By Jonathan Kirby
While Mount Airy is best known as the hometown of American actor Andy Griffith (and the prototype for the fictional town, Mayberry), it has always had an underground. Founded in 1948, hometown station WPAQ served as a sanctuary and tributary for the early bluegrass pickers that emerged from the surrounding hills and hollers. By the mid-1960’s, Mount Airy had a handful of record labels to circulate the sounds of regional artists. One such label, Tornado Records, holds the distinction of issuing “Thoughts of a Madman” by the Nomads, which became canon in the genre of garage rock.
Founded in the late 1960’s, the Brotherhood of Peace began as a rhythm section for the New Americans—a faith-based assemblage of vocally inclined Surry County high schoolers. Traveling through the Southeast with a repertoire of religious and patriotic standards, guitarist Dennis Tolbert would be encouraged by musical director and county sheriff Jim Taylor to contribute an original to the collective’s songbook. With its message of unity, Tolbert’s uplifting “Brotherhood of Peace” would give the power trio its enduring handle.
After striking out on their own in 1974, the Brotherhood of Peace started trafficking in heavier fare, finding a lane in the emerging Southern Rock movement being pioneered by breakout acts like Allman Brothers, Marshall Tucker Band, and ZZ Top. After playing at Winston-Salem’s Rittenhouse Square in 1974, club owner Bobby Locke suggested the group meet with Don Dixon, bassist for the prominent Chapel Hill rock combo Arrogance and freelance engineer at Charlotte’s Reflection Sound. With Dixon at the controls, Brotherhood of Peace entered Reflection in October to assemble Cuttin’ Loose, a progressive mélange of power pop and Southern rock that put the Mount Airy group in a league of their own.
Lead singer and songwriter Dennis Tolbert still performs regularly throughout Western North Carolina. The following interview was conducted on Friday, November 22, 2019, at the Vanishing Point Bar and Grill in Mount Airy, where the Dennis Tolbert Band—still a trio—has a long-standing Friday night residency.
Tell me about your early music exploration?
I started singing in church, believe it or not. And I listened to all music. Back then it was all AM—country, rock ’n’ roll, rockabilly, pop. And then, of course, TV shows. I watched The Johnny Cash Show, The Glenn Campbell Show, Ed Sullivan—I saw Elvis and the Beatles on TV, so, just like millions of other musicians, it inspired me to want to get into [music]. I started out as a drummer when I was 12—that was just kind of the beginning of it. Then I saw my cousin play guitar a year or so later and I thought, well, that’d be fun to try. So, daddy said, we’ll go down to Advance Auto and buy you a beginner guitar, if you’ll learn how to play it. We paid 22 dollars for it. The action was super high, and you played until your fingers bled, but I learned. I joined a local band called The Casualty Company and believe it or not we hauled all the equipment around in an old hearse, which, I know a lot of bands have done that over the years, but—we did it. We were doing Beatles, Stones, Cream, Hendrix—everything from that era. And we had a strobe light—we got a lot of gigs because we had a strobe light [laughs].
Were you just playing locally, in Mount Airy?
Just around here. We were actually in a battle of these bands when I was 15—and we won. We got 100 bucks, so everybody got 20 bucks apiece. I remember coming home that night and it was like 11 o’clock—mom and dad done gone to bed. But when I came in, the lights come on and [my dad] said, “How’d you do?” and I said, “We won.” He said, “Well, what did you get?” and I said, “I got twenty bucks!” And daddy just comes right up out of the bed and said, “Well, if you’ve found something you love to do and you get paid to do it, you should stick with it.”
What was it like growing up in Mount Airy? We all know it as Mayberry.
Well back then, it was. You could leave your windows open during the summer, you could leave your keys in the car, you could leave your front door unlocked at night. It was peaceful and it was pretty much like Mayberry. When Andy became part of that TV show and everything, it was kind of a reflection of this town. It was simpler times.
Was there a rebellious side to Mount Airy that we didn’t see on The Andy Griffith Show?
Yeah, we were the antithesis of that. We were the first ones to have long hair. Everybody thought we were hippies, but we were really cool people, just laid back. And we didn’t do drugs. We were long hair and rock ’n’ roll but we stayed away from all that stuff. And then we had the name, Brotherhood of Peace, which a lot of people thought was really cool because of the hippy thing. And then the more we got exposed, people were like, “Why they got a name like that for?”
You were in a group before Brotherhood of Peace, correct?
The New Americans. This was a chorus group. At one time we had as many as seventy in the choir. We did patriotic songs, we did pop music, we did religious music. And the conductor decided he wanted a band to back up the group which would make it even more exciting. He said, “Why don’t you put a band together?” So—a couple of the guys that were already in the chorus could play instruments and we recruited a couple of others. So, we ended up with myself, a bass player, a drummer, a keyboard player, a sax player, and a lead singer. We did that for about a year and played to the biggest crowd I’ve ever played in my life. It was at Atlanta Stadium and it was 1969—55,000 people. And I was 16.
When would you see this iteration of Brotherhood of Peace starts gathering steam?
It was about ’73 or ’74. That’s when we went to Winston and played Rittenhouse Square. And Bobby Locke told me about this guy who had a mobile recording truck, and it was Don Dixon. We just ran a snake from the truck into the club at Rittenhouse and mic’d everything and he recorded us. Now, this was on WTOB. It was for a late-night radio show, but you know, at midnight they would play whatever. I remember we had to drive down to Germanton because you couldn’t pick it up here. And we did! I remember going down there and sitting in the parking lot of this gas station — “That’s us, man!”
We talked to Don again, and he said, “Well, do you guys have any of your own stuff?” I had lots of songs, so we started recording our own stuff on to cassette—just getting ideas together. So, once we had about 10, I called Don and he said, “Well, just send me the tapes.” So, I sent him a cassette and he said, “We’ve got something we can work with here!”
We got our stuff together and went down to Reflection [Studios]. It was like maybe the second week of October, ’75. I remember we got there at like noon. We stayed there from noon that day ’til about 5 o’clock the next morning doing the rhythm tracks. We went in the next day and did all the vocals. And we just left it up to Don and [Arrogance guitarist] Robert [Kirkland] to put it all together and mix and they both did back-up vocals. And Rod Abernathy! He already had stuff on PBS in the ’70s — “The Woodwright’s Shop” That background music? Rod Abernathy wrote that.
What was your objective—were you hoping you could get a record deal or?
Yes. See—we were young. I was 22 years old. And they were telling us, “Well, we’re going to go ahead and record this album and we’ll put it on our label, and you can take these and give ‘em to radio stations and help promote yourself.” And we sold them at gigs, and you know, things like that. But we were hoping there would be somebody along the way that would’ve said, “Hey—these guys have got potential, let’s do something with them.” Especially cause we were self-contained as a trio. There were no problems, no issues, no habits, and we were ready to go.
Well, we rode it out. The first thing, the album came out—it was delayed. We recorded in October, we thought it would be out by the first of the year but it didn’t come out ’til March. Dixon told me that he thought he was gonna get a production deal with Chelsea Records and he said, “I’m gonna take this [Brotherhood of Peace] album and put it with Chelsea and we’ll get nationwide distribution.” That never happened. We hooked up with [booking agency] Hit Attractions and they said, “You need to add another guitar player; you need to add a keyboard player.” And we got a lot of offers to go do things, but people still were skittish of us ‘cause we were three piece. Even Grand Funk—they were a trio in the beginning, but once they added the keyboard player, that’s when “We’re an American Band” came out, and that took ‘em right to the top.
Being from Mount Airy, was it an advantage? A disadvantage? Did it make you seem exotic?
Nobody could figure out who we were. Everywhere we went. ‘Cause it wasn’t anywhere around here. We started playing Raleigh when the Switch was called the Crabtree Lounge. And all these locals were checking us out: “Well, who are these guys?!” You know, what are they doing down here. One of the first Capricorn [Records] gigs we did with Captain Beyond was right down below Raleigh and that exposed us to the area. I think it was in Clinton? Or is it Clayton? At a place called Harvey B’s—two nights there with Captain Beyond—Bobby Caldwell, Larry Reinhart, Lee Dorman from Iron Butterfly.
Tell me about love at first sight with the talk box.
I got the plans from Joe Walsh. It showed how to build one and I actually built one in my basement. You know what an 8-track is? An 8-track tape? Those little boxes that they used to come in? You could put like 10 or 12 in there? I took that box apart and cut some holes in it and mounted the driver inside of it and hooked up the jacks to it and learned how to use it—used it on the album. But once we started traveling, it wasn’t reliable to set up. So, at that time, Dean Markley had a prototype—100 watt—and I’ve still got that one. I’ve blown the driver in it a time or two. Peter Frampton told me about that. I met him back in ’76. I said, “Peter, you use the talk box all the time. You never have any problem with yours?” He said, “Well, what problem do you have?” And I said I keep blowing the driver in it. He says, “We’ll turn the volume down.” Of course, I’m like, Duh.
When you listen to this material today, how do you feel about it? What’s it sound like?
It’s a part of me. I remember writing every one of them. I continued to write. I had enough for probably two more albums after this. Frank Shepherd came in in ’78, and he stayed with us a year. Then I added another bass player, Dale Williams. He was from Fayetteville, and he pretty much rode it out the last six months with us. But about Memorial Day weekend of ’79, that’s when we called it quits. And I came home and then I felt guilty—I felt like I would always regret it, you know? I just came home and started writing songs. So, by the end of the summer of that year, I went out and found a local band—young guys—and I just told them, listen: If y’all want to go out, really, and get some gigs? Y’all back me up and we’ll get this together. So, we rehearsed for a month or two and we went out and started playing gigs. Well, it was like a 5-piece band and all of a sudden it was a trio again. And from basically about 1980 to now, it’s always been a trio.
So, sell me on the trio; do you feel like it’s a format that suits you?
I think the energy level is what makes it what it is. Everybody’s really working hard and listening to keep that energy going. When they were trying to sell us back in the day, club owners and concert people would say, “A trio? Well, that’s not enough sound!” But after they heard us? It was like, “Oh, there’s enough sound there.”
Any parting thoughts about the Brotherhood of Peace?
We did it all and saw it all. It was a good initiation for a bunch of local hometown boys. We saw how the big boys do it, even though a lot of times, they put us on the same bill with groups that had already reached fame and were on their way down. And that was kind of disappointing. I remember one of the first ones we did was a New Year’s Eve gig and it was a three-band-deal. Hydra, out of Atlanta, was the headliner. It was in Elkin. They revamped the old Lyric Theater and made a nice club out of it. We were all psyched up, we’d done our set, and [Hydra] showed up backstage and I’d never seen anybody so drunk and messed up. And I thought to myself, “So this is what it’s like to be a star?”
About the Author
Jonathan Kirby is a record collector, author, and producer with the esteemed reissue label, the Numero Group. A native of Winston-Salem, he is an authority on music recorded in the Carolinas and has amassed thousands of independently produced records from the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, spanning all genres from doo-wop to hip-hop, folk to funk to rock. From 2007 to 2010, he served as the Associate Editor for the Brooklyn-based music Journal, Wax Poetics, before joining the Numero Group in 2011. He has been nominated for two Grammys in relation to his archival work—in 2014 for his expansive liner notes for Purple Snow: Forecasting the Minneapolis Sound and again in 2017 for producing Bobo Yeye: Belle Epoque in Upper Volta. He returned to Winston-Salem in May of 2018 to intensify his research and preservation of the underrated, unknown, and marginalized musicians of North Carolina. He has just completed the cover story for the Oxford American South Carolina Music Issue, where he goes deep on the musical accomplishments of Lake City native and astronaut Dr. Ronald McNair, whose untimely death aboard the Challenger in 1986 put a tragic end to saxophone solos performed in orbit.