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Being for the Benefit of Billy Constable

Article Published: Oct. 20, 2011 | Modified: Oct. 26, 2011
Being for the Benefit of Billy Constable

Picker extraordinaire Billy Constable taught many High Country musicians how to properly perform bluegrass. Now, his friends are banding together for a benefit concert to offset his medical expenses.
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Jon Jon Davis once asked world-renowned guitarist Tony Rice if he’d ever heard of Billy Constable.
“I know him,” Rice replied. “That’s a good picker.”

Davis, guitarist for area bluegrass outfit Boss Hawg, agrees. Having studied under Constable, he learned more than just how to pick. He learned the meaning of bluegrass.

Although a regular performer in the High Country music scene, Constable’s pickin’ and grinnin’ has been heard over the hills and far away, having performed with the Doug Dillard Band, Charlie Moore, The String Cheese Incident, Larry Keel, Hypnotic Clam Bake and many others.

“He was a mentor to all of us,” Davis said, “and he’s played with everybody.”

And now they’re going to play for him. Constable is scheduled to undergo surgery to remove a brain tumor, and his friends are helping foot the bill with an Oct. 26 benefit concert at Murphy’s Restaurant & Pub.

The lineup includes Big Daddy Love, Boss Hawg and Upright & Breathin’, three bands that have been directly influenced by Constable’s musicianship and kindness.

“You see, a lot of us didn’t catch the bluegrass bug until we got to college,” Big Daddy Love’s Brian Swenk said. “And as we were all meeting each other and learning how to play this beautiful music, Billy Constable was there showing us the right way to do it.”

Mark Schimick plays mandolin for Larry Keel and Natural Bridge and performs regularly with Boss Hawg. Also a student and friend Constable’s, having shared billing with him frequently, he’ll be joining the Hawg at Murphy’s Wednesday.

“Billy Constable was the main bluegrass teacher for Jon Jon and myself,” he said. “When we were learning how to play, I was in a band … Dogs of a Feather, and we were doing original music and kind of not exactly learning how to play bluegrass.”

They had an idea of how to play the rhythms of first-generation-style bluegrass, even some old-time, but Constable heard them differently.

“When he first heard us play, he heard a bunch of green musicians, as far as bluegrass is concerned, but he heard how we knew to play the rhythm to it,” Schimick said.

During the next couple years, Constable became their bluegrass mentor, teaching them how to play solos, sing the parts and behave on the road. “In a lot of ways, he helped us all get started on how to become professional musicians,” Schimick said.

Swenk agrees.

“He was always helping us learn new songs, but he also taught us how to really hear the music, like the old-timers,” Swenk said. “He taught us where to find the spirit of the music, and for that, we will forever be indebted to him.”

Schimick told how Constable’s first band experience was with bluegrass performer extraordinaire Charlie Moore, who was married to Constable’s mother at the time. He later performed with the Doug Dillard Band and is featured on the album, “Jack Rabbit,” performing lead guitar alongside “Father of Newgrass” Sam Bush on mandolin.

Schimick, Davis and company met him when he was coming out of a stint with Hypnotic Clam Bake, in which he was playing banjo.

“He just gained a reputation in the ’90s jam band scene as a banjo player,” Schimick said, adding that Constable also performed with The String Cheese Incident, even appearing on the band’s album, “Carnival ’99.” “For the last 10 years, he’s been mostly doing gigs around Western North Carolina and what not, just kind of laying low.”

As Davis will attest, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“He’s a real friendly guy, what I always referred to as a ‘late-nighter,’” he said. “He’s the guy who shows up at midnight and will pick with you till 5 in the morning.”

“Playing with him is like playing with family,” Schimick said. “He’s just as down to earth playing on stage as he is hanging out.”

The Oct. 26 benefit will see 100 percent of proceeds going toward Constable and his medical expenses, and a Boss Hawg show Oct. 29, also at Murphy’s, will also raise some funds. Schimick’s also planning a similar event in Asheville.

“Billy’s really happy to see the outpouring of people trying to help him,” he said. “We’re real lucky to have him as a friend, because there aren’t many people out there like him, and not many bluegrass musicians out there are like him either. He’s one of a kind, a rare breed left of old-school mountaineers.”

The Billy Constable benefit at Murphy’s takes place Wednesday, Oct. 26, starting at 7 p.m. There will be a cover, and all proceeds benefit Constable. Murphy’s Restaurant & Pub is located at 747 W. King St. in downtown Boone. For more information, call (828) 264-5117.

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