“There wasn’t anybody could beat Charlie Lowe playing the banjo. He was the best banjo picker I ever played with,” said legendary old-time musician Tommy Jarrell. Charlie Lowe was an influential musician on a generation of Surry County musicians, like Tommy Jarrell, Fred Cockerham, Ernest East, and Dix Freeman, musicians who helped spread the tunes and styles well beyond the county lines.
Charlie Lowe was born in 1878, in the Round Peak area of Surry County, and he became known in the area as the best banjo player around. His driving clawhammer style can be heard on the tune “Tater Patch,” released on County Records’ Clawhammer Banjo Vol 3. There are half-a-dozen home recordings in circulation amongst collectors. Ray Alden wrote, “He brought the drop thumb clawhammer style to a new level of excellence using a double note technique which incorporated an uncanny sense of timing, speed, and deadly accuracy.”
Charlie played banjo alongside Tommy Jarrell’s father, Ben Jarrell, providing music for the local dances. By the time Tommy was a teenager, he mostly replaced his father as the fiddler with Charlie. The two developed a close musical relationship, and Charlie became one of Tommy’s primary influences. Fred Cockerham was also significantly influenced by Charlie’s banjo playing, and the duets he recorded with Tommy in later years are reflective of this strong fiddle-banjo tradition from Round Peak.
Fiddler Ernest East lived near Charlie Lowe, and Lowe helped him get started playing music. Charlie, and another friend Spurgeon Center, made East’s first fiddle out of a cigar box. Ernest said that he would listen to Charlie play a tune on the banjo, then he would try to figure it out on the fiddle with Charlie helping guide his bowing hand.
Charlie was known for his skill on the fretless banjo, playing tunes like “Step Back Cindy,” “Fortune,” “June Apple,” “Sally Ann,” and “Sugar Hill.” Charlie taught Dix Freeman the majority of his banjo tunes. Charlie won first place in the banjo competition in Galax in 1949. Tommy Jarrell continued playing with Charlie Lowe, until his death in 1964.