On November 5, 2015, my birthday, I received notice that my friend Nowell Creadick died in his sleep at home that afternoon. I saw and played music with Nowell several times over the summer but had no idea how sick he was until my wife Mary and I visited him in the hospital. After Nowell came home from the hospital, we visited him at home. He felt well enough to get dressed and play some guitar. Mike Southern, Norm Boggs, and I played with him for a couple of hours. It was a wonderful afternoon that none of us will ever forget.
Nowell was a seminal figure in not just my family’s life, but for the whole old-time music community in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, North Carolina, area. Nowell attended Elon College and Duke University in the 1960s and played with the likes of Wayne Seymour, Tommy and Bobbie Thompson, Alan Jabbour, Bill Hicks, Jim Watson, Bert Levy, Blanton Owen, and other area musicians.
Nowell’s clawhammer banjo chops were good enough to win him blue ribbons in several prestigious banjo contests, including besting bluegrass banjo players in the West Virginia state banjo championship with his clawhammer rendition of “Blackberry Blossom.” Nowell was always known as a banjo player’s banjo player. He played in a clear, largely unadorned style which he described as “simple but hot.” He had a tee shirt emblazoned with this sentiment, and, of course, the joke was whether the slogan applied to his banjo playing or to himself. Nowell was, however, anything but simple.
In the 1970s, while teaching at Davis and Elkins College, Nowell was one of the founders of the Augusta Heritage workshops, which continue to thrive today. He went on to be an artist-in-residence in Alamance County, North Carolina, and to go on to establish music and violin shops in Hillsborough and Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in various locations. Chapel Hill Violins is still in business at 120 Old Durham Road in Chapel Hill.
Nowell was an expert in violins and instrument repair and was a primary resource for not only the old-time and bluegrass communities, but also for the members of the North Carolina Symphony and university music faculties.
Nowell was a sort of godfather of the old-time and bluegrass scenes. He seemed to have contacts everywhere and acted as host at his places of business and at his home for musicians traveling through the area. In the 1970s and 1980s, Nowell’s music stores served as meeting-places for musicians, both during and after hours. In the heady days of the ‘70s I remember sitting outside the Hillsborough store playing with Mike Cross, Clay Buckner, and Norm Boggs. At the Chapel Hill Oxbow Music store I got to play well into the night with Bill Mansfield, the Red Clay Ramblers, and Martin Serjan, an early host of the Back Porch Music radio show on WUNC.
When my wife Mary and I first moved to North Carolina, largely, for me at least, for the music scene, we did not know a single person in the entire state. We met Nowell within a couple days of our arrival. He introduced us to his friends and we were made to feel a part of not just his community, but of his family as well. Nowell was generous to a fault. He taught me to play the banjo, and also the art of banjo repair and restoration. This skill led to my hobby of restoring 19th-century banjos.
In the early days and completely by luck, Nowell lived just across the street from Mary and me. As a result, we spent a lot of time together. Time spent with Nowell was always fun, and he was truly one of the funniest people I have ever met. He was a marvelous raconteur and seemed to have an endless supply of stories that were so outrageous and politically incorrect that upon hearing them you felt that if you dared laugh you would immediately go to hell, or at least others would think you should. Despite these trepidations, you invariably laughed until you cried and then had to live with the fact that you had just heard the funniest thing you would ever hear and dared not to repeat it to another living soul.
Without Nowell in our life, my family’s experience would have been quite different. He enriched our lives in so many ways over so many years that it’s futile to attempt to do justice to the depth and breadth of his contributions. I suppose the downside to all this is that everyone we now know or care about is a musician, but I imagine this is an affliction shared by most of the OTH readers.
Nowell’s family, Jennifer, Suzie, Dan, Anna, Mae, Bonnie, Nathan, and Robby are in our thoughts and prayers. Nowell, we all love you and will miss you terribly.
Rob Morrison, Chapel Hill, North Carolina