By Susi Gott Séguret
In today’s hotbed of ever-emerging artists, we often forget to wonder who shaped the sounds that today’s youth take for granted. Who were the pioneers of the threads that continue to hold our musical culture together?
We pay homage, and rightly, to a few familiar icons that have moved on to the Angel Band: Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, Pete Seeger, Bascom Lunsford. But there are others still in our midst that deserve our ears while they are still here to tell their stories in person. Two such living legends are Ralph Lewis and Peter Gott, both of Madison County extraction, one by birth and blood, the other by more than 50 years of sweat and toil.
Ralph Lewis was part of a musical family, the seventh son born of another seventh son. He picked up mandolin and guitar at an early age, appearing with his siblings as The Lewis Brothers, and later with The Carolina Pals and The Piney Mountain Boys. In the 1970s, he joined Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys and toured Europe, Japan, and the United States, and appeared regularly on the Grand Ole Opry. In more recent decades, he and his sons Marty and Don have been Asheville mainstays, performing widely as The Sons of Ralph.
Peter Gott made Madison County his adopted home in the early 1960s when both he and Ralph performed regularly at the Jubilee Theater in Hot Springs. Peter would capture the audience’s heart with his banjo and red suspenders, infectious smile and nimble dancing feet. His passion for the music of the area led him to seek out the true gems of the back hollers, learning tunes and ballads from Lee, Doug, Cas and Berzilla Wallin, Lloyd and Dillard Chandler, George Landers, Dellie Norton, Byard Ray, and others. In 1963, he introduced John Cohen to these friends and neighbors, and the result was two classic recordings: Love Songs & Ballads of Big Laurel (Folkways), and High Atmosphere (Rounder), which lured the next wave of folk musicians to Madison County.
Peter and his wife Polly were a stopping point for artists from the north and west who wanted to soak up southern culture. In the 1970s and 1980s, he joined Polly and children (my brother Tim and me), and headed up the Cowbell Holler Stringband and toured the festival circuits before his focus shifted to teaching and building traditional hand-hewn log cabins.
Joined for this exceptional performance by family (Don and Marty Lewis, and me), and special guests, these two living legends are well worth an excursion to the Madison County Arts Council in Marshall on a May evening at the height of spring.
The music and storytelling begin at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, May 14. Tickets are $16. Madison County Arts Council is located at 90 S. Main Street in Marshall. For tickets and more information, call 828.649.1301 or visit madisoncountyarts.com.
Also in downtown Marshall, Mama Mia! will take place “Mother’s Day Saturday” from noon to 5 p.m. on May 7. There will be demonstrating artists, music, and the popular artists’ Second Sale at the Madison County Arts Center. The festivities will conclude with music on the Courthouse steps at 5 p.m. with the Jeff Thompson Trio.