Movie poster for Short Life of Trouble: The G.B. Grayson Story. The film was created by Kelley St. Germain of Germain Media it documents the life, times and songs of one of the most influential musicians in early country music.
By Dan Cullinane
When Short Life of Trouble, the new documentary from filmmaker Kelley St.Germain debuts on Saturday, September 4 at 7:00 p.m., he hopes it will pour light into the shadows surrounding the life and immense influence of G.B. Grayson, a blind fiddle player from Laurel Bloomery.
“I call him a ghost,” St. Germain said of Grayson. “He has this incredible influence, probably more than any other local artist, on other artists and succeeding generations, but there are so few details known about him.”
Short Life of Trouble, which will be screened as part of The Long Journey Home’s virtual offerings, works to fill in some of those details and to demystify the story of Gilliam Banham Grayson, born in 1887, almost completely blind, orphaned at a young age, who taught himself to play the banjo and the fiddle, and who traveled the back roads of the Tri-State region busking for coins, a meal, or a bed. Then, in 1927, he teamed up with Henry Whitter and recorded the thirty songs that have become the songbook for bluegrass and country music in just two years. Riding back from Damascus to Mountain City, Grayson was killed in a car accident on August 16, 1930, and almost faded into history.
Beginning with a sweeping drone shot of Johnson County, Germain’s film is as much a story of the region as it is the story of one man. By necessity. What makes Grayson notable is not just his music, but the influence he had on musicians who came behind him, many of them from Johnson County, all of them making their mark on the area and beyond. Josh Beckworth, a teacher from Ashe County, wrote a book called Always Been a Rambler about Grayson and other mountain musicians.
This drew St. Germain, who has called the area home since he attended Wake Forest in 1985, into the story, and Beckworth became an early source and a guide through what St. Germain calls “A lot of misinformation” to the people who truly knew the story. Interviews with Grayson’s surviving family members and other local music luminaries like Lois Dunn, Kenny Price, and Jerry Moses make clear that while Grayson’s recordings may have revolutionized music, here in Johnson County, he was just Blind Banham Grayson.
“I think it was Fred Price who said that it was easier to draw a crowd to Carnegie Hall to hear old-time music than it was to draw a crowd in Johnson County,” St. Germain said. “Everybody played it. Not as well, but they played it.”
Or, as Bill Ward put it, “Music is community. It’s culture. People heard music everywhere.”
Outside the county, though, it was special. Short Life of Trouble opens up to include the voices of artists who are keenly aware that the music they are producing draws a sharp, straight line back through time to Grayson and Johnson County. Intending to mention just Lee Highway Blues as one of the songs he likes to perform, Kody Norris is soon rattling off “Train 45, Rose Conley, Handsome Molly, Short Life of Trouble, and He’s Coming To Us Dead,” as songs that are routinely a part of his show. Ketch Secor from Old Crow Medicine Show tears into Train 45 on his fiddle and said “I can’t think of anyone who has had more influence on the canon of country and bluegrass music than G.B. Grayson and Henry Whitter. Thirty years after his death, and a blind hillbilly from one of the most remote places on the Eastern seaboard has the number one pop song in America.
Secor is referring, of course, to Tom Dooley, sung by The Kingston Trio, but first recorded by Grayson. Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger, and others followed suit, recording songs interpreted and first laid down by Grayson. In 1996, Ralph Stanley recorded an entire tribute album. According to St. Germain, Timing is why The Carter Family and not G.B. Grayson are household names.
“The Carter Family was a part of that second wave that came through TV and radio, and he was dead by then. If he’d lived another ten years, who knows. When you listen to music of that era, his voice is different from anyone else’s in terms of professionalism. There were a lot of people doing it, but there wasn’t the clarity of playing and voice that he had. We lost him right on the cusp of when musicians were becoming superstars.”
St. Germain founded Appalachian Memory Keepers as a means of collecting and preserving stories. Short Life of Trouble is one of these stories, and he intends to enter it into the film festival circuit this year. The stunning imagery, the familiar faces and voices, and most of all a soundtrack of Grayson playing and singing, he hopes, will showcase Johnson County’s rich cultural heritage.
“That’s what we do in the film,” he said. “We celebrate the county and people, and we invite the world to take a look and listen.”