Final Notes, Odell McGuire

Old-time musician Odell McGuire died on December 8 in Lexington, Virginia, at the age of 81. James Leva and Walt Koken shared remembrances with the Old-Time Herald.

James Leva writes:

Odell S. McGuire, a professor emeritus of geology who taught for 32 years at Washington and Lee University, and a banjo player who spearheaded a revival of traditional Appalachian music in Rockbridge County (Virginia) in the 1970s, was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on April 19, 1927, to Odell S. and Winifred Claxton McGuire. He could trace the migrations of his family from the Rockbridge area in the 18th century on through Western North Carolina and East Tennessee. Odell served in the Navy during World War II and in the Army in Korea, where he was wounded and received the Purple Heart.

Professor McGuire joined W&L’s faculty in 1962 as an instructor in geology, became a full professor in 1970 and retired in 1994. In 1964 and 1965 he served as a visiting assistant professor at the Virginia Military Institute. McGuire’s scientific interests and publications covered such topics as paleontology, geologic mapping, environmental impacts and land-use planning, geology of the Appalachians, hydrology, evolutionary theory, geomorphology, geo-hydrology, and stratigraphy.

Odell and his former wife, Mata Battye McGuire, have three children, Melanie, Forrest, and Jesse, and three grandchildren, Rosa Puryear, Nicole McGuire Gilbert, and Killian McGuire, and a great-granddaughter, Dorothy Rose Gilbert.
Odell was also a transformative figure as he guided a generation of young musicians into the mysteries and joys of traditional Appalachian music. He learned to play the banjo in the old-time clawhammer style. He met and befriended a number of the older generation of traditional musicians, including Burl, Sherman, and Maggie Hammons and Mose Coffman of West Virginia, Wade Ward of Grayson County, Virginia, and Tommy Jarrell and Dellie Norton of North Carolina. Odell introduced many young musicians to these great keepers of the tradition, thereby inspiring the young, bringing new meaning and purpose to the elders and their music, and ensuring the survival of the traditional music for another generation

Odell‘s passion and guidance helped transform Lexington/Rockbridge County into a hotbed of traditional music in the 1970s. The influence of this new wave of old-time mountain music was felt and recognized nationally and nurtured musicians of renown who have made lasting contributions to the genre. With Odell’s wife Mata running the White Column Inn in Lexington, the McGuire family enriched the lives of many with their energy, intellect, and humanity.

Odell saw the links in all human striving for comprehension, from the ancient Greeks (he taught himself to read ancient Greek), through the sciences, to the encoded wisdom and beauty of a fiddle or banjo tune. A conversation with Odell could range from a discussion of chaos theory and fractals, to his tracing the lineage of soldiers from Rockbridge County who fought with Daniel Morgan in the Revolution, to an analysis of Appalachian paleontology, to the destruction of Longstreet’s reputation for questioning Lee’s decisions at Gettysburg, to the writings of Thales and Herodotus, to the stylistic peculiarities of a West Virginia fiddler. His intelligence, endless curiosity and unassailable obstinacy will be missed, and folks will be telling Odell McGuire stories for a long time to come.

Walt Koken writes:

June 1971 was one of the highlights of my life. Mac Benford, Bob Potts, and I traveled east from the Bay Area on a musical pilgrimage, and one of our destinations was the fiddlers’ convention at Marion, Virginia, where Mac had seen Tommy Jarrell a couple years previously. We camped at the Hungry Mother State Park, and at the festival we met many wonderful local characters and musicians, and were quite well received. Amongst the shifting crowds of onlookers that weekend was a person who stood out like a sore thumb. He had bushy black eyebrows and mustache, and was wearing a worn-out old black top-hat. His name was Odell McGuire, and he turned out to be a very interesting person, quite sincere and serious, a wonderful talker, didn’t smile much, but when he did laugh, his toothy grin brightened things up. He was an aspiring banjo player, so he said. He didn’t play with us that weekend. Said he was a professor of Geology at Washington and Lee University, an occupation that afforded him an opportunity to make occasional field trips in the neighborhoods of various old-time musicians and fiddlers’ conventions, especially in West Virginia. He generously invited the three of us to stay over at his house up the road in Lexington after the convention.

We took him up on his offer, invaded his household, and enjoyed the cooking of his wife Mata. She was more than just a faculty wife, and in their sleepy little town the stage was set for this couple and their three young children, Forrest, Jesse, and Melanie (also called Bird), to form the center of what was to become a major old-time music scene. Odell was very interested and well versed in the lore of the old-time things, and his stature as a professor in a “straight” insititution lent credibility to our vagabond and alternative musical lifestyle, and thus we became good friends.

Mata opened the White Column Inn in Lexington, a restaurant which became the center of it all, providing both real and musical livelihoods to however many it could support, as cooks, wait staff, carpenters, old-time musicians and dancers. Mata seemed to be the queen bee, and musicians came from afar to live in the area. Odell continued to develop his playing, restored an old log house, and seemed to quietly enjoy it all. Many present-day musicians around the country were once either part of or touched by this scene.

It’s hard to describe just what he did to create the stir around Lexington, and I’m sure he was only a part of it, and he might not have known he was doing anything, but he planted the seed, and was the very core. In that little Virginia city, that small and “straight” center of Old South intellectualism as well as martial education, there blossomed a family, a whole community, of old-time musicians, dancers, music lovers, and other alternative types, almost none of whom were born into the tradition, which continues in some form now, almost forty years later. Thank you all, McGuires, and especially Odell.

Like so many others I’m saddened at the thought of not seeing him again. He’ll always be one of the heroes of the old-time revival to me. Somewhere there’s a photo of him in that top-hat


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