Herb Key grew up in musical family in Wilkes County. He has played music for most of his life and has spent more than thirty years making, repairing, and restoring instruments. He has been interested in music all of his life, and he grew up listening to old Carter Family recordings, mesmerized with Mother Maybelle’s guitar playing. He also listened to radio programs and has fond memories of listening to the Grand Ole Opry on Saturday nights.
Herb’s mother and father both played music, but his father did not want Herb to play, thinking that musicians in the area often had reputations for not being hard workers. However, his mother played guitar sometimes, and his Uncle Bob, also a musician, showed Herb how to tune a guitar. When he was sixteen, Herb’s parents bought him his own Silvertone guitar, an instrument he still owns. In school he played in a band with other friends in the Future Farmers of America. The group would play gospel music and other traditional music of the area.
By the early 1970s, Herb had developed an interest in building and repairing instruments. Jack Williams, a local luthier who built banjos, guitars, and mandolins, helped Herb build his first instrument, a banjo. Around the same time, Herb also found out about Wayne Henderson of Rugby, Virginia, who was developing a reputation for making fine guitars and other stringed instruments. He made frequent trips to visit Henderson, who helped him build his first guitar. Herb has made a number of instruments through the years, and today he has his own shop at his home in Wilkesboro; however, he spends more time doing repair and restoration work than making instruments. In addition to having his own shop, Herb also does repair work at Wayne Henderson’s shop.
In the 1970s, Herb, along with Larry Pennington, Raymond Pennington, and Paul Gentle, formed the High County Ramblers. Larry Pennington was a widely-known and respected banjo player from Ashe County who helped many musicians get involved with the local traditional music. His legacy is celebrated annually with a festival in Ashe County. Johnny Miller, and Wayne “Hot Picker” Henderson joined the band shortly after it was formed. This group won the Galax Fiddlers Convention in the bluegrass band category the year they formed.
Herb mentions Dan Crary and the Country Gentlemen and Doc Watson (“Our buddy down the road.”) as being key musical influences. He recorded an album with the High County Ramblers, and later he recorded another album with fellow guitar players Wayne Henderson and Ray Cline to highlight the guitar styles of these pickers. Herb has won several ribbons in folk singing competitions at regional festivals.
Herb performs with the Elkville String Band alongside Bill Williams, Jim Lloyd, and Trevor McKenzie, and sometimes Jeff Micha. They play regional old-time and bluegrass music. The group has been the house band for the Tom Dooley productions in Wilkes County. Herb has a wealth of knowledge about local and regional music, and he is happy to share with audiences. In addition to the Elkville String Band, Herb also continues to perform with Wayne Henderson.