“We’re blessed around here,” says Caldwell County musician Tony Deal. “There are just a lot of really great musicians in this area.” He continues, “I was getting ready to take a trip to Ireland in hopes of hearing some of the great music over there, and the night before I left was working at the annual Happy Valley Fiddlers’ Convention, and I was rubbing shoulders with the Krüger Brothers, Bob Kogut, Moon Mullins, and other fantastic musicians. I thought “It doesn’t get any better than this.’ Ireland has nothing on Caldwell County when it comes to old-time music.”
Tony grew up in China Grove, in Rowan County, and got interested in music through his mother’s family. “My mother played guitar and sang in a little country and gospel band, and she played with my two uncles on a local radio program,” he recalls. “She taught me to play my first song on the guitar, ‘In the Pines.'” As a teenager, Tony got interested in the popular folk music of the day, including groups like the Kingston Trio.
“Because of work and family, I stopped playing for a while,” he says, “until I went to the Union Grove festival, and I got fascinated with old-time music again.” He moved to Caldwell County in 1970 to work at the local community college, and started immersing himself in the music of the area. He lived in a house next to an older black blues musician at the time. “He asked me to keep his guitar at my place, to help look after it, and he would come by to play, and I learned to play harp with him.”
Tony continued to learn about other instruments and styles. He played mandolin for a while, learned some old-time banjo, and got interested in the hammered dulcimer after befriending folk musician John McCutcheon. Around this time, he also made efforts to get his family re-involved with music. “I got my mom and cousins back into playing, and we would go to Harper Van Hoy’s Fiddler’s Grove Festival every year,” he remembers. “Starting in 1972, we never missed a year, and we still stay at the campsite we always had.”
When Tony retired in 2002, he started jamming with a group of community members that included autoharp player Hal Presnell, guitar player Knox Ballew, and fiddler Virginia Barlow. “Those older members that played with us had all of these different waltzes and tunes,” Tony says. “They loved to play things like ‘The Only Way Waltz,’ that I never hear anyone else do.” After the older members of the group passed on, a core band started performing formally as the Neighbors. He continues to play occasionally with the Neighbors.
Tony has years of experience playing traditional music at weddings, performances, and school programs. He is versed in old-time music and Irish music. He helps host a regular Irish jam session in Lenoir, and he is the musical coordinator for the Happy Valley Fiddlers’ Convention.
Tony Deal is available for performances either solo or with a group. He is also available for school presentations and demonstrations, workshops, and lessons.