Final Notes, Paul Sutphin

 

Guitarist and singer Paul Sutphin, a central figure in the Round Peak music community who later became a sunny presence in the wider old-time music world, died at his home in Mount Airy, NC on August 26, 2004 after an extended illness. He was 84. He leaves his wife, Magdalene Phillips Sutphin, a sister, a son, two daughters and six grandchildren.

Photo by
Stanley R. Shapin

Paul was born on October 1, 1918 on Round Peak Mountain in North Carolina’s Surry County. There he lived in a log cabin with his parents, W.P. and Ada Golding Sutphin, eight sisters and three brothers. Surrounded by the intense music of banjoist Charlie Lowe, fiddlers Ben, Tommy and Charlie Jarrell, Fred Cockerham and others, he decided to add to the community din by taking up the guitar. Later in life he loved telling the tale of spending three weeks clearing a creek bank for a neighbor when he was thirteen, and using four of the five dollars he earned to buy his first guitar. The remaining dollar, he would proudly proclaim, he gave to his father, who he recalled was skeptical of his desire to be a musician. Happily undeterred, Paul took guitar cues from Oscar Jarrell, and devised a unique syncopated two-finger backup style that helped propel his bands to fame and fiddlers’ convention wins from the 1950s through the 1980s.

Paul played with all the Round Peak musicians at one time or another, but his greatest accomplishments may have been with the Camp Creek Boys and the Smokey Valley Boys. In the 1960s, the Camp Creek Boys established a driving, stylish sound in old-time music that inspired thousands of younger musicians from far away while also denying hot local bluegrass groups many a contest trophy. Along with the outstanding fiddling of Fred Cockerham, Earnest East, Benton Flippen or Kyle Creed, and the distinctive Round Peak clawhammer banjo playing of Fred or Kyle, Paul’s energetic guitar work was critical to the Camp Creek Boys’ supercharged sound. His guitar’s interaction with Verlen Clifton’s mandolin provided a rhythmic understructure other bands couldn’t match. His singing soared with joy. The Camp Creek Boys’ 1967 LP, reissued on CD (County 2719, The Camp Creek Boys), is a modern classic of old-time music.

The original Camp Creek Boys broke up by 1970. Earnest East formed the Pine Ridge Boys, and Paul organized the Smokey Valley Boys with fiddler Benton Flippen. The Smokey Valley Boys set out on a blazing path of contest wins, taking first place seven times at Union Grove and countless trophies at other conventions in the South. The band appeared twice at the Brandywine Mountain Music Convention, and performed at the University of Chicago Folk Festival, the National Folk Festival, the 1982 Knoxville World’s Fair and the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. At home, the Smokey Valley Boys played regularly on Radio Station WPAQ’s Merry-Go-Round program, and provided music for local square dances and community functions.

In the 1980s Paul started moving farther afield, appearing most frequently with Benton Flippen and me at music festivals and camps around the country. He played and sang at the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes, Pinewoods, the Swannanoa Gathering, Augusta, and Ashokan. Irrepressibly sociable, Paul loved traveling to share his music, and people loved him for it. When I stopped in at his home, he would almost invariably ask, “Reckon when we’ll make our next trip?” If I told him a camp or festival had called for the coming summer, he’d answer, “I’m ready. We’ll leave in the morning!”

Playing in a band with Paul was a unique experience to say the least. I had the good fortune to stand right next to him - my spot assigned by him – frequently in the Smokey Valley Boys during the 1980s and ‘90s. He would often choose the songs and tunes as we went along. He would call out breaks if he wanted us to take them. But more than anything else, he would infuse the performance with focused energy, intensity and happiness that drove the rest of us to play harder and better than we thought we could. “Now boys, push Benton. Push him!”he’d say to Verlen, guitarist Frank Bode and me as we went on stage. With his 1950s Martin D-28 strung up with heavy gauge strings, its desperate bridge held on with glue and wing nuts, triple pick guards installed for added protection from his massive, kneading right hand, his foot stomping on the stage, he would tear into each tune as if there would never be another chance to play it. Halfway through, he might suddenly shout “Whooh!” as if whipping us on to still greater speed and intensity. He’d look to his right, to his left, alternately grinning and serious, keeping us all in line, and then out to the audience with a huge grin. He’d suddenly look over to me and the banjo, grin again and say, “Pick it, boy!” And great heavens, when he opened his mouth to sing, he could fry the circuits in the sound board. Over the years, I saw more than one startled engineer jump in his seat and lunge for the faders as Paul launched into his first verse.

Some people define what they do, and Paul was one of those people. He never claimed to be the greatest technical wizard on the guitar or the most refined singer on the planet, or to have the greatest repertoire of songs. He never aspired to be a professional musician, instead making his living and supporting his family with his own home improvement business. He simply lived well with what he had: a remarkable sense of rhythm, a deep natural understanding of melody and how to bend a note, a fantastic ear for a good song, and an unfettered enthusiasm for making music with other people. With these tools, he defined a style of old time string band playing. Beyond that, he had an overpowering spirit of goodwill and happiness, a capacity to make the most of life, whatever the circumstance. Showing up on any scene, he defined joy and friendship, lifting the spirits of everyone around him.

At the funeral home visitation, the community repaid his family. People lined up into the parking lot for four hours, waiting to get in. And there were remarkably few tears, because when Paul came to mind, so inevitably would a story and a smile. Apparently his example had stuck.

-Paul Brown

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