Whit Sizemore of the Galax, Virginia, area passed away February 25, 2009. He departed this life while working on his Carroll County farm. He was 74 years old.
Whit grew up hearing family and neighbors play the fiddle music of the Virginia-Carolina Blue Ridge. His Uncle Gordon Shinault, as well as Galen and David Shinault, were very early influences, as were Roscoe Parish and Jimmy Hawks. After his father, Robert, traded four bushels of potatoes for a fiddle for six-year-old Whit, Doctor W. P. Davis, who was treating Whit’s grandmother in their home at the time, set the fiddle up with bridge, strings, and bow. In 1935, Davis was instrumental with helping to start the Galax Old Fiddlers’ Convention, and he was also was a founding member of the Original Ballards’ Branch Bogtrotters. Some of the very first tunes Whit learned to play were the old Baptist hymns that his grandmother would sing and hum for him. Growing up, Whit also had access to an Edison cylinder player and later a Victrola. This early exposure to the music of such fiddlers as G. B. Grayson and Kahle Brewer, and to the Skillet Lickers laid a strong foundation for his own fiddling to flourish later in his adult life.
Whit’s first band job, though, was as a guitarist. During the late 1960s, he played with Talmadge Smith and the Piney Woods Boys. Their driving instrumental renditions of “Lee Highway Blues” and “Leather Britches” won them the blue ribbon at the Galax convention in 1969. Whit picked up the fiddle again in the early 1970s and formed the Shady Mountain Ramblers. During the next 25 years, the band played hundreds of square dances throughout the area. They were regulars playing the dances held at the Fairview Ruritan Club, the Fancy Gap School, the Independence VFW, and the Fries Theater. In addition, the band won many first-place awards at regional fiddlers’ conventions, including the 1975 first-place band prize at Galax. Whit also captured the top prize at Galax in the old-time fiddling contest in both 1976 and 1977.
Occasionally the band would travel to festivals outside their home region. They spent a week playing at the Smithsonian Festival of American Folklife in 1977, and they also traveled to Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1982 as part of the World’s Fair entertainment. In 1986, they were invited to New Jersey to represent Virginia at the Brandywine Mountain Music Convention.
In 2005 Heritage Records re-released the band’s three albums on a two-CD collection. This release (HRCD-23134) documents their historic old-time sound for future generations.
Whit was also known for his fine fiddle making. Through the years he crafted several fiddles and a few mandolins. Whit and Gelene’s son Mike was an accomplished mandolin player, and he always played one of Whit’s mandolins. Mike was well versed in both the old-time and bluegrass genres, and he won many individual mandolin prizes including first place at Galax on two occasions.
“Big Howdy,” as many friends affectionally called him, was always happy to help a younger fiddler. James Burris and Eddie Bond are always quick to cite Whit as a major influence, as was the late Greg Hooven.
At Whit’s graveside service, James Burris and former band members Dan Williams and Tom Norman played and sang “Amazing Grace.” The graveside gathering was large and there were dozens of musicians scattered throughout.
As a personal note, Whit was my musical mentor. I grew up in the hollow below his home, and my first band experience (1974-1979) was as a Shady Mountain Rambler. Many, many fine memories remain.