A rare show by two legends - Ralph Lewis and Peter Gott

Michael Flynn
Special to The Black Mountain News

If Merriam-Webster defines “legend” as “a famous or important person who is known for doing something extremely well,” it should include images of Ralph Lewis and Peter Gott, templates for the musicians of Madison County and the Western North Carolina mountains.

Now climbing in years, the two players will reunite, along with family members and notable guest musicians, on stage at White Horse Black Mountain Dec. 27 for a show appropriately titled “Living Legends of Mountain Music.”

“They should have so much fame and acclaim, but they never really cared about that,” said Carol Rifkin, a lifelong musician and co-host of “This Old Porch” on WNCW-FM, a program featuring traditional mountain tunes. “They love the music; they love the people. They love their families and performing but don’t care a bit about fame.”

Lewis and Gott are carrying on the tradition of their musical forebears, such as bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe, with whom Lewis toured globally in the 1970s, plus Doc Watson, Pete Seeger and Bascom Lunsford, for whom an award is named that both Lewis and Gott have received. Both players are of Madison County extraction, Lewis by birth and blood, and Gott by more than five decades of work and sweat.

Asked about his legendary status, the 87-year-old Lewis said in a phone interview from his home in Enka that he was simply taking part in the family and regional tradition of playing music.

“I was born a seventh son,” he said. “What I did with my older brothers was just saddle up and get in the car and go play. We really worked on it.”

Lewis passed down that musical discipline to sons Marty and Don, both of whom currently play throughout the region with their father as “Sons of Ralph.” They are likely to be among the “friends” joining Lewis, Gott and others on stage.

Don Lewis recalled pretending to play music as preschoolers with Gott’s children, using brooms and racquets for stringed instruments. They didn’t like being called “cute.”

“I was trying to get my fingers just right on that broom handle!” Don Lewis said, his words echoing with a friendly tinge of decades-old disgust. The children eventually became performers in their own right as members of the Gott/Lewis Offspring String Band.

While the Lewis family members are native to Madison County, Peter Gott and wife Polly were students at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York in the early 1960s when they relocated to Madison County’s remote Shelton Laurel community to homestead and learn mountain music.

The Gotts overcame the area’s reluctance to accept outsiders because of Gott’s skills playing and repairing banjos, calling square dances and building log cabins. Gott, now 78, and his wife still live in the cabin they built five decades ago in Tater Gap near Shelton Laurel.

Lewis and Gott met in the early 1960s when both performed at the Jubilee Theatre in Hot Springs, according to Gott’s daughter, Susi Gott Séguret. Gott’s musical inspirations for his banjo playing during these shows included folk artists such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, plus bluegrass players Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs, who were also Ralph’s references.

“This was the music I grew up with,” Séguret said, mentioning a childhood spent among Sodom and Shelton Laurel ballad singers, banjo players, Irish traditionalists and old-time dance fiddlers.

On Dec. 27, expect an unpredictable mix that illustrates the evolution of mountain music.

“It’s going be a trip down memory lane,” Don Lewis said. “They’ll be some of Ralph and his bluegrass route, plus Peter and his old-time string band, which we’ve never gotten away from, just put a little twist on it. It’ll be like a timeline show. It’s going to be really fun. They’re more ‘characters’ now than they ever have been.”

“You give him (Ralph) a mandolin, and those years just melt away,” Marty Lewis said. “It’s the same with Peter. It just lights them up.”

In their own ways, Ralph Lewis and Peter Gott are critical threads that hold the WNC musical culture together, Séguret noted. It’s important to hear such capable players perform this music while they‘re still able to do so, she said.

Their mountain music endures, she said, “because it strikes a chord of what is real - the simple raw goodness we all seek.”

Legend has it

Who: Ralph Lewis, Peter Gott and friends

When: 7:30 p.m. Dec. 27

Where: White Horse Black Mountain

Cost: $12 advance, $15 door