1901 – 1972
Note: Though not from Beech Mountain, Gaither Carlton is included here because he appears in the Jack Guy Collection, and was a prominent member of the Watauga County traditional music community.
Born in Wilkes County, North Carolina, and raised in Watauga County, Gaither Carlton the youngest child in a musical family. It’s said that he was too shy to ask for instruction in music, so he taught himself to play. He was a master of the banjo and the fiddle and was renowned as an accompanist by some of the greatest old-time musicians. As an adult, he continued to be a gentle person. Granddaughter Nancy Watson has written, “He didn’t drink, smoke, curse, gossip, yell, or fight. He was slow to anger. He was kind to his wife, his children, and to strangers.”
Famed musician Doc Watson, who was Gaither Carlton’s son-in-law, included him on several recordings, most famously Folkways’ The Watson Family album (1963). These recordings were produced by folklorist Ralph Rinzler. In a conversation about his first meeting with Gaither Carlton and the Watsons, published in Sing Out, we get a glimpse into Gaither’s deep connections to early old-time music in the Blue Ridge. According to Rinzler,
After meeting the family, Gene Earle and I explained our interest in the traditional music of the area. From the Anthology [of American Folk Music] we played an archaic-sounding recording of the ballad “Omie Wise.” All listened intently. Gaither, in his denim bib overalls, had come straight from his garden. As the song ended, tears were streaming down his face. No one spoke. Gaither sighed and said quietly, as though to himself, “Sounds like old times.” The vocal had been accompanied only by a solo, reedy fiddle. The performance, recorded in 1927, was by George Banman Grayson, a blind fiddler who had died in an auto accident a few years after the recording session. G. B. Grayson was kin to Sheriff Grayson who had captured Tom Dooley not far from where we were sitting at that moment. Members of Doc and Gaither’s family had known the principals in the Dooley case, and Banman Grayson himself had been a friend of Gaither’s. (source)
As Doc’s career took off, audiences far from Watauga County were introduced to Gaither’s music as well. In 2020 Smithsonian Folkways released 1962 recordings of a concert that the two played in Greenwich Village; the music demonstrates the depth of the close family members’ musical bond (as well as their shared fondness for the music of G. B. Grayson, several of whose songs they played that night). Shortly before his death in 1972, Carlton shared songs and tunes with folklorist and musician Tom Carter. This collection has been released by the Field Recorders’ Collective.
Nancy Watson has written,
His gentleness and humility made a profound impression on me, as it did on many others when he began to tour as stage partner to my father (Doc Watson) during the early days of the Folk Music Revival. In a world where it seems one can rarely say it in honesty, Gaither Carlton was a good man.