Although it is called “old-time,” the music Riley Baugus plays is, as he says, both old and new, “a living, breathing example of music and tradition that still lives in the mountains near my home.” Growing up in the rural community where he still lives, Baugus was surrounded by music—at home through the records his parents played, and in the community by attending jams at the homes of family friends. As Riley recalls, “It wasn’t like you were going to take a [one-on-one] lesson…. It was going to an old guy’s house, asking him to show you something and then you’d have to learn it in real time at full speed.” A multi-instrumentalist, Riley is renowned for his masterful banjo playing and arresting singing voice.
“Old-time” refers to the rural American string band traditions that developed from the meeting of the African banjo and European fiddle in colonial times, traditions that have been well-kept in the mountain communities of Appalachia. Round Peak, North Carolina, is one such community, a hotbed known for its own distinctive sound. Made famous by such notable old-time masters as Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, and Dix Freeman, the Round Peak style, which is Baugus’s specialty, reflects what he calls a “different feeling in the foothills” of North Carolina, where the music emphasizes the downbeat, giving the tunes a bluesy feel.
Attending the Regular Baptist church as a child helped Baugus hone his powerful singing voice—Regular Baptists maintain the tradition of no musical accompaniment in their services. Instead, the congregation sings a cappella with a preacher or elder singing a line of a hymn and the congregation repeating the same line in a mournful blend of voices, a tradition known as “lining out.” At school, Riley started in the strings program—unaware they would be teaching classical music, not the fiddle music he was immersed in at home. When his instrumental interests turned from fiddle to banjo, his father helped young Riley build his first banjo out of scrap wood. Soon he studied avidly with elder local masters: “To learn from [National Heritage Fellow] Tommy Jarrell was like having a time machine at your disposal…. the information you were getting was one person removed from the mid-1800s.”
For nearly 20 years, Riley worked as a welder and blacksmith while building his musical career. He toured with many old-time bands, such as Old Hollow Stringband, with longtime friends Kirk Sutphin, Wayne Sutphin, Teri McMurray, and Will McIntyre. After his friend and collaborator of many years, Dirk Powell, tapped him to provide the ballad singer’s voice—and build the period-appropriate banjos—for the Academy Award-winning film Cold Mountain, Riley then built a full-time career as a musician and instrument builder. Highlights since then include his contributions to Alison Krauss and Robert Plant’s 2008 Grammy® winning Raising Sand and the critical acclaim for his own CD, Long Steel Rail. Like the elders Baugus learned from in his youth, he is doing what he can to keep the old-time music of North Carolina new and living for the next generation of musicians and fans.