Like they played back home

Eddie Bond embodies a Virginia tradition as a National Heritage Fellow and Richmond Folk Festival performer

 Photo: Pat Jarrett

Photo: Pat Jarrett

One of Virginia’s most highly decorated musicians will return to the stage at the Richmond Folk Festival this fall.

In September, Eddie Bond will travel to Washington, D.C., where he’ll be presented with the National Endowment for the Arts National Heritage Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor for traditional artists. In October, he’ll travel to Richmond for the Folk Festival, where he’ll perform with the New Ballard’s Branch Bogtrotters.

“Virginia has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to old-time musicians,” said Jon Lohman, director of the Virginia Folklife Program at Virginia Humanities, and producer of the Virginia Folklife Area at the Richmond Folk Festival. “Anyone will tell you that Eddie is as special as they come. The Bogtrotters are the gold standard for straight-ahead traditional old-time string bands in Virginia and we couldn’t be more thrilled to have them grace our stage this year and to celebrate Eddie’s prestigious national recognition.”

A family tradition

The award is the culmination of a lifetime of music for Bond, who grew up in the town of Fries (“We pronounce it ‘fries’ in the summer and ‘freeze’ in the winter,” he said.), a small town in Grayson County, Virginia. Bond hails from a musical family and at the age of 8, his grandmother, Granny Widner, handed him a guitar she’d borrowed from her sister.

“A couple of years after that, my Grandpa Bond owned a pawn shop, so he always had instruments and he’d bring them to me and say ‘you play them until you get tired of them and then you bring them back,’ Bond said. “Of course I never got tired of them.”

When he was 12, he was given a banjo by his grandfather, who wanted him to learn clawhammer banjo. His uncle Leon Hill wanted him to play like Earl Scruggs but it was the clawhammer that stuck.

Nevertheless, it was Leon who was the most instrumental musician in Bond’s life. “My Uncle Leon was real good to play with,” he said. “He’d take me around to play music with his friends.”

 Photo: Pat Jarrett

Photo: Pat Jarrett

Listening and learning

By 13 or 14, Bond had picked up the fiddle and could keep up with the adults he played with.

“I played a lot with my neighbors, Claude Childress and Bass Tate,” he said. “Those are the two guys that got me started on the fiddle.”

Bond never took lessons – he just learned by watching and listening.

“You just picked up what you could,” he said. “Mostly it was just watching them and picking it up. You’d say ‘How do you play “Soldier’s Joy?”’ and they’d play it for you and you’d try to copy it.”

Now a high school music teacher, Bond instructs his students the same way.

“I don’t read music,” he said. “I read a little, but not enough to hurt my playing.”

In the Army

Bond kept playing with friends and neighbors around Fries until, at age 17, he joined the Army and ended up in the first Gulf War.

“I ran into a guy from Kentucky who played guitar and he asked if I’d brought my fiddle,” Bond said. “I said ‘I didn’t know you were supposed to bring that stuff here,’ and he said ‘Well get someone to send it to you – the colonel’s setting up a band.’”

Bond called home and had his mother mail his fiddle to Saudi Arabia. It took weeks to arrive but once it did, Bond and some other soldiers got together to play a concert one night for their fellow soldiers.

“There wasn’t much to do in Saudi,” he said. “So we got together and played for them. We just played anything and everything anybody knew to play.”

When it was Bond’s turn to pick the song, he started playing “Leather Britches,” because it was a fairly simple tune to follow along on.

“When we finished, Jim Greer, the banjo player, he looked at me and said ‘Where are you from?’ and I told him ‘You’ve never heard of it’ and he said ‘I bet I have – you learned that song from Albert Hash, didn’t you?’ I said ‘now how did you know that?’ and he said ‘I’m from Whitetop.’ Turns out we were from opposite sides of the same county. Thousands of Army guys in Saudi and we ended up playing together.”

Back to Fries and around the world

 Photo: Pat Jarrett

Photo: Pat Jarrett

Seven years later, Bond was out of the Army and back home in Fries.

He started his own band called Old Time Tradition and they played together at festivals and competitions for years.

When the band broke up, Bond joined the New Ballard’s Branch Bogtrotters in 2001. He married Bonnie Bird, who plays bass fiddle in the band, and together they’ve been touring the nation and even traveling overseas.

“I’ve played in Scotland, Ireland, Australia and England,” he said. “If opportunity knocks, I always want to take it.”

Coming up

It’s a shorter trip than they sometimes take, but this fall, Bond and the New Ballard’s Branch Bogtrotters will be among the featured performers at the Richmond Folk Festival, which runs Oct. 12-14.

That’s only two weeks after Bond performs at a free concert in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 28 as part of the ceremony welcoming him as a National Heritage Fellow.

“That award is pretty exciting,” Bond said. “One of my biggest heroes, Tommy Jarrell, he won it years ago, and a real good friend of mine here in Grayson County, Wayne Henderson, he won this award too. Of course I don’t think I deserve it like they did, but it’s a real honor.”