Photo: Kristen H Photography

With “Kentucky Memories”, Willard Gayheart Shares the First Song He’d Ever Written (premiere)

Before the May 24th release of the 87-year-old Appalachian folk artist's debut solo album, Willard Gayheart shares the first song he had ever written almost five decades prior.

For many listeners, their first taste of Willard Gayheart’s songwriting came through his granddaughter, Americana notable Dori Freeman, after she covered “Ern & Zorry’s Sneakin’ Bitin’ Dog” on her most recent album. Now, the 87-year-old pencil artist is set to release his debut solo album, At Home in the Blue Ridge, on 24 May via Blue Hens Music. It’s a callback to the roots of his family’s Appalachian history, sparking joyous musical collaborations at fiddle conventions, backyard hootenannies, and kitchen jams. In this spirit, Gayheart made his album, gathering a troupe to help along the process that consisted of his son, Scott Freeman, his granddaughter, her husband, Nick Falk, and producers Teddy Thompson and Ed Haber in the frame shop that he owns near Galax, Virginia.

In this sense, Gayheart goes against the grain of modern consumerism by developing an album made for the family instead of any big stages. The latest single that he is premiering with PopMatters before the LP’s full release is “Kentucky Memories”, wherein he recalls his upbringing before moving to Galax and becoming deeply involved with their music scene. It’s a sweetly nostalgic song with a gentle sway and straight-ahead folk music with no frills about it. Gayheart sets out to tell a story, and he does so with a beautiful simplicity not often seen any longer.

Gayheart tells PopMatters, “This is the first song I ever wrote, back in 1972. We put this on our third Highlander record. I always had wanted to write a song, but just never thought I had much skill in writing anything. Finally, I got my head together and just decided I was going to do it. I remember just trying to use what I learned from my English composition course at Berea College. Ms. Faulkner always told me to write things I knew about. Of course, I always struggled with writing. So I just tried to use her teachings in that song—just say it like it was. It turned out alright, and I’ve written a lot of songs since. I’ve come to think of writing songs as like making a picture with words.”