Chester McMillian: Old Time Musician and Educator
by Matt Edwards
Chester McMillian is as deserving of this award as anyone ever has been. He has been quietly working to preserve and pass on the old time music traditions of Northwestern North Carolina for nearly a half century.
Chester McMillian was born in Cana, Virginia, to a musical family.
His father and uncle were both old time musicians, and at age eight Chester began to “make music” on his own. During his youth, he played in a number of rock, gospel, and bluegrass bands. In 1962 he married Polly Freeman and moved to the Round Peak community. Within just a few years, by 1965, his musical interests were turned completely to old time. Through family connections, Chester was introduced to Tommy Jarrell, and at age 23 he began a friendship that would last until Jarrell’s death in 1985. During the 1960’s McMillian was a regular on the porch at Tommy’s house—absorbing the traditional Round Peak tunes.
Originally a fiddle player, Chester is fond of telling folks that “he turned up at Tommy’s house and was told they had plenty of fiddlers, but they sure could use a good guitar player.” Over the next several years he honed his skills and became one of Tommy’s favorite accompanists.
During the 1970’s and 1980’s Chester played, recorded, and traveled extensively with Tommy Jarrell. They played college campuses and concert halls around the country, including appearances at the 1976 Bicentennial Folk Festival (with return visits to the National Folk Festival in ‘77, ‘79, and ‘81 with other bands). He also appeared on Jarrell’s LP’s Joke on the Puppy and Pickin’ on Tommy’s Porch.
In addition to his work with Tommy Jarrell, Chester has recorded over a dozen old time albums with various bands and has played with nearly every old time musician of consequence (including Benton Filppen, Fred Cockerham, Dix Freeman, and Charley Lowe, just to name a few). Additionally, he has recorded at and worked in collaboration with WPAQ radio on numerous projects throughout his career.
From 1980-89 he was a member of the Shady Mountain Ramblers with Whit Sizemore, and in 1986 he formed the original incarnation of his current band—Back Step—with the powerhouse fiddling of the late Greg Hooven. The bands he plays with today play only traditional tunes (mostly Round Peak style), and share that music with new audiences all the time. Today, Back Step consists of Chester on guitar, his son Nick (a Galax fiddle champion), Michael Motley on banjo, and Buck Buckner on bass. According to Grammy Award winning banjo player David Holt, “Back Step is a great band. Growing up in the heart of the Round Peak music tradition, the soul of the music is in their bones, and you hear it in every note.”
When pressured for information about awards and accolades, Chester is reserved, noting only that he “doesn’t really compete
much anymore.” After some prying, I learned he had won some 18 times at the Mount Airy Fiddler’s Convention before stepping out of the solo competitive part of the festivals.
In addition to his work as a performer, Chester has also been involved in helping to document and record old time music traditions. He worked with the producers of Sprout Wings and Fly (about Tommy Jarrell) as well as the two follow-up pieces. He played music and made introductions for the film-makers, and was on hand for the filming of all three documentaries. Additionally, he worked with Kevin Donleavy to document area musicians in his book Strings of Life: Conversations with Old-Time Musicians from Virginia and North Carolina. Much like his work with Sprout Wings and Fly, Chester acted as a guide making introductions to area musicians and helping to collect the stories of old time musicians from throughout the region.
Chester has also been an active partner with the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History. He has played countless programs and concerts at the museum, but more importantly he has helped to build the museum’s collection as it relates to old time music. He has been very active in locating, and when necessary restoring, instruments with significant local connections. Through his connections, the museum currently displays a banjo played by Tommy Jarrell in the Spout Wings and Fly video (Tommy’s fiddle is in the Smithsonian), and more recently he helped facilitate the long-term loan of Charlie Lowe’s banjo for exhibition. It should be noted that he also personally funded the restoration work the instrument needed to make it
ready for display.
Perhaps more important than his musical lineage or the competitive awards is the impact he has made on countless young musicians over the last 38 years. In 1975, Chester built a small shack behind his house and began teaching lessons. In the early years he charged a modest fee, but eventually came to the conclusion that the people he’d learned from hadn’t charged him, and he needed to share what he’d learned for the future generations. By his own account “there’s no telling” how many people he taught throughout the years, but the lessons were well learned. Many of his students continue to compete and win at fiddler’s conventions around the country.
If that weren’t enough, over the last three years, Chester has decided to make his music work for his community. He continues
to offer lessons, and currently has eight regular students, but now he “charges” a canned food donation for the lessons. With his “payment” he has created a “backpack” food program for kids and families in need at Cedar Ridge Elementary School near his home. When he started the program, they were providing a backpack of food once a month to 28 families, and during the holiday season this year they were able to expand to 32 families. His goal is simply to make sure that no one goes hungry.
In 2012 Chester started teaching youth programs at the Chestnut Creek School for the Arts using the Junior Appalachian Musician Program model. He was so impressed and inspired by what he saw in that program that he wanted to bring it to Surry County. In early 2013 he launched a music education program based loosely on the JAM model for the disadvantaged youth of The Children’s Center in Surry County. He has procured donated instruments for the students to use and teaches classes twice each week on-site at their residential facility. He continues to advocate for the creation of a countywide JAM program to help preserve and pass on the musical traditions of the area for future generations.
Chester’s continues to teach, travel, and make music whenever he has the chance. As his budget allows he continues to play at major festivals, including the Chicago Folk Festival in 2006, Fiddletunes (Port Townsend, WA) in 2008, and the Blackpot Festival in Lafayette, Louisiana, in 2009. At 70 years old, Chester is an encyclopedia of old time music, lore, and biography, and he is and has been willing to share those traditions to pass them on to future generations. His work epitomizes the spirit of the Brown-Hudson Folklore Award.
Matt Edwards is the executive director of the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History in Mount Airy, North Carolina.
Edwards, Matt. “Chester McMillian: Old Time Musician and Educator.” North Carolina Folklore Journal 60.1-2 (2013): 19-22.