Final Notes, Will Keys

Photo by David Bragger
East Tennessee banjo player Will Keys passed away November 4 at age 82. Will was born and raised in the Blackley Creek community of Washington County. His brother Jay is reported to have strung an old banjo from a screen door for him to learn on. And, learn he did: Will Keys was deemed one of the best old-time pickers in the country. The National Council for the Traditional Arts featured him in its Masters of the Banjo tours in 1993 and the National Endowment for the Arts presented him with a National Heritage Fellowship in 1996. Will had a melodic, rolling two-finger style sometimes described as an “old-time sound with a touch of bluegrass,” and his music spanned an unusual variety of traditional fiddle pieces and now-obscure popular tunes.

He had been a long-time member of the Homefolks band with Tom Bledsoe, the late Beachard Smith, and the late Paul Davis of Scott County, Virginia. In August Will performed with the Homefolks band at the Carter Family Memorial Music Festival in Maces Springs, Virginia. Will was no stranger to the Carter Fold, having performed there routinely over the years, even when shows were held in the adjacent A.P. Carter Store, now the Carter Museum.

Will went on stage in August decked out in a colorful shirt, his distinctive derby hat and played his signature song, “SilverBells,” to a cheering audience. Those present commented on how well he played his banjo. Will seemed his usual self ? always calm, good-natured, friendly to everyone, with a soft voice and with a sparkle in his eye. Just a short time after that event, he was diagnosed with a terminal illness. Will Keys’ banjo has gone silent, but he will be remembered and revered through his music.

-Bob Cox

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