Since her birth in McDowell County in 1955, Rhonda Gouge has lived in Mitchell County, and she has played guitar since she was a young girl. “I was exposed to music through my mom and her family,” she says. Rhonda’s mother was an expert shape-note singer and could play piano by ear. Her brothers and sisters were also musical. Rhonda became fascinated with the guitar while watching Arthur Smith and Fred Kirby perform on the Arthur Smith Show from WBTV in Charlotte, the one television channel her family’s antenna would receive.
At an early age, Rhonda asked for a guitar for Christmas, but her mother wanted Rhonda to learn to play the piano. Eventually, her father bought her a Roy Rogers guitar, which broke, and Rhonda focused on piano for a few years. She says the lessons helped her learn about key and time signatures. She remained fascinated with the guitar, and in 1967 her father took her to the Western Auto store in Marion and bought her a guitar for Christmas. He told her if she learned to play it, he would buy her a nicer instrument the next year, a promise he kept. An instructional pamphlet that accompanied the first guitar helped Rhonda figure out how to tune the instrument and play a couple chords.
Rhonda spent many days visiting neighbor, Oscar “Red” Wilson, a North Carolina Folk Heritage Award recipient, playing guitar accompaniment to his old-time fiddle tunes. His group, the Toe River Valley Boys, was one of her favorite bands. “When I first got a guitar and could put two or three chords together, I would go up to [Red Wilson’s] house. He would take his old fiddle down, and he would play his oldtime tunes, and I would play guitar with him. And he would always say, ‘That’s just wonderful.’ And he would say, ‘You’re going to be a fine musician.’ And he was very encouraging to me.”
Eventually, she discovered bluegrass music, which became her passion. Rhonda also began playing bass in church, and a neighbor bought her a banjo for her eighteenth birthday. Soon the mandolin was also added to her cannon. Rhonda’s interest in the music kept on growing, and others were taking notice. Friends started asking her for lessons, and her teaching career was born. Rhonda worked for years on factory lines, but eventually built a studio and started teaching full time.
Rhonda has recorded with Red Wilson. She also has two solo projects. She is pursuing a master’s degree in Appalachian Studies, and she keeps a regular waiting list for students interested in guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass, fiddle, or singing.
Rhonda is available for solo performances, duo performances with another guitar player, and with a full string band with Holli Greiner and Kathy Kuhne. She also performs with some of her students including Mitchell Cannon, a mandolin player who lives in Yancey County. Rhonda has an open waiting list for music lessons.