photo: Roger Haile
Art Form: Folklife/Traditional Arts
Growing up in Avery County before World War II, Red Wilson learned fiddle and banjo tunes that have their origins in the pioneer musical traditions of western North Carolina. Many of these came from his close relatives, the Ledfords, who lived in neighboring Mitchell County where Red eventually moved. The Ledfords were known for their large repertory of older pieces and their skillful performances. “Anytime you wanted to hear music, just go to their house and they’d play,” he remembered. “You’d get them started and they would go all night.”
Red himself became a versatile musician. He found inspiration in the fiddle playing of the Ledford family patriarch, Waites Ledford, and Waite’s son, Steve, and Red learned to accompany both of them on guitar. In addition, he took up playing the fiddle and banjo and developed an ability to sing lead and harmony. Red enjoyed the life of a professional musician for a time when he and Steve Ledford performed on a regional radio station. In the late 1940s, he toured and recorded with Wade Mainer, another western North Carolina musician who led a popular stringband.
As times changed and the older music lost its commercial appeal, Red Wilson adapted and expanded his technique to include newer styles such as bluegrass and country music. In the 1950s, the Toe River Valley Boys, a band that had a large local following, recruited him to play fiddle. Specializing in regional tunes as well as bluegrass standards, the group played square dances for many years at Geneva Hall in Little Switzerland and at the Penland School of Crafts. While playing fiddle for the band, Red began composing fiddle tunes, adding those to the songs he had written on occasion during his musical career. He also started to repair violins, often free of charge, and eventually he built several instruments.
Red Wilson contributed in other ways to the musical life of his community. His participation in the Carolina Barn Dance in Spruce Pine helped build an audience for this “hometown opry.” The venue’s popularity enabled several regional entertainers to launch performing careers. Red also constructed a recording studio and helped local musicians make demonstration tapes and recording masters. Over the years he donated his services on many occasions for community benefits and civic events.
During retirement he focused on the old-time music that he heard in his youth. He was often asked to perform at festivals and traditional music workshops in the state and beyond. He was the subject of both documentary audio and video projects.
Red and his wife Marie welcomed a steady stream of people to their home outside of Bakersville. Musicians came by seeking lessons or hoping to purchase or trade instruments. Neighbors brought over old family fiddles in need of repair, and local banjo players and guitarists gathered regularly for an afternoon of music making. Travelers from all across the nation dropped by in hopes of hearing him play a tune.
Before his death in 2005 at the age of 85, Red and Marie Wilson greeted visitors with a sincerity and good humor that won them many loyal friends. “I saw I wasn’t going to get rich through music so I just quit doing it for money,” Red laughed. His motives for playing, he said, were simple. “I just love old-time fiddle music. And I love people.”