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Thursday, 28 August 2014 21:47

French Kirkpatrick: The boy from Laurel Branch

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French Kirkpatrick just wanted to play music.

“I kind of wanted to be a singer, but I couldn’t sing worth a hoot,” the 75-year-old chuckled. “I wanted to be a regular picker, a banjo player, I even tried to play the fiddle one time, played the harmonica — I was a multiple-testing type of person.”

 

At his home in Ironduff, in the rolling countryside of Haywood County, Kirkpatrick has spent his life soaked in the sounds of Southern Appalachia. Growing up in the rural community of White Oak, he remembers being a toddler and hearing his father and siblings play the Saturday Night Roundup on WWNC in Asheville.

“The music was an integral part of our lives. I listened to them on the radio, and being a 3-year-old kid hearing your daddy play banjo [was great],” he smiled.

Like most pickers raised in Western North Carolina, music was something that was constantly around. Before Interstate 40 was constructed, the main route from Asheville to Knoxville or Nashville was through Newfound Gap. Kirkpatrick’s father, William, a musician himself, would house innumerable other performers passing through the area to and from shows.

“Daddy didn’t even lock the doors in the house,” French said. “That’s just who we were. [All these musicians would] stop by, get a meal, [stay the night] — he just wanted these guys to be taken care of.”

Whether it was a neighborhood meeting up on the weekends for some porch sessions or simply crossing paths with an instrument in your household, the melodic sounds of the mountains have always rung true.

“Music is an expression of the soul with what you can do,” Kirkpatrick said. “If you’re a musician, it’s part of your DNA — it’s part of who you are.”

In his formative years, Kirkpatrick was taken under the wing by renowned Haywood County banjoist Carroll Best, who taught the teenager his signature three-finger style, which focused on incorporating fiddle notes into banjo playing — a concept as wild for the time as it was intricate.

“I wanted to play banjo and [Carroll] taught me the three-finger stroke, but Carroll did so many syncopated type licks and stuff,” Kirkpatrick chuckled, referring to Best’s astounding picking talents.

It was also Best who would bring a young Kirkpatrick along on the weekends to play gigs around the region. Eventually, Kirkpatrick joined the Mountain Valley Boys, a group who toured the Southeast, opening for the likes of Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton — two of the biggest names in the music industry at the time.

“We did go out and did a few things, but we were never stars,” Kirkpatrick modestly said. “It was a hobby, we wanted to play, never made no money out of that, just something fun for us to do.”

And as the usual wear and tear of old age takes its toll on Kirkpatrick, he still picks up his banjo or guitar and plucks some tunes, even if it can be a tad painful.

“I don’t play nearly as much as I did. This’ll go, it all goes sooner of later,” he said, raising his hands to show the well-earned wrinkles and calluses.

Kirkpatrick has lived and thrived in Western North Carolina, a region filled with folks as genuine and uniquely talented as they are real.

“Everybody has got their mind set in the right direction, just salt of the earth people, people that want you to succeed, want for you to have a room over your head,” he said. “It’s that unselfish attitude that circulates through Southern Appalachia. It’s not that I was born here, it’s that I was never going to leave here — I would have never left these mountains.”

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