On Sunday we lost one of the greats when Al Batten passed away after a long period of illness. As the leader of Al Batten & the Bluegrass Reunion for over 40 years, Al never truly became a nationally known bluegrass musician, although we first heard the band in Florida at YeeHaw Junction Bluegrass Festival. He was certainly more than well-known, loved, and deeply respected in North Carolina. Al Batten's loss leaves a hole in the music where a vibrant force once existed, but fine young musicians are coming along, many owing their growth and development to Al Batten and those like him who have sprinkled the Tar Heel state with talent.
When you look at the number of bluegrass bands found in the North Carolina, it's no wonder that competition for jobs and density of performances is so great. PineCone, the capital area traditional arts organization, presents over 190 events a year including concerts, workshops, camps, and more. Asheville and Wilkesboro, in the mountains, are each centers for all kinds of music, while Shelby is the home of the Earl Scruggs Center and the Gibson Theater. In a state rich with bluegrass performers as well as other music, there's an energy and forward-looking striving keeping it alive and well. Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina, for instance, presents a guide to music in 29 western counties of the state. Al Batten has stood out for the excellence of his traditional bluegrass and the popularity of his band for more than a generation. His loss has been deeply felt with comments coming from across the country.
Al Batten was born in Johnston County, N.C. in May of 1948, went to North Johnston High School and graduated from North Carolina State University. He taught Agricultural Mechanics for 34 years at the high school he attended where he was also an active mentor in Future Farmers of America, served as a Boy Scout leader, and remained an extremely popular teacher. Fans at festivals often came to chat, repeating stories of his playing the banjo at FFA camps during the summer. His warmth, approachability, and humanity were noted by all who knew him. According to Johnny Ridge, “Al never met a stranger."
Lee Flood, a longtime fan of Al's wrote on Facebook, “He was bigger than life, he played without caution, took chances on the banjo, playing those "hoolie hoolie licks" and sang with every ounce of his being. Every festival we were both at I always ended up in his camper or under the canopy 'till the wee hours of the morning, hearing stories, songs, and lies of days gone by. I doubt if any one man musically has touched and changed the lives of countless young banjo picker as Al Batten did. Not just showing you a banjo lick but teaching you about life and making you cry laughing while doing it.” When Al was ill and could no longer perform, Lee often stood in for him on the banjo, passing it on down.
Al Batten and the Bluegrass Reunion was formed in 1973 by Al and his co-founder David Turnage. Over the succeeding 43 years, the band has been active, faithfully reproducing mostly the music of Flatt & Scruggs, Jimmie Martin, and The Stanley Brothers. Al once said, “We don't write anything, we just steal it.” But they stole from the best! In many ways, Al Batten and the members of his band, represent the core of what has kept bluegrass alive and well, if not thriving in a financial sense. The band consisted of working men from central North Carolina who played together for many years. They played at jams, in fire halls, in churches, on local radio stations, and granges, and school auditoriums as well as regional festivals, where they have been a mainstay. In 2013 and 2014 they played in the Street Festival of IBMA's World of Bluegrass, held in Raleigh.
Johnny Ridge, who played fiddle in the band for 18 or 20 years, is one of the finest traditional fiddle players in the country. People recognize him for his characteristic stomping drive and as a gentle giant in bluegrass music. He commented, “Al tried to keep the band entertaining and having a lot of fun. He let everyone's personality shine through. We were just down home folks; what you saw was what you got.” While the band rarely traveled too far from home, they did appear in Florida several times and at the Irish American Folk Festival twice, in 1994 and 2001.
Al Batten carried the spirit that breathes life into bluegrass performers and fans across the country and around the world. People have come to the music from a variety of backgrounds, educational attainment, vocations, and experiences. But much of the animating spirit of this music continues to be the rural and working class roots of America. Many of its adherents continue to be people either coming directly from rural places or only a generation or so removed. The audience seems to be growing older, yet, ironically, bluegrass and roots music is moving from back porches and around-the-cracker-barrel jams into college classrooms and academic programs. Inevitably, that means changes even with programs claiming to preserve and extend traditional music. But men like Al Batten will continue to stand up and play it in the old way... and that's probably enough.