Lester Woodie

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In the late '40s, Lester Woodie began the high-profile job of playing with the Stanley Brothers. It was nothing but the early days of bluegrass, and Woodie was just barely the legal age of 18. He had…
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In the late '40s, Lester Woodie began the high-profile job of playing with the Stanley Brothers. It was nothing but the early days of bluegrass, and Woodie was just barely the legal age of 18. He had secured this pick of picking positions through the efforts of his mentor, George Shuffler, a childhood friend who wound up playing bass with the Stanley Brothers. It was Shuffler who, at the age of ten, had taught Woodie the facts of life -- in other words, how to pick a guitar. This turned out to be good advice when their father bought both Lester and his brother Lloyd Woodie brand-spanking new Harmony guitars, instead of the bicycles that the brothers had asked for. A brother duet was soon going strong in the family, although ironically it was Lester Woodie who was the most shy, sometimes intentionally busting strings so he wouldn't have to perform for company. A family handyman named Zenie Page was the fellow who introduced the boys to the fiddle, even allowing them to enter his inner sanctum, an old shack in back of his house which he reserved for noisy asthma attacks and/or fiddling, either of which apparently bothered his wife to no end.

The first music that Lester Woodie attempted was in the style of the cowboy singing group the Sons of the Pioneers, but it wasn't long before the influence of Bill and Charlie Monroe began to creep in. Woodie also credits the influence of some of the acts he saw performing locally, such as the comic old-time duo Johnny & Jack or the Louvin Brothers, the latter group making a big impact on his concept of harmony singing. Woodie got into a band called the Melody Mountain Boys, playing a combination of bluegrass and country music, with a player named Curly Williams on steel guitar. This group made so little money, and times got so tight, that Woodie claimed he didn't have the funds to re-hair his bow, so had to play fiddle with a wire coat hanger. "You can imagine what that sounded like," he said in an interview. Fans of avant-garde violinists such as Polly Bradfield don't have to imagine. Eventually the group became more professional, bows were re-haired and other repairs made, and opportunities to broadcast came along, on North Carolina stations such as WHKY and WIRC. A fiddler named Perry Duncan, who went by the stage name of Carolina Slim, joined the group and the resulting twin-fiddle sound was both a smash and another important musical influence on Woodie. For about five years, the two fiddlers played together, working away from the previously established twin-fiddle sound of old-time bands and trying to get something more modern going.

The jump to the Stanley Brothers was a good bit of timing, since the group had just signed a recording contract with Columbia Records. He got to play plenty of fiddle and began singing bass harmonies as well, but that was by no means the end of his responsibilities. He also was the stage clown, coming on at one point dressed in a Raggedy Ann outfit, with old clothes and wide tie. Learning to play at the tempos the Stanley Brothers liked was obviously a physical challenge for Woodie, but the stage theatrics seem, in retrospect, like much more of a threat. Woodie was required to stand still -- like a wooden statue, no less -- while another member of the group knocked cigarettes out of the fiddler's mouth with a bullwhip. At any rate, Woodie lived through these experiences and wound up recording on most of the Stanley Brothers' most famous Columbia sides, including the immortal "Man of Constant Sorrow." The draft and the Korean War, in that order, took Woodie out of the bluegrass line of fire, although he never stopped playing during his service days, apparently coming upon practicing bluegrass bands in every barracks. Like many players in his genre, he found it a changed world in terms of the music scene when he finished the service.

Winding up back in his native Valdese, NC, he drifted around the Appalachian regions before getting into a new band with Curly Lambert and the husband-and-wife team of Bill & Mary Reid. Columbia became interested in this group and again Woodie was cutting for the big guys. Despite a busy schedule of live shows, and radio and television appearances, the fiddler started taking courses in business school. For the next few years he would continue to play bluegrass, but always as an adjunct to another job, and never anything too stimulating at that. For example, he was employed in a Roanoke dime store for four years. He got involved in doing his own radio shows through the bandleader Bill Jefferson, and made his debut as a disc jockey on station WKDE in Altavista, VA. Woodie worked up to become manager of the station, and also began playing bluegrass with a vengeance in his later years, working with artists such as Stan Dudley, Roby Huffman, and Charlie Moore. He also, better late than never, finally cut his first album under his own name, More Pickin' -- Les Singing!