Last week, the High Country lost a living legend of the national bluegrass community when Constable died peacefully after a long battle with cancer.
Billy Constable, from Spruce Pine never became a household name like Tony Rice or Doc Watson, but his innovative guitar and banjo playing has been a massive influence on countless musicians throughout the country.
The outpouring of stories and memories online about Constable give an idea of the scope of a life dedicated to musical passion, and they tell the story of a kind, gentle soul, always willing to teach to anyone who wanted to learn.
Constable was born in upstate New York but moved back to his mother’s home area of Spruce Pine at a young age, after his father passed away. It was in the mountains of North Carolina that Constable expanded his musical interests from a few piano lessons in New York to the rich world of bluegrass music. Constable quickly soaked up the sounds of western North Carolina bluegrass, and after learning nearly every bluegrass instrument, he became somewhat of a young musical prodigy.
Avery County’s own Jason Burleson, banjo player for Blue Highway, remembers meeting Constable when they were both young. “I met Constable when I was just a kid trying to learn how to play. He was always so kind and generous with his time. He was such an inspiration to me. He kind of inspired me to play more than one instrument because he was so good on everything he played. He remained relatively unknown to the general public, but all the great bluegrass musicians knew him and knew what a talent he was. I have a cassette of just me and him jamming that I will cherish forever. I will miss my friend but I will look forward to seeing him on the other side and hugging his neck.”
Constable’s story revolves heavily around his family, and specifically around his mother, Lois Constable. Lois Constable was very well known within the bluegrass community for hosting a popular festival in the North Carolina mountains dedicated to her late brother, Kent Wiseman.
As they settled back into western North Carolina, Lois Constable married the great bluegrass musician Charlie Moore and together they created a music scene near Spruce Pine that attracted the top national bluegrass talent. Not only did Constable grow up playing with Charlie Moore and his band, but as a kid he was consistently around musicians of the highest caliber, such as Don Reno and Bill Monroe. Some say that Bill Monroe actually proposed to Lois before she married Charlie.
As Constable got older, the family moved to California following Moore’s untimely death. From here, Constable started touring with the legendary banjo player Doug Dillard. They started pushing the boundaries of traditional bluegrass with what would later be called “newgrass,” which began to include jazz elements within the music and featured longer, drawn out solos and extended jams.
Steve McMurry, lead singer and guitar player for Acoustic Syndicate, recalls hearing some of these early recordings, “He was way ahead of his time--probably too much ahead of his time.”
McMurry, who first met Constable in the early ‘90s, remembers playing all types of music with him. “He was a monster guitar player,” said McMurry. “In the later years I got to play some shows with him and he got into the Django Reinhardt (style of) gypsy-jazz, and good lord he could just shred it. Better than anyone I ever heard. I said ‘How long have you been working on this?’ And he would just say something unassuming like ‘Oh, well, I don’t know, I just listen to it.’ It’s all he ever did was play music. He was an interesting cat, and if you had the patience and time to dig in deep with him on a one-on-one level he had so many interesting stories of things that happened to him.”
Eventually, the family made its way back east, and after a time leading The Constable Family Band (Constable’s siblings were also great pickers), he went north and started playing in a psychedelic klezmer band called Hypnotic Clambake.
The band’s bassist, and one of Constable’s close friends, Chris Kew, remembers their time together. “I first met Constable on a gig at the start of another Clambake tour. Constable and I quickly became close friends and spent a lot of touring time by ourselves in his car following the bus. We would just talk for hours and hours on the road; (he would be) playing mandolin in the front seat. The Clambake played a lot of Klezmer music and Constable picked it up faster than anyone I had seen before. He changed that band with his playing.
“We both left Clambake at the same time but remained close, true friends ever since. We would talk from midnight until sunrise about various things, and pick songs for each other over the phone. I remember those precious years we spent playing every night from coast to coast and back again. I will always cherish those times. We continued playing together after Hypnotic Clambake and all of those times will live in my heart, my mind, and my playing, forever.”
In the late 90s, Boone seemed to attract a lot of kids wanting to learn bluegrass music — including me. We desperately wanted to be great pickers and to play with confidence and technical ability. Constable became a great friend to many of us at this point, and it has been very eye-opening to go back and ask people what Constable meant to them.
One thing in particular has stuck out, which is that Constable never changed who he was for anyone. We all have the same memories and impressions of him because he was one of the most consistent people we had ever met. He always had a bandanna on his head with a ball cap on top of that, a rolled cigarette and coffee within reach, and the only thing he loved just as much as music was his dogs.
He viewed his art as one of the only pure things that existed and never wavered or capitulated for applause or money or any other ego-based reasons. He moved through the world on his own time and by his own expectations.
Anyone who played with Constable will easily identify with McMurry describing the process of traveling with him: “He had his own pace, his own agenda, and he was on ‘Constable Time;’ and if you weren’t used to it, and plan ahead for it, it could be frustrating. I always worked everything out ahead of time so Constable could be on his own time”
In the later part of Constable’s life he found his musical life-partner in Mark Schimick. Schimick had been playing the mandolin for only eight months when they met and they became nearly inseparable. Schimick was young and talented and Constable was older with truckloads of knowledge, but like all of the great musical duos they filled in each other’s gaps. Constable was tight where Schimick was loose. Constable was shy, while Schimick enjoyed communicating and talking with the crowd. Like many others, Schimick remembers most what Constable taught him, “He taught us to execute musical ideas in a bluegrass fashion (and) to complete melodic ideas instead of just playing licks. He wouldn’t allow us to get away with just playing electric guitar licks. He wanted us to understand the nuances of bluegrass timing and the differences of emphasizing different beats. Any time we didn’t get the mountain dialect correct [in the lyrics], he wanted to make sure that we were saying the words just right.”
Constable and Schimick could outlast any picking circle at any party. Their ability to always play “just one more song,” as the sun was cresting those Blue Ridge Mountains is legendary throughout the High Country. If you ever got the chance to be in a room with Schimick and Constable playing together, count yourself as blessed. I’ve spent most of my life following music, and watching the two of them play late into the night will stick with me forever. Schimick is currently working on a compilation of Constable’s music throughout his life. It will be available at the Asheville tribute show on Oct. 8.
In a world of hyper-commercialized music, where fame is the ultimate goal for so many, Constable showed us that music, and the love of music, can be experienced with a pure sense of joy and freedom. To establish a musical career on a national level, even in the bluegrass world, one needs the genetic disposition to promote yourself and hustle your music into the world of commerce. It takes time, energy, confidence, and even ego, but Constable never had that hustle gene in him.
One of his closest friends and band mates in Boone Parham Howell, said it best: “Constable is truly a national treasure. If fame was what he wanted he could have hit the big time so effortlessly. But Constable chose to live like he wanted. He lived simply — to spread the bluegrass gospel to the less fortunate. I am a better musician, a better person, and my life was forever changed the day he strolled into it. Life should be a celebration, and with him it always was and is--but it has an end. I am so proud to say I am a student of his, and I always will be. I still hear him in my brain questioning the truthfulness and execution of every single note I play. How lucky I was to share so many stages with my biggest musical hero.”
Like Howell, I can’t walk onstage without knowing that Constable runs through my musical veins. I don’t think many of us realized how special he was back in those days. He never bragged or talked about the amazing things he had accomplished through his life. He just wanted to talk about the historical lineage of certain songs and why some songs have certain parts when other songs have other tiny nuances. Constable’s contribution to this world was to show us that music is more important than money or ego or fame. He taught us that the discipline of learning to play the right way is paid off, many times over, by having a foundation for being creative. He taught us that dedicating your life to music can bring you many things--some money, travel, adventure, and friendships; but ultimately, it gives you the ability to tap into something universal. It gives you the ability connect with other people on a level that transcends language, or culture, or knowledge. It gives you the ability to make a positive difference in the world around you. I hope Constable had some idea how much beauty and joy he brought into this world.
I asked Schimick what he most remembered about Constable, and after a moment of reflection he said, “He just gave us a chance to play the music we loved.”
If the purpose of life is to make a positive difference on this earth, Constable succeeded. Thank you, Constable.
There will be a Constable Tribute Show in Asheville on Oct. 8 at the Isis Theater, featuring some of the finest southeastern bluegrass talent. Proceeds will help Constable’s family with his final medical expenses. Go to www.isisasheville.com for details.