Early this year TJ Worthington, artist and long-time friend of the Old-Time Herald, died in Alleghany County, North Carolina. Lucas Pasley shares this remembrance.
On January 6th, 2016, our little county and the traditional music world lost a much-loved friend and neighbor, TJ Worthington. Born May 19th, 1942, TJ’s eclectic life led a windy path up to a little, half-fallen-down house on a hillside in Alleghany County, North Carolina, deeded to him by a farmer he worked for in his younger days. The mountains and its people were TJ’s refuge and inspiration. Then he discovered the music—and there was no halfway or half-done with TJ.
When my wife and I moved to Alleghany, the home of my father’s people, people said there was this crazy painter who opened up a music shop and I should go and meet him. Sure enough, some crazy guy had set up a speaker outside the old rock building and was blaring fiddle tunes all down Main Street. Our friendship began on that day, and I quickly learned that a conversation with TJ could go anywhere. You’d start off with Ralph Stanley and before you knew it he was talking about extreme politics, avant-garde painters, or Chinese films. There was just no telling.
If he could have, TJ would have loved to play the banjo. When I first met him, he was trying, but it never took hold and he eventually let it go. He realized he could give to the music in other ways, mostly through his painting and writing. For a while, TJ had a radio show, and I loved to hear him. He didn’t worry if he stumbled over his words or got emotional; he was just trying to get the music to the people, because for TJ, you could never separate the music and the mountains from the people. Of the great things TJ did, I’d say the care he took of banjo player Junior Maxwell in his dying days was at the top, and will be remembered throughout the Whitehead community of Alleghany County. TJ loved Junior’s music, but also loved who he was as a man, and there was no line between the two.
Many Friday nights he would head over to the Front Porch Gallery in Woodlawn, Virginia, for the music, and put it up on YouTube as soon as he got home. He loved watching Scott and Dori Freeman, Willard Gayheart, and many others play. I never knew him to miss a Ralph Stanley concert in the area, and I never knew him to come back dry-eyed. He’d be the first to tell you that he cried and cried. For most people there’s a filter on emotions going in and emotions going out; for TJ it was a straight shot. Maybe that’s what makes an artist.
One of the last times I saw TJ was in the grocery store in Sparta. We were standing in the front and all of a sudden I heard, “TJ, honey, how are ya!” from a woman in the checkout line. I looked over and all she was buying was a gallon of milk and a Colt 45, and I remember just admiring the kind of man that a woman with that grocery list calls “honey.”
In ways, TJ wrote his own memorial through his blog at airbellowsanalog.blogspot.com. I don’t know how long it will stay online, but I would highly recommend looking through it. I’ve pieced together the following excerpts of TJ’s writing on himself and music.
Live at home with a laptop, a cat, 2 donkeys, and a dog. Grumpy old liberal hermit. Paint pictures. Listen to music. That’s about it. I have all I have to do right here where I belong…
My kind of people is really every kind of Southern people. Home town people, people who still have the old ways in their soul. Maybe it’s that belief in the sanctity of the individual that continues to live in the rural South. In Alleghany County, you can be who you are, do what you do, just don’t make a spectacle of yourself, whatever your agenda. Keep your agenda, and we all get along good. Everybody knows what your agenda is, anyway. No need to bore the people around you repeating it. In my life in the South, there is no other place on earth I’d rather be. In the South I live with a very personal warmth between people. All emotions are stronger, it seems, in the South. You fall into hate with somebody in the South, and it’s on. Falling into love is equally powerful. It is a warmth in the heart I find characteristic of Southerners, an open, receptive warmth. In the mountains I have learned the value of respect, of trust, of diplomacy. Since I’ve lived in these mountains I’ve known some mighty wonderful people, people who don’t laugh at basic human values, people who want to be real by their own definition of reality. Sincerity and authenticity matter to the people of the mountains. People take care of each other in hard times. Community comes together in hard times.
...Punk had been going on a few years when I went to my first fiddler’s convention in Independence, Virginia, and heard the first hillbilly music of my life. I heard acoustic punk. A band of young musicians played, the New River Ramblers, James Burris on fiddle, his brother on banjo, and they rocked the place. It was raw hillbilly music for square dancing. The audience went crazy over them. I remember seeing legend Kyle Creed play his banjo and Albert Hash play fiddle. In old-time music, the whole band plays together, no fiddle breaks, no banjo breaks, the whole band plays all out. Fiddle, banjo, guitar and bass, as they say, jist a gittin it. Nobody in the band stands out. It’s the whole band. It was like that in early punk and early rock-n-roll, everybody playing together and no lead guitar...Punk rock is old-time evolved to electric in a time when bands write their own songs. Old forms of intellectualism evolve too. Cycles, cycles and cycles.
...Mountain music is heart music. In mountain music the very first thing is [to] play from your heart. If you’re not playing from your heart, you’re not making music. Music played from the heart in the musician goes to the heart of the listener. Eyes start running. Nose starts running. Tears running down my face. Mountain music has always done this to me. From the first time I heard it. It is the only music that has ever made me weep from loving it so much, feeling the joy in it. It’s only played right when it’s played joyfully. The Carter Family get to me the most of any of the music. Ralph and Carter Stanley, both, make tears run. At one Ralph Stanley concert I had tears running down my face the entire concert, tears of joy. He is the voice of the soul of the Southern mountains. I like the feeling inside the auditorium with a Ralph Stanley audience. It’s a feeling of reverence from everyone in the place. A couple hours in heaven where everybody gets along and is happy, in the corner where Ralph Stanley plays.
I’ll leave you with the final words in TJ’s final blog entry, posted two days before he died: “Connecting dots by trial and error.” We were able to connect some important dots between us, and I count him as a dear and missed friend. --