David Deese

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The contents of a "tour diary," in which a member of a touring band provides a running chronicle, sometimes seem to be nothing but a day-by-day account of disasters. Then, there are the excerpts from…
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The contents of a "tour diary," in which a member of a touring band provides a running chronicle, sometimes seem to be nothing but a day-by-day account of disasters. Then, there are the excerpts from tour diaries describing the activities of Charlotte, NC, banjoist David Deese and related enterprises: "We had a wonderful time as always at the Lake. Martin Stewart invited us for another Christmas Concert at Stuart Auditorium. The Cockman Family ended a day of music which included the Lake Junaluska Singers and the Trantham Family. We were a little rusty on our Christmas songs, but had a great time anyway."

Move ahead a year or so, and there is still a Christmas theme, except this time it is the taping of a Christmas television special, so naturally is being done in balmy September. "We also had a great time with all our friends from the previous Arthur Smith shows. Von Mann's beautiful voice added greatly to the show, along with David Deese's fine banjo picking, Don Ainge's flawless piano playing, and of course Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith's great presence and expertise. We got to meet Roy Clark for the first time." The latter report comes from the studios of UNC-TV where an Arthur Smith holiday special entitled Arthur Smith's Carolina Christmas was being filmed, and as usual things were going smoothly for the talented Deese. He has been associated with the Charlotte scene most of his life, and credits his banjo-playing father with being his biggest influence, which is quite a compliment. It means the senior Deese is a taller mountain than some scenic high points of the younger picker's career. He has played and recorded with skilled string multi-instrumentalists such as the aforementioned Smith and Clark as well as the historic early country and bluegrass bandleader Red Smiley and old-time music groups such as the Log Cabin Boys and the Briarhoppers. It is in the latter context that most North Carolina bluegrass or old-time music fans know Deese, although he is involved with this group as part of a younger generation of players keeping the band alive on a revival basis.

One can be certain that a group is playing old-time music when the youngest member can brag about being "only 60 years old," and that was the status of Deese at least at one point in the ever-shifting Briarhoppers lineup. The group dates back to the early '30s, when it was assembled by radio producer Charles H. Crutchfield for broadcasts on Charlotte's station WBT. Deese may have heard some of these shows, from his crib. Before he eventually became a Briarhopper, he was both a Vietnam veteran and a veteran of Bill Monroe's Bluegrass Boys. Monroe had many banjo players over the years, some who only lasted for one show, and banjo scholars attach great significance to certain epochs in the Monroe banjology. The Deese period is considered fraught with the intense energy of dynamic change lurking on the horizon. Deese, along with Tony Ellis, Lonnie Hoppers, and Del McCoury, make up the early-'60s cast of characters playing banjo in the Bluegrass Boys prior to the all-important arrival of Bill Keith, Monroe's first non-Southern banjo player (breaking a major taboo, and the guy who introduced melodic, chromatic, fiddle style banjo picking to the mainstream bluegrass world). At events such as the Bill Monroe Bluegrass Festival in Rosine, KY, Deese gets together with former Bluegrass Boys such as the intense Eddie Adcock.

Yet another tour diary reveals that once again things are going well for Deese, on tour with a beautiful handmade instrument: "Bluegrass Boy David Deese brought a banjo whose headstock and fingerboard inlay was done by Martha nearly 30 years ago, when she worked at C.E. Ward's shop in Charlotte...." Deese also put in time with Red Smiley and the Bluegrass Cut-Ups, working with players such as mandolinist Tater Tate, guitarist Gene Burrows, and bassist John Palmer. Deese joined the Briarhoppers in 1991 when the group's banjoist, Shannon Grayson, began suffering from Alzheimer's disease and was not able to travel. This put him on-stage with the original historic country duo of Whitey & Hogan, who although not part of the absolute premier version of the Briarhoppers, did become the heart of the group during its heyday in the late '30s and '40s (bringing in better musicians such as Grayson and generally giving the group more of a heartfelt sound). The singing partners Arval Hoganand Roy "Whitey" Grant had drifted into Charlotte in the mid-'30s from nearby Gastonia, musical refugees from a factory where vinyl cord for tires was fabricated. Following a hiatus from the music business, the duo began touring folk festivals in the '80s, including a series of concerts in the Netherlands. Deese continued working with the Briarhoppers after Whitey & Hogan dropped out once and for all, at which point the only original member was bassist and singer Don White, who was still working with the band when he was in his 90s. Deese also worked independently with Whitey & Hogan at events such as a brilliant appearance in early 1999 at the North Carolina Museum of History.