovered by Henry Whitter. Grayson met Whitter at a Fiddler’s Convention in Mountain City, Tennessee in 1927. Whitter was scouting for unrecorded talent  and was quickly drawn to Grayson’s well-honed musicianship and his large wealth of unrecorded songs. 

Using Whitter’s contacts in the music industry, the duo soon began producing records. Their earliest recordings, for the Gennett label, were released under the name ‘Henry Whitter and G.B. Grayson,” but soon the duo became known only as “Grayson and Whitter.” Grayson’s large repertoire of previously unrecorded songs made him especially appealing to Ralph Peer, who oversaw much of the pair’s recorded output on the Victor label. Peer encouraged the duo to focus their attention on songs for which authorship, and the royalties that came with it, could be claimed. Pulling from Grayson’s repertoire, the duo would release songs that would eventually become bluegrass and country standards: “Tom Dooley,” “Train 45,” “Banks of the Ohio,” and “Handsome Molly” are all examples of songs first recorded by Grayson and Whitter. 

By selecting which verses to include and which verses to ignore, Grayson established canonical versions of folk songs that have previously existed in a wide variety of forms. His recordings were especially influential on Steve Ledford and Wade Mainer, and later, on the Stanley Brothers. These later artists helped carry Grayson’s versions of these songs into the modern era, where they are still regularly heard and played today.

On August 16th,1930, Grayson was hitching a ride home from Damascus, Virginia riding on the running board of a neighbor’s car. While crossing a bridge over Laurel Creek, the car on which Grayson was riding collided with a logging truck headed towards Damascus. Grayson was thrown from the running board and died from his injuries at the age of 43. He was buried near his home in Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee. Though his recording career was brief, the 32 songs he recorded with Henry Whitter have left one of the most pronounced impacts of any rural artist recording in the 1920s.

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