Earnest East was a prominent member of a remarkable tradition of string band music that grew up along the North Carolina/Virginia border between Mount Airy and Galax. He and his wife Fanny were long-time residents of the Pine Ridge section of Surry County, which is situated a few miles west of Mount Airy. Beginning in the 1920s, East played music with the finest musicians and string bands of the area, including the legendary banjoist Charlie Lowe and the renowned Camp Creek Boys. In 1966 he formed the Pine Ridge Boys, a prize-winning band that featured great dance music and the fine harmony singing of his son and daughter-in-law, Scotty and Patsy East.
East was an all-around musician, who played the fiddle, banjo, and guitar with exceptional skill and artistry. The fiddle was his first love, the instrument that he chose to play in most of the groups he performed with over the years. Borrowing from the best of local players—he learned to fiddle in part by following the banjo notes of Charlie Lowe—and from popular recording artists such as Fiddling Arthur Smith, he employed the entire length of his bow to produce a powerful driving sound. His style has been called “slip-chord” fiddling, a term used to describe his technique of sliding into a chord or “double-stop.” When supported by the superb musicianship of fellow band members on banjo, guitar, and bass, the sound was truly exhilarating.
Earnest East and the Pine Ridge Boys performed at numerous festivals including the Smithsonian Institution’s Festival of American Folklife and the National Folk Festival. At home, the band was in constant demand for community celebrations, benefits, and fundraisers. Their driving sound made them one of the area’s premier square-dance bands. He received the North Carolina Heritage Award in 1990 in recognition of his music and a generosity of spirit that inspired countless younger musicians to carry on the region’s music traditions.