For someone with the impossible task of selecting the average living traditional banjo player, Virgil Anderson’s nomination would be as easy as any to defend. The evidence – two LPs featuring Virgil’s music (“On the Tennessee Line,” County 777; and “Music of Tennessee,” Heritage 042) – demonstrates his superb technical ability to pick delicate melodies, chord creatively, knock out syncopated dance tunes, utilize novel effects, and freely improvise. Even into his eighties, Virgil continued to learn and create new songs and to perform with enthusiasm and unconservative abandon.
“My mother failed to dish my brains out the back door when I was born,” is his own reasoning for his uninhibited condition. Other details of Virgil’s birth in 1902 are more certain. His birthplace was Palace, Kentucky, an edge of Wayne County bordering the Cumberland River. His father floated log rafts to Nashville, split barrel staves at company tent camps, and unloaded steamboats in Russell County in the years up to Virgil’s birth:
“He was apickin’ that banjer biggest part of the time. And that black man [on the steamboat] would slp him whiskey, and just keep him about half drunk apickin’ that banjer He’d slip him different extra food, you know, cake and pie. The rest of ‘em wasn’t gettin’ it. He was the cook and he’d give him the very best, cause he’d pick that banjer.”
Virgil soon joined the music-making and dancing:
“I’d be in the bed, my mother said, until I was two or three years old aplayin’ the banjer – tunes that she could understand what I was playin’. I knowed nothin’ about it. Can’t remember nothin’ about it. It’s unbelievable. Ain’t nobody believes that, but my mother told it. Same way by dancin’. I never could hear a racket, if it was like an engine runnin’ or something another, I’d want to dance after it. That’s the reason after my great uncle Green Johnson achurnin’ with that old time churn. He was settin’ on the kitchen porch on the steps outside, setting there a churnin’. And that went so good to me, I had to get with it. I had to keep time with it. Well, he couldn’t stand it. “You stop that, Virgil!” Well, when he’d stop, I’d stop. When he’d start again, I’d hit her again. And he’d holler for my daddy. And he comes I had to “sell out, Doc!” I had to stop.
Virgil’s father soon took the family into the unsettled life of “following the public works,” moving to a different logging or stave camp every six months or so. At the age of eighteen, in a rough logging camp just north of the Tennessee state line, he had an eye-opening encounter with a prominent black Tennessee string band, the Bertram brothers.
“The first time I heard ‘em, me and my dad was going through the camp. Big, long band mill camp. And we kept walking down there and directly he said, “I believe I hear music.” Got a little piece further and they was playin’ at the bandmill, where the lumber comes down on the shoots. And such a crowd, looked like the whole company was there. We just crowded right on through ‘em, and got close to ‘em. See’d that they was colored people. Boys I’m atellin’ you they was singing. They’s getting’ that alto. Just almost make you cry. That guitar and banjer. Then they’d lay the guitar down and take the banjer and fiddle. Oh, just so handy as a goose going barefooted, you know. Well, I just tied right in with ‘em. I remember I bought an old guitar, but I didn’t know much about it. But when I see’d them agrabbin’ those chords just like that, I knowed to get with it. Just grab ‘em all at once. Naturally, it was awkward for two or three times trying it, but I see’d what had to be done. If I done it, I was gonna do it; if I didn’t I was out of it.
Virgil’s conversion was to a fuller, more sophisticated “chord music,” with a blues touch, and he was no longer satisfied with just “noting out” the simple dance tunes his father played. The blues and the Bertram’s chord music, represented by a wide variety of songs and tunes of both black and white origin, became Virgil’s love.
“It’s the drive, and the time, and the beat that they have. They don’t get too fast or too slow… They look like they’re gonna get plumb off it, but they’ll never lose their time.”
By 1931, the Depression resulted in a shutdown of the sawmill camps, so to earn money from some of his children’s winter clothing, Virgil recruited John Sharp and his brother in law Clyde Troxell to perform in the still busy coal camps as the Kentucky Wildcats. As Burnett and Rutherford were traveling the same route just ahead of them, Virgil would ballyhoo at the entrance of the schoolhouses they rented: “we’re come down here to pick up what they’re leavin’ out: it ain’t me atalking – we’ll prove it by these strings. It’s coming fresh off these strings to prove it to you, that we are pickin’ what they’re leavin’ out.”
Virgil finally settled down and took up residence in Griffin, Kentucky in 1937. The homesite’s remote location and the demands of farm life took Virgil away from the rough and tumble excitement of the public works, but he and his wife soon adjusted and raised a large family of musicians. One son, Dillard, became lead guitarist for Orangie R. Hubbard’s original Cherokees, a rockabilly group that recorded for the Lucky and King labels in Cincinnati, Ohio. Another son, Willard, continued to develop a blues guitar style, led by Virgil’s interest in the music.