Terry McKinney grew up in Mitchell and McDowell counties surrounded by traditional mountain music, and he has been singing and playing music most of his life. Terry was born in Spruce Pine. He remembers having a dry-cell radio at home before they had electricity. “The family would gather around that old radio and listen to the Grand Ole Opry,” Terry remembers. “But that was like the pre-show,” he continues. “When it was over, they’d be excited and go to pickin’ live.” Terry remembers cousins coming over to play on the porch in the summer and in the living room during winter. His mother played guitar and piano, and she showed Terry his first chords on both instruments.
Terry was also influenced by musicians in the community and beyond through a thriving local music scene. He listened to the Carolina Barn Dance broadcast live in Spruce Pine and later the Farm Air radio program, both of which featured local and touring musicians. Terry remembers hearing the Carter Family, Bill Monroe, and Grandpa Jones, as well as local stars Clyde Moody and Scotty and Lula Belle Wiseman. Scotty and Lula Belle invited him on stage to sing with them when he was a teenager, an experience that had a profound impact on Terry. “I always give someone an opportunity if they want a chance to sing on stage,” he says.
He was an eager learner. Terry had a friend in Marion, Robert Hollifield, whose mother played like Maybelle Carter, and he remembers sitting at her side studying the way she played. Terry played at house parties with as many musicians as he could. “I wanted to get with anyone better than me, surround myself with the best I could find.” he says. “It seemed like everybody played different back then.” Years later he played with Clyde Moody, one of Bill Monroe’s early guitarists and lead singers and a Grand Ole Opry veteran. Terry studied the way Moody presented the music and worked the microphone and crowd.
Terry, like many musicians, has done other kinds of work to make a living, but music is his first love. Bands have been part of his life for many years. When he was drafted in the Army, he formed a band and played gigs in and around Newport News. On his return to western North Carolina, he played with the Gate City Ramblers for a number of years, performing in the Glenwood, then Gate City, Opry House. Terry also played with a local group, Clear Creek, for about 15 years playing traditional bluegrass. He formed a family band with his brother Jack, who plays fiddle, and Jack’s wife Arzella, and they played for about 20 years.
Terry McKinney is available for performances of gospel, traditional mountain music, bluegrass, or classic country. He brings together other local musicians to work with him, depending on the program. He talks in depth about the local musical history and lore, and he includes some of this in his performances. Terry performs regularly at the Orchard at Altapass during summer months.