Willard Gayheart was born in 1932, in eastern Kentucky in the tiny mountain community of Cordia, not far out of Hazard. His was a rugged and modest upbringing in Depression-era Appalachia. At age 12, Willard was given the job of starting the fires each morning in each of the four potbelly stoves at his school. He had his teacher, Ms. Sloan, save the money he earned and slowly accumulated $3.00, enough to buy a used Montgomery Ward parlor-sized guitar. He spent the summer practicing and got to where he could accompany himself singing, and would perform as a duo with his friend, Elmer Ray Combs, for school functions.
Willard went on to Berea College in Kentucky, but left to join the Air Force during the Korean War, where he served as a cryptographer until his discharge in 1955. He returned to Berea after his time in the service and enrolled in an English composition class with a professor named Ms. Faulkner who encouraged Willard to “write about what you know, in your own voice.” This lesson greatly contributed to his eventual path as an artist and songwriter.
In 1962, Willard and his wife Pat moved with their first child to Galax, Virginia, and it was there that he found his musical home. Willard and his friend, three-finger-style-banjo player Jimmy Zeh, joined James Lindsey and the Mountain Ramblers, who, after shifting some members over the years, would become one of Galax’s longest running bands. In 1970, Willard formed The Highlanders, which recorded 3 albums for Bobby Patterson’s Heritage Records.
Willard retired in the mid-1990s, and turned his focus to his budding career as a pencil artist. These days, he can be found picking with his son-in-law, Scott Freeman, and beloved granddaughter, Dori Freeman, most Friday nights at his frame shop. Already a brilliant songwriter and performer in her early twenties, Dori’s first two solo releases, her self-titled debut and the follow-up Letters Never Read, have taken the Americana world by storm. “Just a natural talent. I’m so proud of her,” Willard beams. With Dori’s encouragement, Willard has produced his first CD, at the age of 84. Willard joins Dori, Scott, and Dori’s husband, Nick Falk, for his debut performance at the 2019 Richmond Folk Festival.