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||a tribute by Dennis Cochran|
Not A Perfect Man, Just A Good Man
In May 2000 one of my dearest friends and one of the most talented musicians to ever pick up a stringed instrument passed from this world, leaving us with only his hard driving sounds and, for me, the gratitude for having known him. My friend's name was Bill Napier, and this is my tribute to him.
Bill was a mischievous, delightfully artistic and personable man with a musical ability that is completely undeniable. His original style of picking is remembered, admired and emulated by countless bluegrass players and fans around the world.
One of Bill Napier's most popular mandolin tunes, Daybreak in Dixie, is found at many sites on the World Wide Web, for sale in recorded form and in tablature. Bluegrass groups play it everywhere on the planet. I'm sure we could call Daybreak In Dixie a bluegrass standard with no exaggeration. Along with Daybreak, Bill wrote and collaborated on many other songs, most of them with Charlie Moore, who, along with being a talented writer and musician, had one of the most distinctive country voices around. Bill got his first break with the Stanley Brothers in the fifties, continued with Charlie Moore and the Dixie Partners during the sixties, and played with many other artists along the way. At the time of his death Bill's career in music spanned more than forty years. His hard driving style is seamless, timeless, and traditional, but it's for and about the man himself that I write this tribute.
I met Bill in 1988 after moving to Michigan from Oklahoma. I had been in Michigan for a little over a year and had found some musician friends to jam with, but all were into electric music while I was really looking for acoustical gratification. Bluegrass in Southwest Michigan is not as prevalent as it is 500 miles further south, although I was surprised to find out that popular country music is very strong. I found out about Bill Napier from a friend of his who owned a guitar shop in town, and he played some of Bill's music on his stereo for me. I have to admit, while I had heard the name, Moore and Napier, I was no bluegrass historian and wasn't entirely familiar with their music. But when I heard Bill playing guitar, mandolin and then banjo on the tape I perked up and took notice. I could easily tell that this was an experienced musician at work and really liked what this guy was playing. His friend told me Bill lived just a little ways out of town and gave me Bill's address. I left straight from the guitar shop to drive to Bill's house nonstop. Funny thing was, even before I walked up to Bill's front door I sort of felt like I was driving to see an old friend. When I got there Karla, Bill's wife, cordially answered the door, invited me in and there was Bill, sitting on the divan in the living room. He had a face with the word "jolly" written all over it, with features that looked like he could be related to Earl Scruggs. Karla offered me a cup of coffee and sat me down.
While we broke some ice he impressed me as a soft spoken man with heavy Virginia accent that vocalized a gentle humor with a warm chuckle that would originate in the back of his throat. We talked about music, exchanged a little information about ourselves and he invited me to come down to Indiana for a show he was playing with some friends the following weekend. After that he stuck a flat top guitar in my hands and picked up his mandolin. Before I knew it five hours passed by and the clock was striking ten p.m. with Bill ironing out my rhythm guitar and showing me some kick offs and endings. His honest enthusiasm for the music was unstoppable and I seemed to be catching it like a cold. While my music background came mostly from rock and roll, I had turned back to acoustic music and was then playing softer folk and pop tunes. Now all of a sudden here I was getting a first class lesson in traditional bluegrass from a first generation expert and getting the bug. It was very difficult to leave that first evening, but I had to let these nice folks sleep sometime. I left his house thinking that this guy has a special quality you don't find everyday (later to become an understatement).
Over the next few months he patiently worked with my techniques and punctuation on rhythm guitar that are so necessary for traditional bluegrass. While I always considered myself pretty talented musically, it was clear to me that I was more than a few buckets shy of what Bill was born with and had decades less experience. What came hard and laborious for me Bill played with ease and effortlessness. Even the hard earned techniques that I picked up along the way, such as bending notes, etc., he would gobble up, spit out, and toss aside because it wasn't traditional bluegrass. I could tell that, if he wanted to, he could play any kind of music, but he stuck strictly to traditional grass and couldn't be pried off. His energy was always contagious with his direct drive style of playing, with a stamina to match. He wore me totally out on more than a few evenings until my fingers were burning like match heads, then he kept right on playing with this knowing, mischievous grin on his face, like he was master of the situation and his fingers had all the right answers, which they did. Most of the time he played mandolin, then would switch to guitar or banjo to show me how he would handle a lead part to a particular song we were playing. It seemed to me that he handled all equally well and knew hundreds of songs. Within a couple of months, after having mastered a good solid background, I was playing guitar with Bill and Karla at local shows and festivals (Karla sings a real solid harmony). I continued to do so for the next four years, learning everything I could and having a perpetuated frustration at what I couldn't do. It was during this time that I met Bill's only real weakness in life, his drinking.
What is it about music and alcohol? They seem to go together like peaches and cream. Is it a bottle of bravery? A creative edge? Does it help to loosen up the fingers as well as the tongue? The Musician's Friend: some can leave it for the weekends and never have any real problem; others just can't keep their balance and get soulfully caught in the trap. To me, it seems like a container full of preferred illusions and warm feelings, with the highest of prices to be paid aside from money. For a while Bill was an expert at hiding his problem and resisted drinking in front of me. After a while he didn't bother. It was easy for me to tell myself that it was none of my business, Bill could play circles around me on my best day after having 6 rounds of drinks and never bat an eye. I was never more mistaken in my life. Looking back I now realize that his drinking had taken one of best musicians in the business and led him by the hand into a semi-retirement he wasn't content with. In time I would learn about some of Bill's regrets in his life, as we all do have them, and wondered if that may have greatly contributed to his receding from the public eye and settling into a "safer" life in rural Michigan. Other than the drinking, I couldn't blame him as I've seen what the entertainment industry can do to its own first hand and more often than not it's not a pretty sight, the public only sees the big successes. Karla's love, patience and strength helped to hold this good man together through this time in his life. Sometimes I was amazed at her patience. Bill never liked his drinking, always realizing it was getting in the way of his life, and decided to fight. He eventually won his battle and stopped drinking almost ten years ago by finding his faith, and through that, and Karla's love, his own strength. Even during this period with alcohol and his battle with it, Bill was one of the most caring and compassionate men I've ever met, who really did care for people. On many occasions I have seen him try to do what he could for people with no real thought for himself. After winning his battle against alcohol, Bill became a much more self assured man who validated and encouraged everyone he met. He became more outgoing. With that same hard driving style he and Karla played gospel music in churches and gatherings whenever and wherever they could, and Bill found himself again playing to admiring crowds. His last ten years, I believe, were his best years because Bill was at finally at peace with himself and his music.
Six years ago Bill and Karla moved down to Tennessee to follow more opportunities to play. For several years I had been trying to talk him into going back to where the bluegrass grows and find his way back to the big stages. I was very happy to see him return to his Appalachia roots to find some seasoned musicians to make music with, but was saddened by my own selfish loss. I played around on the instruments some, but it just wasn't the same. I didn't have anyone driving me.
While Bill Napier had quite a few heroes in the business, his biggest hero by far was Bill Monroe. He had a love for Big Monroe and his music and it resonated in every note Napier played. He was very proud to come from Appalachia and to have had the opportunity to take a part in the traditional bluegrass community to make his own bold statements. He never forgot for a moment that it was the people who loved and listened to the music, the fans, that kept the music alive. When Bill played in public was when he was certainly at his happiest. He had this gleam in his eye and this same "knowing" grin that always took over his face. He always wanted the audience to have at least as good a time as he was having and I think that's what made him a great showman. People loved him for his music and his wit. "Old Dad Napier" was a character he portrayed with the Stanleys in the fifties that demonstrated Bill's love for humor. Most of it was corny and endearing on stage, but Bill's own humor was a touch dry with a well developed sense of irony (sure sign of a sharp mind at work). No one was completely safe from his acute observations and sometimes a few have been inconvenienced by them. However these digs Bill would point at you were never meant to be malicious or hurtful, were often insightful, and often hitting the proverbial nail on the head. He always managed to cheer me up when my mood was down or when the music was making me frustrated with my own meager abilities.
In the time I knew him, Bill often talked about making it back to the Grand Ol' Opry at least once more to see if anyone remembered him and "Old Dad". I often wished somehow I had the power in my hands to make that happen. I would have given much to see it, and five years ago Bill would have given all of them more than their money's worth. To be honest I wondered why the Opry hadn't invited him back to their renowned stage long ago. I heard that the weekend after Bill's death he was given a tribute by Ricky Skaggs at the Opry and that Ricky played some of Bill's songs, including Daybreak in Dixie. (If anyone ever asks you who wrote Daybreak in Dixie, you tell them Bill Napier did. It's the truth. Unfortunately, as with many compositions the authorship is technically assigned elsewhere.)
While I appreciate seeing any tribute given to Bill Napier, the Opry tribute would have been much more meaningful if Bill could have seen it himself, or even better yet, taken part in it. Like so many other artists (I know because I'm an artist by trade), recognition and validation only comes during and after the funeral. Tributes like that should be meant for the living, and for Bill it would have meant so much. I think he earned it by creating some of the choicest mandolin and guitar licks around and played his part to help to keep bluegrass alive. Again, I don't want to discount Ricky's tribute at all and really want to thank him and the Opry on behalf of all of Bill's family and friends for doing it. Bill would have been very proud.
I last saw Bill Napier six months before he died. As I stated earlier, he had moved to Eastern Tennessee about five years earlier. He came up for a visit in Michigan with Karla in November of 1999, after undergoing several treatments for cancer. I had been rooting for him to beat this thing for months. Always glad to see those two, I had lunch with them at a local restaurant in town and we talked for about an hour. During the conversation I told him that I heading up the entertainment venue for my town's annual celebration this year in September, and that I wanted to book Bill and his group, Appalachian Strings, for a three hour show. He told me that he would be glad to do it and that he would let the group know about it as soon as he got home. I could tell by the look on his face that he was on to me. I admit I had a private agenda in that I wanted to play with Bill on stage again for old time's sake and was willing to bring him and the group all the way from Tennessee to do so. As I was leaving the restaurant he waved to me with that grin of his from the front door of the building and I knew in that instant without a shadow of a doubt that I would never see him again and that we were both having that exact same thought. He looked very tired to me and it made me think of a song he and Charlie wrote called, Praise God, I'm Ready To Go. As I was driving back to my house a cold, sinking feeling hit me. When I got home I just sat and stared at my guitar leaned up against a chair in my living room for over an hour before I could manage to get on with my day. I was thinking about the criteria by which we all judge our idols and heroes. How it's usually arranged in a way that few can ever live up to. How dangerous it is for people to put themselves in that unmanageable position and try to maintain it. How so often they fall short and find themselves without forgiveness and how quickly they see other heroes filling the void they once occupied. I told myself that I would never want to be anyone's hero, but am quite guilty of having my own. During the next few months I talked to Bill by phone several times, the last time to confirm and finalize arrangements for their upcoming appearance in Michigan. He sounded pretty good and I became more hopeful that I would see my friend again and even convinced myself that I was just dramatizing there at the restaurant. In May of 2000, always by his side, Karla called to inform me about Bill's passing. My friend and hero was gone.
The next day, without much sleep, I was on my way down to Tennessee to be with Bill's family and to help arrange his funeral. Once there, I got to the privilege of meeting the rest of his family and his good friends, including the group he was playing with, Appalachian Strings. It was a fine traditional bluegrass funeral, the kind that I would like to have when my time comes. The only bad note played during the whole ceremony was mine and I don't think Bill would have minded too much, he was already used to my playing. Bill's life was a long, slow circle that eventually brought him back to where he started, the somber mountains of Appalachia. I'm happy knowing that he got to spend the last of his years there and now rests in a place that embodies the tradition, history and music that formed Bill Napier's entire life.
Last September Appalachian Strings, Lawrence Winstead and his bunch, came to Michigan and played a wonderful show for us, just as I had already arranged with Bill earlier in the year. After the first set I went up on stage, hoping not to dislodge their winning streak, and played a couple of tunes with them. After I stepped off I asked them to play Daybreak in Dixie for me. Lawrence wanted me to stick around and play it with them, but I just couldn't. I had played with them at my house the night before and knew I would have a problem keeping up. With Kevin Horne on mandolin, they played it just right, just the way Bill would have liked it. It was also a few somber moments for both myself and my wife, Susan, who had played some bass for Bill and thought the world of him.
Bill Napier will probably not go down as a primary player in the halls of bluegrass history, although I think he should. He probably won't be remembered or celebrated with the same regard that is shown to some others in the business who have passed on including, of course, Napier's own hero, Bill Monroe. But that really isn't what's important anyway. What is important is that Bill lived his life and died doing what he did best and loved most. That was simply making people smile. With his music and his humor, he entertained with passion and sincerity. He had the respect of none other than Bill Monroe himself, the father of bluegrass, who didn't dispense compliments whimsically. What's also important is that even when musicians are playing traditional music far into the twenty first century, Bill Napier's contributions will be firmly in place, whether the musicians know it or not. His talents, along with so many others, are threadwork in a tapestry called Bluegrass Music, a natural, rhythmic sound of wood and skin that colors our lives for as long as we can listen. What's most important is that Bill Napier fought and won his toughest battle in life and became a real life hero to all the people that mattered most. He died with the love of his family, the respect of his friends, and fans who will always remember his compassion and his hard driving music. Bill Napier had finally won all of his battles here and was called home to rest.
Well, this is my tribute to my good friend, Bill Napier. Not a perfect man or a saint, but a good man nonetheless. The years that I knew him were good years full of good music and I never took the opportunity to thank him for that. It took me a quite a while to pick up any of my instruments again and play after Bill died, my calluses were completely gone. When I finally did break out the guitar I found out that my fingers are still too slow and uncoordinated to play a really clean, fast break for Daybreak in Dixie, but I'll keep trying and one of these days I'll play it almost as clean as Bill Napier did.
Afterword by John Baldry
I can't let this go without thanking Dennis for his moving and wholehearted tribute to one of our finest mandolin players. Not only does Dennis say it in words, but he has also done the wonderful drawing of Bill Napier which you can see at the beginning of the article. It is the artwork used for Bill's headstone now in place outside of Piney Flats, Tennessee.
You can download a full-size version of the drawing (1114 x 1278 pixels) by clicking for the jpg file or the zipped version. The zip file also contains another fine portrait of Bill Napier by Dennis Cochran. Additionally you can download the second portrait here.
Dennis Cochran would be pleased to hear from anyone wishing to correspond about Bill Napier. You can e-mail Dennis .
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