His vision was severely damaged when he was six weeks old. His daughter Lillie said he spent a winter day staring out a window at snow glittering in bright sunlight, “took cold in his eyes” and there after was permanently handicapped. But he was not totally blind and could recognize people by their bulk and tell time by holding a watch with large numbers close to his eyes.
He began playing a fretless homemade banjo as a small boy and became locally well known for his fiddling in her early teens. Unable to farm, work in timber or keep store, he was forced to rely upon music for the support of his wife and six children. An itinerant musician, he traveled from place to place, playing his fiddle and singing at school entertainments, on store porches, street corners, or wherever coins could be earned. He did not own an automobile and walked to jobs or waited for someone passing to offer a ride.
At one time or another, Grayson played with most of the better musicians of the area. His daughter recalled that a favorite was the North Carolina banjoist Doc Walsh. Grayson also played with Clarence (Tom) Ashley, another pioneering old-time musician from his county. Tom recalled trips with Grayson dating back to 1918, including at least two “busting trips” to the West Virginia coal fields where they performed outside pay shacks and passed Grayson’s hat. They performed at the famous May 1925 Old Fiddler’s Convention in Mountain City, Tennessee, a highly successful event that stimulated the creation of many similar events. (more…)