Kilby Spencer’s oldtime music experience dates back further than he can remember. His parents, Thornton and Emily, are well-known musicians around Whitetop, Virginia, who play for dances, host jam sessions, and teach community music lessons in Southwest Virginia and Northwest North Carolina. “There were always good people coming to the house to play,” says Kilby. “I missed a lot of good musicians, but I guess the music is in my head even if it’s not in my memory.”
Kilby’s first conscious memories of music are from the old hospital building in Ashe County, where his parents and his uncle Albert Hash taught old-time music lessons. Kilby remembers hearing fiddler Fred McBride and banjo player Enoch Rutherford perform there.
Though he could already play a few melodies on the fiddle, Kilby did not concentrate on his playing until he was around fourteen years old, when his mother started a string band class in the high school. He and several of his classmates started spending hours in school playing old-time music. “By the time I was nineteen or twenty,” Kilby says, “I fell completely into it.” He and his classmates were learning tunes from Kilby’s mother in school, and they would visit his father and other area musicians, such as Dean Sturgill and Johnny Miller, after school to learn more tunes.
Though the friends were all learning at the same time, they took a unique approach. Instead of learning the same tunes together, they would learn the same tunes separately. “Everybody might take the notes to a song and the general idea of a song, but then from there it was up to each person to develop their own individual style,” Kilby says. “Because we had so much time to play in school, we could do that.”
Kilby, Amanda Spencer (his wife), and Blake Rash began tracking down recordings of old musicians from the area. They found recordings of Blake’s grandfather Corbitt Stamper, and were surprised to find that Blake’s playing was similar even though he had never heard his grandfather play. “It was kind of uncanny,” Kilby remembers. In regards to his collection, Kilby says, “I’ve put a lot of time and effort into hunting stuff from the Whitetop area. There’s always something else out there. It’s a full-time hobby.”
Kilby says the fiddle style from the Whitetop area is similar to that of Ashe and Watauga Counties in North Carolina and Johnson County in Tennessee. The fiddlers from that area have been influenced by G. B. Grayson, who recorded in the 1920s. More specifically, he says, “I’ve tried to pattern my fiddling after Dad and Albert [Hash]. When I was younger, I didn’t realize the importance of it. Now, looking at things, you worry about it being around in the future. Specifically, you don’t want the styles from your area dying out. But I feel pretty good knowing there are a lot of people from the Whitetop area that area playing. It’s a good thing to know it’s going to keep going.”
Kilby Spencer is available for performances and to play for dances with the Crooked Road Old-Time Band. He also performs occasionally with his parents’ Whitetop Mountain Band.