Tell it from the mountain: ‘Uncle Ted’ White on bluegrass, the late Steve Sutton

What defines bluegrass music would have to be the banjo played “The Earl Scruggs Way” with the three-finger roll. If it’s played clawhammer style, it would have to be classified “Old Time.” Now, bluegrass music, as a genre, grew out of this. As to musicianship, the chief — Bill Monroe — said if you could play bluegrass music right you could play anything else. What I’ve found is that bluegrass music, like jazz, is built around tight timing. It’s not loose. If you understand that, you can apply it to other types of music.

The message has always been accessible to the everyday person. You’re able to express yourself with just a single instrument and your thoughts. I mean, look at Ricky Skaggs writing a song about ham. It also reaches across generational lines as evidenced by Arvil Freeman’s influence on all these up and coming young fiddle players. 

Mountain Heritage Day is so important as an event because of three things: it brings folks together across generational lines, it allows people to see the process of how we got to the convenience of modern life, and it allows folks to participate in it. 

Bluegrass music is to country music what the blues are to rock-n-roll. We’ll never get the radio air play of country music, but we’ll always be the feeder root. If you look at some of country music’s biggest stars they are all reaching back to their bluegrass roots. Dolly Parton. Ricky Skaggs. Patty Lovelace. Marty Stuart. Travis Tritt. As my father-in-law Billy Edd Wheeler has said so often, it’s a great place for songwriters to work because they can be heard. He should know, he wrote “Jackson” for Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash.

I met Steve Sutton when we were both 15. He was a year ahead of me in school and he lived in Waynesville. I lived in Asheville. John Davis hosted a weekly jam at his house on Chatham Road. A lot of musicians across Western North Carolina, and across generational lines, gathered there because that’s where the best music was being played. Steve was always a cut above. He did not look down on you, however, he was reaching out to you so you could climb up there with him.

Because of his work with Jimmy Martin and his session work as a studio musician, Steve was always conscious of timing. One afternoon, he invited me over to his house. Nobody else was there. Just us. We go out to the garage. It’s me with my bass, him with his Martin guitar, and a metronome. A damned metronome. He looks at me and says, “We are just going to play. Don’t rush it, but try to make the light come on, on the metronome. I want you to play on top of the beat. ‘Top Dead Center’ — TDC — like you would tune a car engine.” He didn’t embarrass me in front of other people, but he wanted me to play as good as he did, and he wanted to teach me. He never told anyone else that story. He just wanted to help me. I’m telling it. He was my friend and I miss him terribly. I know he would want the music played.

He sent a text to Seth Rheinhardt before he died that said, “As long as you play what I’ve taught you, I will live on.” He’s right, you know, and that’s what Bill Byerly and I are going to do. 

— Interview conducted by Garret K. Woodward

Editor’s Note: “Uncle Ted” White is a well-known and beloved bluegrass bass player in Western North Carolina. On top of his extensive solo work, he’s also a member of Whitewater Bluegrass Company with Bill Byerly, which also included the late Steve Sutton. Mountain Heritage Day will dedicate this year’s festival to Sutton, who passed away in May. WBC will perform at MHD on Sept. 30 at 12:45 p.m. on the Blue Ridge Stage, with White also playing at 2 p.m. on the Children’s Stage.

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