27 July 2012

Ralph Berrier, Jr. If Trouble Don't Kill Me: A Family's Story of Brotherhood, War, and Bluegrass. New York: Crown, 2010.

From Roanoke.com
As a librarian, I am confronted daily with the truth that I will never read every book I want to read. In fact, I will probably never read every book I should read. Thousands of books stare me in the face every time I go to work, and as intriguing as many of them sound, reading them cover-to-cover is simply impossible. If only the notion that the only thing a librarian does all day is read were true!

That being said, Ralph Berrier, Jr.'s If Trouble Don't Kill Me was so good that I read it once and had to read it again. The story of Berrier's talented grandfather and great-uncle (twins) was fascinating, informative, and moving, and it has something for everyone - music enthusiasts, history buffs, biography lovers, and Southside Virginia aficionados.

Reading If Trouble Don't Kill Me was something of an emotional experience for me, mostly because it combines two of my favorite things: bluegrass music and Patrick County, Virginia. Berrier, a features reporter at The Roanoke Times, is a masterful writer. He artfully weaves his family's story with local and national history and music theory. Even though a reader likely never met his famous relatives, considering what it would have been like to know them and to hear their music comes effortlessly. Berrier's pride in his family never becomes cumbersome, even though it is clear that he is enjoying telling their story.

 Saford and Clayton Hall were born in The Hollow of Patrick County on May 4, 1919 to Judie Hall. Although the twins were the unmarried woman's ninth and tenth children, Mamo (Judie's nickname) had strong support from her mother, known to people near and far as Granny Hall. The twins grew up poor in an area near Ararat "below the mountain" (meaning that they were "looked down upon both literally and figuratively" p. 13). Although they went without for much of their early lives - including britches - the boys were blessed with a musically-inclined mother. Mamo taught Saford how to play the fiddle when he was little enough to sit on her lap, and later when a banjo produced itself in their small cabin, she showed Clayton how to play it, too.

Playing music eventually got them out of The Hollow. First, in the band The Blue Ridge Buddies, Saford and Clayton played in nearby Winston-Salem, North Carolina, on the local radio station WSJS. Later, in 1937, they moved to Bassett to work in a furniture factory; Mamo eventually moved there to watch after them (they were always accused of being spoiled since they were the babies). They played live shows on the weekends and became well known as skilled bluegrass musicians in Virginia and North Carolina. One day Roy Hall (of Roy Hall and His Blue Ridge Entertainers) came looking for the twins to see if they would join his band. The rest, as they say, is history. Of course, this is a history that involves Roanoke's WDBJ, World War II, family tension, loss... and even Dr. Pepper. Fortunately it also includes reconciliation and a lifetime of the magic of music.

As I mentioned earlier, reading If Trouble Don't Kill Me affected me deeply. I love bluegrass, and much of that has to do with the way that it was introduced to me. When I was a child, my sister, brother, and I were "kept" by "Nannie" Reinhardt, a family friend who grew up in Cana (a stone's throw from Ararat). She used to tell us stories about listening to live bluegrass growing up, and we would watch The Grand Ole Opry with her (I distinctly remember episodes with the Statler Brothers of Staunton). Nannie also used to go to local jam sessions. Later, as an adult, I fell in love with the style again with updated approaches, from bands like Nickel Creek and Rose's Pawn Shop. Living in Stuart from 2007 to 2009, I got to experience the genre almost everywhere I went - festivals, high school talent shows, events at the Patrick County Music Association and the Floyd Country Store, and FloydFest (which is actually in Patrick County :) ).

The best part about reading this fantastic book is that even when you have finished the last page, the Hall twin's impact on you does not end. You can listen to Roy Hall and His Blue Ridge Entertainers on a variety of websites and even listen to similar music on Pandora. You can travel to Southside Virginia, following the Crooked Road or going off course, to listen to a wide variety of music (some of which that may have been influenced by the men). And it may even inspire you to pick up a banjo, a fiddle, a mandolin, a guitar... heck, even a washboard... and to find your inner musician - which is exactly what it did for Berrier!

Hear Roy Hall and His Blue Ridge Entertainers perform Orange Blossom Special in 1938.

Watch Ralph Berrier, Jr. introduce us to Saford and Clayton Hall and their story.

Have you read If Trouble Don't Kill Me? Please share your opinion about the book and this summary.

What are some of your favorite bluegrass bands and venues?

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