By Chris Easterly
“The mountain music is compelling music in its own right, harking back to a time when music was a part of everyday life and not something performed by celebrities,” said film director Ethan Coen.
This is a reality that James Webb, a fifth generation banjo player, knows well. Webb grew up in the small eastern Kentucky enclave of Tomahawk. Nearly 50 years ago, his father opened a music shop in the town’s old post office building.
“I was at the shop where a lot of musicians would come in for Dad to work on their instruments, so I got to be exposed to a lot of really good musicians growing up,” Webb said.
At the little store and at church, Webb learned to play the banjo, mandolin, guitar, bass, fiddle and dulcimer. “It’s ingrained in me,” he said. “It’s part of my identity.”
Webb attended Morehead State University, then moved to Frankfort to work with the administration of former Gov. Paul E. Patton. Every morning at 5, Webb compiled a summary of news stories for Patton to read before he started the day. Webb enjoyed the work and continued to play music around Frankfort. Through some musician friends, he also met his wife Sarah.
“Frankfort’s been my home for over 20 years now,” he said.
Webb recently retired from the Commonwealth Office of Technology, which has freed him up to concentrate full time on music. He plays with various bands in local shows, travels to music festivals selling instruments and teaches at the Cowan Creek Mountain Music School, a one-week intensive workshop held every summer in Letcher County.
More than 100 children and adults attend each year to learn how to play banjo, fiddle and other instruments. One of Webb’s services there is repairing instruments. If a string breaks during a class, they run it to him so he can quickly repair it while the instructor keeps teaching.
“It’s cool when you go down to Cowan Creek, there are experts who know all these different styles,” Webb said. “Banjo’s been in Eastern Kentucky forever, but in different little areas they all pick differently.” For instance, he noted that a community of African-American banjo players in Letcher County “had a totally different kind of playing style than anybody else’s.”
Webb said there is a difference between genres like bluegrass and “old time” music. “Bluegrass tries to limit you on what you can play. They attach a huge amount of rules to the way it’s played and structured,” he said. “Old time is quite a bit different.”
Instead of trying to mimic a particular musician like Earl Scruggs or Ralph Stanley, old time players pick strings the way they learned from their father or a person down the street. “Old time doesn’t have a lot of rules,” Webb said.
Just as Webb learned from his own father, he now fosters the family’s musical gifts in his own two sons. Jimmy and Joey are 13-year-old identical twins. One is left-handed, one is right-handed, both sing and play banjo and fiddle.
They started playing when they were five years old and spend almost every night a week practicing their music. Joey recently won the Appalachian String Band Festival youth banjo contest. Last summer, Jimmy won the Ed Haley Memorial Fiddle Contest.
“They’ve got a natural gift for it,” Webb said. “Being twins gives them kind of an edge playing together. They know one another really well and they harmonize together.”
Webb takes his sons to perform at shows, festivals and churches. It’s all part of his desire to share old time music with as many people as possible.
“Me and my Dad are hosting an old time festival in July,” Webb said. Webb’s father still runs the family music store in eastern Kentucky. In recent years, their weekend-long festival, the Stitum Old Time Music Gathering, has drawn a good crowd of old time and bluegrass musicians.
“We’re looking forward to doing it again this year,” he said, noting they have been able to keep the event free for participants.
Smiling, Webb pulled back his t-shirt sleeve to reveal a tattoo on his bicep. It’s an image of him and his sons against a backdrop of the state of Kentucky. The tattoo was drawn by their friend and music teacher John Haywood, whom they met at Cowan Creek Mountain Music School. It’s a symbol of the Webb family’s love for music and each other.
“My whole life is dealing with Cowan Creek Mountain Music School, working on instruments or taking my kids around to different places to play,” Webb said. It’s a tradition that started six generations ago and Webb wouldn’t have it any other way.
To learn more about James Webb, his sons and their music, visit webbtwins.com.