On Friday morning we drive to Darin & Brooke Aldridge’s home under gray and threatening clouds with severe thunder storms in the forecast. We’re early, so we drive past, but Darin sees us and waves us in. Brooke still isn’t back from her parents’ home but arrives in a couple of minutes. They live in a small but comfortable ranch house without a lot of clutter since Darin has left all his instruments, computers, pictures and trophies in the basement hideaway at his mother’s house. After a few minutes we head towards Troy, NC for tonight’s concert. It’s spitting rain as we head out. The life of a touring musician holds lot of appeal to many, and it seems glamorous from the outside. For most journeyman musicians, however, it involves long hours of getting to a venue for a weekend performance and then driving all night to return home to a day job that makes playing in a band possible. Only a small number of musicians are able to do music full time, and almost none are able to support themselves primarily from performance. Darin teaches almost every day, either at the Gaston School of Arts or teaching lessons in his home. Brooke, a graduate of Appalachian State University in Early Childhood Education, works as a teacher’s aide. They play at festivals and in churches almost every weekend.
We stop for lunch at a Zaxby’s for lunch and then finish most of the 106 miles to Troy. We pull into the driveway at Greg Corbett’s very pleasant home and are welcomes by his wife Amanda and the kids. Corb, a huge and jovial man with a sure and light touch on the banjo, toured with the Country Gentlemen and served the longest tenure of any banjo player Charlie Waller ever had in his band. He works in insurance during the week. The kids are used to strangers in the house and welcome us. Soon, Billy Gee arrives with his travel bass. Billy, too, played with the last Country Gentlemen band. Billy lives in nearby Wilkesboro, where he works as a certified Martin Guitar technician and general luthier in his own shop as well as in a number of music shops in the area.
When Charlie Waller died in 2004 leaving the fabled Country Gentlemen without their leader, his formerly estranged son Randy took over the name and the band. It didn’t take long for the band that had been traveling with Charlie Waller to part ways with his wayward son and form their own band. Now reconstituted as The Circuit Riders, they have performed and recorded. For tonight they’re short one player, because Dobro player Jaret Carter is injured. Brooke is sitting in with the band as a singer for tonight’s performance.
The men and Brooke adjourn to Greg’s den to practice while Irene falls into her preferred role: Universal Grandmother. I grab my camera and do what I do best – hang out. Brooke sinks into a deep, black leather settee, almost disappearing until she starts to sing. Watching a rehearsal is really quite interesting. Darin has prepared a set list with suggested keys for each song. They practice kick-offs, harmonies, and passages one or the other is having difficulty with. It always amazes me how strong Brooke’s voice is and how easily she seems to push it out. Later in the evening, James King will say, “I’ve got news for Rhonda and Alison. There’s a new girl on the block.” Her voice is clear and mellow, never harsh, coming out of some place where sounds merge so well with feeling there’s no perceptible line between them. Billy has some concerns about a couple of harmonies, and they work on them to get them right.
Greg Luck shows up and the band is complete. He’s playing a beat up old Martin guitar with several repairs on it. Turns out to be a 1944 D28 that was Lester Flatt’s guitar, and after his death it went to Keith Whitley. With the mellow sound it has, I can’t even estimate its value. There’s a problem with one of the tuning engines that he and Billy work on, trying to use what’s available while they look for an original screw to put in place. Billy tells me he worked on the neck and discovered someone had epoxied it in place, making it nearly impossible to remove. He was able to make the repair so it wouldn’t be noticed…a major achievement. At six o’clock we make the short drive to the James Garner Center in Troy, where the Circuit Riders will open for James King.
The Garner Center is a large room with a built in sound system. Promoter Jeff Branch, who offers winter concerts there, greets us. The sound check takes a while to get set up and the band is concerned because it doesn’t have quite the number of microphones it’s used to. Brooke Justice Aldridge is a guest with the Circuit Riders this evening. Her voice helps create quite a different sound than they usually have, but no one’s complaining. The band plays a number of songs from Darin and Brooke’s gospel album as well as numbers from the late Country Gentlemen band they were a part of. The smallish audience, cut into perhaps by the rainy weather and the fact that the event is being held on Good Friday, is warm and supportive. Lots of family members are there. Lots of the songs are sent out to friends and family. Greg has difficulty getting through “White Robe” and pulls it off. He’s a good enough banjo picker to sing and pick at the same time. Not all of them can walk and chew gum, let alone pull this off. Later he plays a rousing “Train 45” and Greg Luck plays a fiddle tune with Corb’s cute as a button daughter Kensy dancing. Billy Gee plays a tremendous bass solo on “Foggy Mountain Special.” The Circuit Riders with guest Brooke Aldrich keep the crowd happy for a long set and are greeted with a standing ovation at the end. Good stuff!
By the time the King band has finished and had enjoyed its encore, the rain is coming pretty hard and lightning bolts are very much in evidence. We load up Darin’s car and head home. As we drive the rain turns into a deluge. Darin is concerned because his basement is flooding and there aren’t enough surfaces to place all the instruments on. The storm reaches its height near Charlotte and the rain lets up a good deal by the time we get to Darin and Brooke’s house. He drops us off, and we head home as he goes back to his mother’s house to check out the damage. We arrive back at our campground and fall into bed around 2:00 AM. Somehow, the glamour of being a working bluegrass picker has lost a little bit of its shine, but it’s been a good night filled with fine music. Spending time with our friends makes it even more special.