Ernest was born in Alleghany County where lived all of his life except for one year in Pennsylvania. His maternal grandfather played the banjo, and he remembered hearing a lot of music in church when he was young. “Back when I grew up, it was just oldtime,” he recalled. When he was about nine years old, Ernest started playing a guitar his father bought him. He was exposed to a lot of music in the area, but when asked how he learned, Ernest said, “I just picked it up myself.”
He immersed himself in oldtime and bluegrass music and learned to play several instruments. “I learned to play the guitar; then I started playing mandolin,” Ernest said. He also played bass with a number of bands. Ernest played on a radio station in Galax around 1947-48 with Del Reeves, Fred Roupe, and Dean Mains. He often played for square dances and box suppers. “There weren’t too many musicians around Sparta back then,” Ernest remembered. So, he played with musicians around the region such as Larry Richardson’s Blue Ridge Boys, with Uncle Joe Johnson and with Benton Flippen and the Smokey Valley Boys from Mount Airy.
Ernest worked for the highway department for nearly thirty years. During this career, Ernest played closer to home. He and his wife Agnes performed as a duet with guitar and mandolin and made some recordings in the 1950s. When Ernest retired in 1990, he and his wife started the Alleghany Jubilee in downtown Sparta in an historic theatre that has hosted musicians including Mainer’s Mountaineers, Reno and Smiley, Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, and Uncle Dave Macon. Ernest and Agnes ran the Jubillee as a pastime, but it kept them busy as it was open four or five nights a week for live music and dancing for many years. “I just wanted to keep olditme music going,” Ernest said when asked why he started the Alleghany Jubilee.
Ernest played with three groups at the Jubilee, and other bands from the region played there as well. Ernest’s bands were Blue Ridge Partners, Rise and Shine Band, and Old Country Grass. Rise and Shine Band played bluegrass and bluegrass gospel and produced a recording. Blue Ridge Partners played bluegrass and some old country. Old Country Grass performed oldtime music.