TROUTMAN, N.C. (QUEEN CITY NEWS) — Some go to the Troutman Library to read about North Carolina traditions.
Tae Childress wasn’t checking out a book when we met him there.
It was almost like a family reunion.
“Howdy young man!“ a man said greeting him as the boy entered.
It’s only natural that Childress hugs everyone in the room. After all, they embraced him when his musical journey began. Childress was a player in the local bluegrass roots movement at the age of 12.
“You don’t really see that many kids that know what bluegrass is, so I think people are very surprised,” he said of the reception at many venues.
But the element of surprise wore off in Iredell County, where Tae’s is a fixture.
“This is the library jam,” David Saleeby said.
The jam sessions at the J. Hoyt Hayes Memorial Troutman Library are Monday nights from 7-9 p.m.
“Yeah, it’s just fun to get away and have a break sometimes and just play music,” says Childress.
On this night, his circle of friends played “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” “Old Home Place,” and other favorites.
Folks like David Saleeby and Stan Childers have carried the torch for decades.
“It’s the music, it’s the roots that we grew up with,” said Saleeby. Tae grew up with it too, and it shows in his guitar picking. “I’m kind of in my own little world when I’m playing,” he says.
“I’ve been playing for sixty years and he can play circles around me,” Childers marveled.
They remember when Tae was just three at the jam sessions.
“With a little cowboy hat and a toy guitar. And he couldn’t play but he’d sit there and just smile and then all of the sudden, ‘I’ll Fly Away’ would come out,” Saleeby said.
It didn’t happen overnight. After school, he plays for hours in his room.
“If I have a bad day at school, you know it helps me get out of that space,” Childress told Queen City News.
His guitar play has racked up ribbons at fiddler’s conventions from Lenoir to Mount Airy. He also performs in a band of other young musicians called Carolina Detour.
“I love, like, all kinds of music, so I just kind of want to be a producer. But I want to stick with bluegrass and have a good bluegrass career,” Childress says.
“I really, genuinely think that he was just born with it,” says his mother Kayla Childress.
Of course, natural talent will only get you so far.
It was musical mentor Tony Hoover who put Tae on his way to a career in bluegrass.
“Tae is mature for his years and he came to [Tony] and asked him to teach him,” recalled Mary Jane Hoover, Tony’s wife of nearly 50 years. “He always said that he was not Tae’s guitar teacher, he was Tae’s guitar cheerleader,” said Kayla. In February of 2022, Tony died of pancreatic cancer. Before he passed, he gave Tae his prized Martin guitar, surrounded by friends and loved ones.
“It meant a lot, I tried not to cry,” Tae says. “I don’t think I did cry but everyone else was crying around me.”
“He trusted Tae to carry on the music through his guitar,” Kayla said. “And knowing how many lives Tony impacted with his guitar, and his music, and his love for bluegrass, it was an honor.”
At the library jam, the young man with an old soul carries on Tony’s legacy.
“It’s living on, yes,” Mary Jane says proudly.
Tae took the lead on “I’ll Fly Away,” a song he also performed at Tony Hoover’s funeral, using that priceless gift.
“This guitar’s very special to me,” he said. “I have his ashes in my guitar case, I take him with me. So he kind of like travels with me.“
“I feel like he’s taking Tony with him,” says Mary Jane.“If people could look down from heaven, I know he would be smiling.” Over the years so many musicians banded together to nurture Tae’s talent.
“A lot of the bluegrass players are kind of aging out, it’s nice to see the younger generation come along,” Childers said. “It keeps [bluegrass] going, I mean people passed it down to us,” Saleeby says.
In the tradition of bluegrass, they play it forward.