Commentary by Dalton Roberts
The closest you can come to immortality is to live on in 5,000 instrument-picking fingers and thumbs, not to mention the 1,000 brains that control those fingers and thumbs.
If Brian Blaylock’s estimate of the number of guitar, banjo and mandolin students his father taught over the course of his life is accurate, and I would bet it is conservative, Clyde Blaylock is one of the most immortal men this community has ever known.
To look at him, you would not have dreamed the level of immortality he had achieved. He looked so unassuming: a burr haircut and two big smiling Buddha-like eyes grinning over a pair of overalls. You could drag him behind a pickup truck for miles and miles and dynamite his head, but you could not get rid of that smile.
I know. I met him coming out of Memorial Hospital after he’d had both legs amputated due to the ravages of diabetes. The two big eyes were still there grinning over the top of his bib overalls. His spirit was absolutely indomitable.
His most loyal student, and one who is himself building his own fame in the world of bluegrass, was his son, Brian. I once wrote a column on him for Chattanooga On the Move Magazine and said, “if he had eight arms he would be the world’s best bluegrass band.” Like Clyde he can play any string instrument equally well.
The first time I ever heard Clyde and his brother Ralph was at Choctaw Ridge one Sunday afternoon in the 1960s. Choctaw was a cinderblock building with a potbelly stove set way back off the road on Big Ridge. Later they played a Saturday night square dance on the parking lot of Merle Phipps’ old drive-in on Hixson Pike. I could not believe we had such bluegrass excellence here in Chattanooga.
Clyde then opened Blaylock’s Music Store on Hixson Pike and ran it the rest of his life with the help of his wife, Sue, and Brian -- what time Brian wasn’t on the road with the Country Gentlemen or some other big-time bluegrass group. The only time Clyde’s eyes twinkled a little brighter or he smiled a little broader was when Brian was picking.
One of the most popular musical shows in this area for a while was the “Saturday Night Pickings” at Blaylock’s. I took Frances Pinion, the widow of bluegrass great “Boxcar” Pinion, one Saturday night, and the show mostly featured Clyde’s students. Most of them looked at Clyde with something close to adoration. And they made good music. Clyde knew a teacher does not have a finished product until they can walk on a stage and play. Sue notes that on those Saturday nights “he was like a king on his throne.”
Most winners in banjo contests play some famous bluegrass standard that travels 90 miles per hour. It really galled his brother Ralph when Clyde announced his final round song would be “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” Finesse and mood suddenly became most important. He usually won.
Clyde had finesse. He could create moods. That’s how a Hixson banjo teacher becomes immortal.
What I wouldn’t give to see those big eyes peeping at me again over the bib of his overalls.
E-mail Dalton Roberts at DownhomeP@aol.com.