Asheville's Ghost Mountain R&B Digs Up the Spirit of Knoxville's Brownie McGhee

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J.P. Delanoye, the guitarist and harmonica player for the Asheville, N.C., band Ghost Mountain R&B, doesn't remember when he first heard the music of Walter "Brownie" McGhee, the blues guitarist best known for his long partnership with harmonica player Sonny Terry. But it made a lasting impression on him.

"If you're in music, you've known Brownie McGhee since you were a kid," Delanoye says.

Ghost Mountain R&B—Delanoye, keyboardist Rick McQuillis, bassist Brian Wardrep, and drummer Richard Foulk—have spent most of the last decade combining blues, R&B, and New Orleans jazz in North Carolina bars and at regional jazz and blues festivals. During their performance at the Knoxville Museum of Art's Alive After Five series this weekend, they'll play several songs in tribute to McGhee, who was born in Knoxville in 1915 and spent at least part of his childhood here, as well as in Kingsport, Lenoir City, and Maryville.

Much of McGhee's reputation is based on the acoustic music he and Terry recorded and played live during the folk revival of the late '50s and early '60s. But Delanoye says the amplified big-band blues of Ghost Mountain R&B isn't very different from the electric blues recorded by McGhee and Terry in New York in the 1940s.

"Most of his career he did have a full band, especially in the '40s and '50s," Delanoye says. "Rhythm section and horns and all. We'll be as faithful as possible to the spirit, if not the letter, of what he was doing. It's not that big a stretch."

During the late 1930s, McGhee toured around North Carolina with Blind Boy Fuller, who also played and recorded with Terry. When Fuller died in 1941, McGhee and Terry formed their own partnership and, in 1942, moved to New York. The folk boom of the 1930s, when the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and Delta bluesmen like Son House, Skip James, and Robert Johnson were hit-makers, was over; big bands and the seeds of what would become known as rhythm and blues were on the radio and selling records. John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters were plugging in the Delta blues in Detroit and Chicago. The bands fronted by Terry and McGhee during the '40s were electric, amplified, and probably loud—they were billed as either Brownie McGhee and his Jook House Rockers or Sonny Terry and his Buckshot Five. (McGhee's younger brother, Granville "Stick" McGhee, had his own success in R&B: He wrote and recorded "Drinkin' Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee," generally considered one of the first rock 'n' roll songs. It was later a huge hit for Jerry Lee Lewis.)

McGhee and Terry found new audiences on college campuses during the early 1960s. What seemed like an entire generation of blues singers and folk musicians, from bluesmen like Bukka White to the mountain-music legend Doc Watson, suddenly found their old-style music in demand following the success of the Kingston Trio, Bob Dylan, and Pete Seeger. McGhee and Terry went back to their acoustic roots, performing their Piedmont-style blues—influenced by ragtime jazz—and recording a string of popular albums together.

"The Delta style involves a slide approach," Delanoye says. "The Piedmont style is a little more piano-like, with alternating bass and an intricate fingerpicking style"

The partnership dissolved in the 1970s. McGhee went on to appear in a handful of movies, including The Jerk with Steve Martin and the New Orleans voodoo thriller Angel Heart. He died in 1996.

"Sonny Terry was a bridge to Blind Boy Fuller, so there's a lineage back to the '30s," says Delanoye. "It's great music, and they had such a lengthy career. They were electric, almost a big band thing, then during the '60s they had a whole different stripped-down style. And then for 20 years after that [McGhee] was something of a hybrid. Toward the end of his career he got back into an electric approach. We'll have a few tunes from each phase."

Ghost Mountain R&B performed this tribute act once before, in Kingsport a few years ago. They met some of McGhee's relatives there, and Delanoye hopes they'll run across a few this time, too.

"It seems like he got around a bit," he says. "It's kind of neat to follow him around. It's hard to imagine what things were like back then. But this is something it's a privilege to be invited to."