“I’ve played with about all the pickers from around here,” says bluegrass banjo player J. C. Kemp. “I’ve played with hundreds of people over the years.” J. C. grew up in the Buffalo community of Ashe County, where he continues to live and play music.
J. C. heard a lot of music at home and around the community when he was growing up. His father played fiddle and guitar around the area. “My grandfather knew G. B. Grayson, and my dad went to two or three fiddlers’ conventions with G. B., backing him up on guitar,” J. C. recalls. “Dad also played with a bunch of guys at the Buffalo Tavern.” Soon, J. C. took an interest in playing banjo, and the first tune he learned was “John Henry.” He and his father played together around the house, picking and singing songs like “Bury Me Beneath the Willow,” “Little Maggie,” and “Lonesome Road Blues.”
One reason J. C. became interested in the banjo was from watching Don Reno play with Red Smiley and the Tennessee Cut-Ups on a regular television show. He was fascinated with Reno’s banjo playing. “I tried to play like Don,” J. C. says. He practiced playing around the house, and he would regularly tune in to the Reno and Smiley program. “I would try playing with them on the TV,” he remembers. J.C. remembers learning “Grandfather’s Clock” from watching Don Reno. He was complimented one time by a close friend of Don Reno’s, who remarked how similar J. C’s playing sounded.
J. C. has played with countless musicians and dozens of bands over the years. One of the first groups he played with was the Virginia-Carolina Boys, with fiddler Albert Hash, guitar player Wayne Henderson, and mandolin player Max Henderson. Other musicians and groups J. C. has played with include Jim Poe and the Carolina Troubadours, Mountain Echoes, Jim Brooks and Mountain Drive, Kevin Miller, Steve Lewis, Paul Hardy, and the Fellowship Quartet. J. C. continues to be an active member of the local and regional bluegrass scene.
Though retired, J. C. Kemp is available for performances with several different bluegrass bands.