If you ask someone if they know Billy Wayne Bourne you're going to get a variety of answers depending on where you are. If you do your asking around Southwest Virginia folks may answer with “Billy? He’s crazy!”, or “Is he still driving that ol’ truck?” If you happened to ask me I’d say, “Billy Wayne, that’s my cousin. He can tear up a dobro and he is as good a story teller as he is a musician.” He’s kinda crazy, too.
For folks who don’t know what a dobro is, it’s basically a guitar that’s played in your lap with a metal slide and finger picks. Used mostly in bluegrass, country, and western music, it was Billy’s most obvious option after smashing his fingers at a saw mill, effectively ending his guitar playing career. Melodies from a dobro came naturally for Billy and eventually became the instrument he is known for regionally. Billy never made a career out of music, but not for lack of skill. A truck driver by trade, he used music as a way to pass time, build community, and unwind. I’ve known many musicians who could play and sing circles around some of today’s country or pop artists, but never considered making a living doing so. To these folks, music was most enjoyed with family or at church and was hardly seen as a way to sustain a family.
I’ve been meaning to pay Billy a visit with my camera for some time now as he had welcomed us anytime. I finally set aside an evening with my wife and we hit the road. Eventually, our car came to a slow crawl as we topped the dirt road that leads up Briarpatch Mountain, a community where Billy announces proudly he is the unofficial mayor. After a long day of helping a neighbor bulldoze a rugged hillside, he welcomed us to the front porch for a few stories, and eventually some dobro playing.
We knew two definite things about Billy already. He loved to play music, and perhaps even more, he loved to tell tales. To say this man has been some places and seen some things in his sixty some years of life is an understatement. He told us of a time in his teenage years when he and his brothers (who had never been out of the state of Virginia) all decided to go to Miami in his older brother's new Chevy. Hot-rodding down Miami’s main drag led to some mechanical issues, which led to the three brothers hitch-hiking all the way back to Virginia, walking a good portion of the way. He also reminisced of a night at a Muskogee, Oklahoma truck stop where he made a call over the CB radio for any guitar pickers. Not only did he find a guitar picker, but he rounded up a banjo player, a bass player, and a mandolin player. They jammed until the rooster crowed the next morning. I wish I could do these stories justice, but that would take an entire book or two.
After chatting awhile, Billy picked up his dobro and played us a few gospel songs, some bluegrass tunes, and even some Eric Clapton. At nearly 70 years of age, his work-worn fingers are still hard to follow as they dance across the fretboard. The sound they produce is exactly what you’d expect, nostalgic of life filled with hard work, some grit, and warm melodies that would bring a smile to any face. It was easy to see why he has been the recipient of countless first place and top ten finishes in the annual Galax Fiddlers Convention, which is the largest in the country. He doesn’t read a note of music, he simply plays what he feels. Not reading music is common among bluegrass and old time musicians, since most of their learning comes from sitting around and watching other people play until they figure it out. To me, that’s the charm of this music. You can hear hundreds of different renditions of the exact same song depending on which front porch you're sitting on. On this day we were glad to be sitting on Billy’s. He played a few more tunes and after an hour long conversation, it was time to pack up our camera and hit the road. Billy insisted we come back and do some picking with him over the summer, and we gladly agreed.
After an evening filled with many laughs and some good old time music, we were reminded of a potential tragedy that looms in the not so distant future for Appalachian culture and traditions. It’s a mere fact of the matter that so many of the old time ways of life are fading from our current lifestyles. Smart phones and Netflix have replaced Saturday evenings spent sitting on the porch playing music with family. The convenience of grocery stores has diminished the interest for learning food preservation techniques once trademarked by the Appalachian community. And sadly, many of the folks keeping these traditions hanging by a thread are nearing old age, with few young people interested in taking on such commitments. That’s not to say the situation is entirely doomed, there are organizations and individuals who have made it their mission to preserve such traditions, and we hope we can play just a small part in keeping these stories and characters alive for many years to come.
Our evening spent with Billy Bourne was a much needed breath of fresh air. He reminds us that time is precious, and gets away from us pretty quickly. He spoke about the importance of being a good neighbor, loving your family, and knowing where you stand with the good lord. We think the world could use a few more Billy Wayne Bournes, and I sure am proud to call the “Mayor of Briarpatch Mountain” family.