Robert Andy Kyle Creed (September 20, 1912 – November 26, 1982) has been referred to as “A Legendary Old-Time Musician.” He grew up at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Beulah/Round Peak community in northwestern Surry County, North Carolina. Coming from a musical family and being surrounded by old-time music, he was just as adept at playing the fiddle as the banjo. Kyle’s music was influenced by his father, Qualey Creed; his uncle, John Lowe; family friend, Baugie Cockerham, and others from the area.
As a young man, Kyle married Percy Hicks (March 17, 1912 – January 18, 1999) and had two daughters, Ida Lou and Lenora. He was skilled at sawmill operations, carpentry, and stone masonry. He had a love for horses and used them for farming and sawmilling as well as for pleasure, and was known to organize wagon trains often. Handling horses and playing music were forms of relaxation for Kyle. At times he found it necessary to relocate his family to different parts of the country in order to follow his occupation. Kyle and Percy moved from Beaver Dam, Virginia, to Galax, Virginia, specifically the Coleman Community in Carroll County in 1960, where they bought a country store. Percy tended the store while Kyle worked construction until his retirement. Not long after moving Kyle encountered John Patterson at the store and he told Kyle he would like for him to get with his son, Bobby, who played some music; Bobby and Kyle played directly and this got Kyle fired up about playing music and he thought about reuniting with his “old music buddies” from the 1930s and 1940s. In 1961 together with Paul Sutphin, Earnest East, Fred Cockerham, Verlen Clifton and Ronald Collins, Kyle formed the Camp Creek Boys old-time stringband and began making a few recordings under his own recording label, Mountain Records, as well as Dave Freeman’s County Records. Kyle was active in making appearances, participating in workshops, and playing at fiddlers’ conventions and folk festivals at various colleges and also the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C.
To simply say that Kyle was a talented musician would be an understatement. He started learning to play banjo and fiddle when he was a young teenager. Kyle’s banjo playing can be described as being clean and crisp, melody-driven and precise with excellent timing. He appeared on the County Records LP Clawhammer Banjo: Volume 1 recorded and produced by Charles Faurot in 1965. Perhaps Kyle’s most well-known recording is the mid-1960s Camp Creek Boys: Old-Time String Band LP which features both his fiddling and banjo playing. The Liberty album, Mountain Records 304, also highlights Kyle’s signature tunes and banjo playing style, which is regarded as a must-have recording for any serious old-time music aficionado.
In addition to be being an excellent banjo player, Kyle was equally good at playing the fiddle. His fiddle playing was straight-forward, melody-driven, and peppy; it makes people want to dance. When fiddling, Kyle often preferred a three-finger roll over a clawhammer lick for back up. This combination can be heard on numerous home recordings and Blue Ridge Style Square Dance Time, Mountain Records 301. This unique mix of old-time mountain music and bluegrass music, especially an old-time fiddle with a three-finger bluegrass type roll, is known as the Galax Sound, which Jerry Steinberg discussed in the liner notes of the 1972 Ted Lundy and theSouthern Mountain Boys, GHP Records LP-909. Many musicians from this era were raised in families who loved and respected old-time music, and yet they were also influenced by newer bluegrass sounds over the radio. Thus came a generation of musicians who created a blend of newer bluegrass techniques while holding onto old-time music traditions, songs and tunes in an area where old-time and bluegrass could co-exist and flourish. Interestingly, there was a strong square dance tradition in the area and often three-finger roll banjo players played with old-time fiddlers for these dances. This aided in keeping the Galax Sound timing at an old-time danceable rhythm.
Due to his carpentry work, Kyle often suffered injuries to his fingers, especially his banjo-picking fingernail. This led him to develop a double-sided fingerpick made out of a Model T headlight reflector to wear. The double-sided pick design enabled him to switch between clawhammer and fingerpick style on the banjo without removing the pick.
Kyle—The Banjo Builder, Craftsman and Innovator
At age sixteen, Kyle crafted his first banjo out of poplar wood using a draw knife, pocket knife, a handsaw, and a brace and bit. After Kyle and Percy moved to Carroll County in 1960, he built Fred Cockerham a banjo to encourage him to get back into playing the banjo regularly. Repairing musical instruments and building personal banjos was the beginning of a new career for Kyle. Soon he had a list of orders for his custom made banjos to be shipped throughout the United States and to Canada, England, Australia, and Japan.
Kyle was an innovator in banjo building. He excelled in his trade as a carpenter and this aided in his craftsmanship abilities. Also, Kyle was an excellent banjo player in the clawhammer and the older two-finger picking styles, and, being an excellent banjo player, he knew the qualities that were most desirable in an old-time banjo. While growing up in and around music he noticed the fretless banjos played by the older musicians in the area had the bridge located toward the center of the banjo's head. Kyle's theory was, that since the bridge was placed in the center of the head on the fretless banjos, he would design many of his fretted banjos around this concept. Thus, he came up with a formula to shorten the scale length--the distance between the nut and the bridge--to bring the bridge toward the center of the head. Kyle later discovered that buying pre-slotted Gibson-style banjo fingerboards and cutting the first fret's wood away would shorten the scale of the banjo, which would bring the bridge toward the center of the head, therefore making it a shorter scale. Today, the shorter scale length is considered very desirable by most open-back banjo players and is used by open-back banjo builders around the world.
Also being a carpenter and sawmiller, Kyle knew about the particular characteristics of different types of wood. He often used local wood in his banjo building process. These woods included maple, curly maple, wild cherry, American black walnut, apple, and even some dogwood. Kyle himself, said he liked to experiment, and often did so in banjo making techniques with local friend, Pearly Bryant. Kyle built banjos with 11- and 12-inch rims, both laminated and block style. He even retro-fitted tenor and plectrum banjo rims with his 5-string necks and he even built a few resonator banjos. He also came up with most of his own peghead designs. He made some of his own tone rings from brass and bronze. Kyle used what was available to him, and in his experiments he used table-top Formica on the fingerboards and peg heads of both fretted and fretless banjos. This was tedious and work-intensive on fretted banjos, with each piece of Formica being cut to fit between the fret slots, but was much easier on the fretless banjos due to the fact the Formica fingerboard could be cut in one piece. Fretless banjo players liked the Formica fingerboards because it was easier for them to slide their fingers to the note. As mentioned earlier, Kyle built a fretless banjo for his friend Fred Cockerham, from Lowgap, North Carolina, and this banjo along with another Kyle fretless banjo is housed in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. All of the banjos Kyle built are highly sought after by players and collectors today because of their uniqueness, sound, and playability. Although Kyle did not begin numbering his banjos until 1975, recent and ongoing research by Kevin Fore and Bob Carlin has shown that Kyle most likely built just under two hundred banjos.
Always the entrepreneur, Kyle saw an opportunity to start a recording label and studio after he had witnessed other people recording music and had been featured on several County LPs. So Kyle, along with business partner, Bobby Patterson, formed Mountain Records in 1972. Bobby remembers, “My Dad, John Patterson, let me build a studio on his land next to our house. Kyle helped with the building by laying the blocks and some of the 2nd story construction. We were in together on the recording equipment that we started with. I purchased the recorder and Kyle bought the mixing equipment and some of the mics.” Kyle and Bobby released the first Mountain Records recording with music performed by their group, “Kyle Creed, Bobby Patterson and the Camp Creek Boys.” This historic 1972 recording was Mountain Records 301, entitled Blue Ridge Style Square DanceTime. Musicians appearing on this recording included Kyle Creed, fiddle; Pete Lissmann, guitar; Roy Russell, guitar; Bobby Patterson, banjo; Dave Freeman, mandolin; and Katie Lundy Golding, bass. According to Bobby, during the recording of Blue Ridge Style Square Dance Time the studio was full of local folks who wanted to watch the recording process!
With the establishment of Mountain Records—and later Heritage Records—Kyle and Bobby provided local music groups access to the first local commercial recording studio in the area. Here in the Coal Creek community of Carroll County, Virginia, was a place where local groups could go to record, produce and attain albums to sell to their fans; in turn, these albums served to document the rich musical traditions of the area as a result. Other artists that appeared on the Mountain label were The Pine River Boys, Tom Norman, Evelyn Beamer, The Browns, Albert Hash and the Whitetop Mountain Band, and The Corklickers. Mountain Records even produced an album by The Southern Express, led by Pete Lissmann, from New York City entitled North & South, Mountain 307.
As with any type of business, change came to Mountain Records after a couple of years. Bobby recalls, “We worked together until 1974 when we divided the equipment and he made a room in his old store building for recording because he wanted to record old-time music and I was interested in recording bluegrass.”
In 1979, when Kyle began experiencing health problems, he decided to sell Mountain Records. With the help of Dave Freeman, Bobby was able to purchase the label from Kyle. Over seven years, from 1972 to 1979, there were fourteen albums produced on the Mountain Records label.
In September 2009, Kevin Fore, also a banjo builder and player in the Kyle Creed tradition decided to hold a celebration to recognize the contributions Kyle made to old-time music. The first Kyle Creed Banjo Show was held at the String Bean Coffee Shop, Main Street, Galax, Virginia. The event brought together Kyle’s family, friends, and fans to reminisce about him as a person, his music and his banjos. Here, Fore carried on his continuing documentation of measuring, photographing and collecting information about Kyle’s banjos. While collecting technical information about the banjos, Fore was also fortunate enough to hear the unique stories people told about getting their Kyle Creed banjos. Jeffrey Yamada, a Japanese banjoist, traveled from his home in Japan to attend the event!
The second Kyle Creed Banjo Show was held in September 2012, at the Blue Ridge Music Center. Again, Fore hosted a day of honor to “Celebrate 100 years of Kyle Creed.” The day consisted of a Kyle Creed Banjo display, an on-going Kyle Creed slide show, a storytelling session where family and friends reminisced about their days of being with Kyle, and a concert featuring musicians who had played with Kyle. The event concluded with a Kyle Creed Banjo finale, in which all the owners of Kyle banjos joined in the last tune played on stage that night.
In 2013, Kyle was inducted into the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.
Planning is now underway for a third Kyle Creed Banjo Show, tentatively set for September 2015.
Through Kyle's innovative ideas, experiments, and playing skills he has impacted old-time banjo builders, banjo players and also fiddle players throughout the world.
*This document was a joint project by Kevin and Trish K. Fore with valuable guidance provided by Kyle’s daughters, Ida Lou O’Neal and Lenora Gonyo; Kyle’s grandson, Stanley Gonyo; as well as Kyle’s friends, Charles Faurot, Tom Mylet, Katie Lundy Golding, Bobby Patterson, and Jerry Steinberg.
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