Bill Pruett has been playing the guitar and banjo since he was six or seven years old, but he was almost twenty before he first heard bluegrass music. Until then, oldtime music was what he heard, growing up in the 1940s and ’50s in the Balsam Gap area near Waynesville. Pruett’s father, Vinson, played oldtime banjo (until injuring his hand terribly in a machine at the paper mill where he worked), and his uncle was a fiddler. As a teenager, Bill sometimes accompanied the fiddler and banjo player Samantha Bumgarner, playing with her at the courthouse in Sylva. Bumgarner, whom he remembers as “a happy person,” called him Cottontop. He knew that Bumgarner had made records when she was a younger woman, but he did not actually see one of her 78s until he was in the military and stationed in Washington State, and someone he knew there happened to have a copy of her “Big-Eyed Rabbit.” Of the records that he heard to growing up, Pruett remembers that he played them so much that the phonograph needles wore down the shellac until all that was left of the music was “a kind of fuzzy sound.”
When he was a teenager, Pruett’s friends made fun of him for playing old-time music, but to this day he loves the older mountain tunes. Once he started playing bluegrass, though, Pruett was off on an enviable career that included stints with Fred McFalls and the Carolina Mountain Boys in the Pacific Northwest, and Tall Timber, before joining Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. Later, living in Florida, he was in bands with Mac Wiseman, Chubby Wise, Chubby Anthony, Josh Graves, and Joe Stuart. He has been the Florida State Banjo Champion and won other awards, but does not really like to play in contests. Once you’re competing, he says, “you’re not playing for enjoyment anymore.”
Pruett has retired to his native North Carolina mountains, and today plays with the Carolina Bluegrass Band. His bandmates are Oliver Farley (mandolin), Sandy Monday (bass), Jerry Hensley (fiddle), and Cecil Johnson (guitar). He also enjoys performing a variety of old-time, Scottish, and Irish music. Pruett’s wife asked him once when he was going to retire from playing music; he told her, “When my mind quits, or my fingers quit.”
Bill Pruett plays with the Carolina Bluegrass Band, as well with other friends and solo. The Pruetts stay in Florida during the wintertime, but live in western North Carolina the rest of the year.