Leonard Hollifield is a big musical influence in Western North Carolina. His smiling face, clear voice and fluid right hand on the guitar keep him in demand, and he’s been performing for close to eight decades.
From his early days growing up in Herron Cove near Weaverville, to his years touring with the Kingsmen, the Stoney Creek Boys and more, he’s set an example for fine, tasteful musicianship.
“I’ll be 88 when my birthday rolls around — I was born August 3, 1926,” Hollifield said. “I probably started playing for square dances when I was 12 or 13, but I’d been singing since long before that.”
The first dance Hollifield remembers playing was in Reems Creek at the home of a family friend. Everyone knew everyone in the surrounding communities and many relatives lived in the remote cove; the Hollifield children went to school in Weaverville and attended the small country church near their house.
Growing up, moving out
Jim and Bertha Hollifield weren’t professional musicians but sang around the home. Jim Hollifield was known as a fine flatfooter and danced with a square dance team.
“I joined the band at the dance that night, with my older brother Lawrence,” Hollifield said. “I played with them until they were drafted into the service and then I started playing with other people.”
After enlisting in the Navy, Leonard Hollifield served in the combat zone in World War II before returning to the region. His family had moved to Weaverville and he stayed there with them until marrying the love of his life. Melba and Leonard Hollifield moved to Asheville and had an apartment on Edwin Place.
“I always played music,” Hollifield said. “I had a younger brother named Kenneth I played with after the war; we did a lot of radio work at WISC, WWNC, with other bands — I always worked in music.
“Brother bands were all the rage and they admired the Bailes Brothers at first, and the Blue Sky Boys. After the war they listened to the Louvin Brothers. The Morris Brothers in Asheville were great favorites too, along with Red Smiley, or Jack and Curley Shelton.
“After World War II, Red Smiley and all those boys came through Asheville, and we filled in with Red Smiley’s band before he joined up with Don Reno and became Reno and Smiley,” Hollifield said. “The Morris Brothers were a great family group everyone liked too.”
Many musical partners
Opportunities to go on the road as a musician were available, but Hollifield decided to play close to the region while raising his two children. Both still live in the region. Daughter Amy Hollifield works with the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area, and son Leonard R. Hollifield is the director of the J.F.K. Alcohol and Drug Treatment Center in Black Mountain.
“I sang with Paul Crouch and Doc Moore as the Herron Valley Trio for a long time. We stayed in gospel music,” Hollifield said. “After that I went with the Kingsmen around 1960 — I forget the exact date.”
Hollifield did two stretches with the famous gospel group based in Asheville. He played on more than a dozen Kingsmen albums; on one he appears in the front in a yellow suit playing a green guitar, with a green tie to match.
“I played guitars on the road for Micro-Frets; they sent me what I was playing,” Hollifield said. “Our tenor singer had won tenor singer of the year but that green guitar looked so good they put me out front in the picture.”
At first they worked just weekends for a few years. When the Kingsmen took a break from touring, along with friends Reece McKinney and Jack Henderson, Hollifield worked with the Augusta, Ga.-based Pine Ridge Boys.
“I rejoined the Kingsmen when they went full time professional and stayed on the road three or four years,” Hollifield said. “We had a “Kingsmen TV show on WLOS, then they transferred it to channel 4, a station in Greenville, S.C. We taped down there on Wednesday nights in a big studio and the show aired every Sunday.”
Traveling hard, the group would play a different city each night, hop on the tour bus and move on. It wasn’t uncommon for them to record in Greenville, leave at 2 a.m., play Birmingham, Houston, Fort Worth and Memphis and then return home to start over.
“I started with the Stoney Creek Boys in 1975 and have been with them 39 years, almost 40,” Hollifield said. Performing regionally, they remain the house band for Asheville’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival and Shindig on the Green.
Stepping back a bit
Recently Hollifield made the decision to step back from playing full time with the Stoney Creek Boys. At 87, he says he’s looking forward to the freedom to freelance more and is excited to be able to spend more time playing with his son and his band Appalachian Consort.
While he doesn’t give formal lessons, he’s mentored many young people who come to him to learn the tricks of the trade.
“I really do enjoy the music,” Hollifield said. “I go to Marshall to play with Bobby Hicks most Thursday nights, but I will fill in with Stoney Creek sometimes and go to Shindig.
“I am not quitting playing or retiring; I’m just pulling back a little bit because I don’t want to do the full schedule.”
A teacher who worked in trade and industrial education, Hollifield taught at A-B Tech and spent eight years teaching at Asheville High and later at West Henderson High School. He hopes to see music taken seriously by future educators.
“Music is important for young people — music appreciation, the strings programs are great,” Hollifield said. “It gets them in front of an audience and carries over when they get older, apply for jobs; it helps kids be more well-rounded.”
Carol Rifkin writes about Appalachian culture for the Citizen-Times. Email her at CMRifkin@gmail.com