North Carolina Folk Heritage Award recipient Verlen Clifton grew up in the Round Peak community of Surry County where musicians developed a powerful brand of stringband music based on the fiddle and banjo ensemble tradition. His playing earned the admiration of local residents and attracted the attention of old-time music enthusiasts throughout the country. Verlen first played banjo and guitar, but he eventually settled on mandolin, which he played more as a rhythm rather than a lead instrument.
“When I was growing up, I can’t remember what you’d call ‘bands’ around our neighborhood,” he recalled. Instead, local musicians would gather in people’s homes to play for dances or meet at stores and gas stations for impromptu music sessions. Opportunities to perform outside the community encouraged Verlen and other Round Peak musicians to organize themselves into bands.
Fiddlers conventions, once small community gatherings, became regional events that attracted these stringbands and invited them to compete for recognition and prize money. About the same time, local radio stations, such as WPAQ in Mount Airy, began hiring stringbands for live performances. When Verlen discovered that these larger audiences liked to hear singing, his band adapted traditional songs to a stringband setting and added vocal numbers to the performances.
In 1963, he joined Round Peak musicians Fred Cockerham, Kyle Creed, Paul Sutphin, and Earnest East to form the legendary Camp Creek Boys. For ten years, the group played hard-driving square dance music that captured first prize at numerous fiddle contests across the region. The Camp Creek Boys also recorded an album for County Records that caught the attention of listeners across the nation and inspired many young urban musicians to travel to Surry County to seek them out. Verlen said, “We thought it was old picking, like we all do, you know. But come to find out, it’s pretty good to listen at, later on.”
Verlen Clifton passed away on November 9, 2020 at the age of 92.