Johnson County is noted by the number of talented musicians it has claimed over the years. While some were natives, others came to the county from other areas. As I think of musicians who were residents of Johnson County who had a measure of success, G. B. Grayson, a resident of the Laurel Bloomery area comes to mind. Gilliam Banmon (G. B) Grayson was born in Ashe County, North Carolina on November 11, 1887. His family moved to the vicinity of Laurel Bloomery when he was young. There were a number of other talented musicians from Johnson County of course and perhaps Ill write about some of them in a future column.
Almost blind, Grayson learned to play the fiddle and took opportunities to play at various functions near and around Johnson County. Reportedly, looking out the window on a winter day with sunlit snow on the ground caused him to be partially blind. With his disability, it was needful for him to fine a way to earn money and music filled that need.
Grayson met a man named Henry Whitter at a fiddlers convention in Mountain City in 1925. They teamed up and for the next three years performed together in various venues and they recorded several songs including Tom Dooley, a song that was made more famous when it was recorded by the Kingston Trio during the folk revival of the 1960s. Added to his fiddle playing talent was his singing ability, which he displayed often. Whitter played the guitar and harmonica and sang. One of his primary contributions to the success of him and Grayson was his connections to recording companies so he was able to arrange several recording sessions. Whitter was born in Freis, Virginia
I have a 78-rpm record of the duo singing and playing songs familiar to those in the know about old time music. On one side is a song titled A Dark Road is a Hard Road to Travel, and on the other side is The Red and Green Signal Lights. Grayson wrote both songs. Grayson and Whitter recorded some 40 songs in the three years they worked together. They recorded for the record labels Gennett and Victor. Reportedly their rendition of Handsome Molly sold over 50,000 copies. They recorded 40 songs in three years.
Tragically, Grayson was killed in a car-truck accident on August 16, 1930. While hitchhiking back home from visiting his brother in Damascus, he was killed while riding on the running board of a car that collided with a log truck. Whitter continued to perform until his death in 1941.
G. B. Grayson and Henry Whitter were a popular pair of musicians in their day and they influenced several big names in folk music who came along more recently. Grayson was one of several area talents who brought the pleasure of music to a wide range of people due his songwriting and recording work during the late 20s and early 30s.