Jeff Michael was born in Iredell County, and raised in Wilkes County surrounded by music. He has been playing, mostly professionally, since he was a young boy. Jeff grew up spending a lot of time in church where his parents and grandparents sang. “There was singing all the time,” Jeff says. “We were always in church singing.” There was also a lot of singing around the house; one grandfather sang, and one played the guitar. Jeff’s father also played guitar and bass, and his mother played the piano. Jeff’s father and uncle would often play music together, and Jeff remembers grabbing spoons to play along when he was just five or six years old.
Around age seven, Jeff began playing the piano. “I didn’t stick with piano too long before I went to guitar,” says Jeff. Most of his exposure at this point came through family and church music. “The first big music I ever heard outside of local stuff was riding around in a car with my grandpa hearing Bill Monroe on the Opry,” Jeff remembers. Soon, Jeff started playing mandolin, and that has become his favorite instrument. He also started playing clawhammer and three-finger banjo, and eventually Dobro and fiddle were added to the mix. “Bands I would play in would get requests for ‘Orange Blossom Special’ or ‘Turkey in the Straw,’ so I picked up the fiddle just to have one,” he says, adding, “I really learned to play on stage.”
Jeff has been playing in bands since he was a teenager. He performed with Bluegrass Revival, a band that included local Wilkes County musicians such as Ramona Church, Bill and Bob Caudill, and Ralph Pennington. Jeff worked with Charlie Louvin, of the Louvin Brothers, on the Grand Ole Opry. He auditioned for Bill Monroe and was offered a job towards the end of Bill’s career, only to have the offer withdrawn when a former guitar player returned to the position. “But, I got to sing with Bill and get to know him,” says Jeff, who has also played and recorded with Jim Shumate, one of the early pioneers of bluegrass fiddling. Jeff continues to play with Shumate on occasions.
Jeff has been an integral part of Big Country Bluegrass band for a number of years, with a few years off in the middle. He played in the band with Larry Pennington before Larry passed away, and after some time off, Jeff continues to play with the band today. He is the only member to have performed and recorded on every instrument. Jeff also fills in with other local groups, such as the Elkville String Band, and with a country band that plays a weekly square dance.
When asked about his biggest musical influences, Jeff acknowledges Bill Monroe and Reeves Parsons, his grandfather. Reeves sang a lot of gospel music throughout his life, including some with the Chuck Wagon Gang. “He was just an old country singer,” says Jeff, who continues to sing gospel music in bands.
Jeff is available for performances with a variety of groups including Big Country Bluegrass and the Elkville String Band.