Ralph Berrier: A Reporter Goes Back to Musical Roots

ralph berrier

Ralph Berrier

Ralph Berrier, 48, of Roanoke, Virginia, grew up surrounded by music. He and his brothers sang both in church and along with his mother’s rock and roll albums. “My grandfather, Clayton Hall, was a well-known ‘hillbilly’ musician in the 1940s, who played guitar, banjo, bass, fiddle—anything with strings. He and his twin brother, Saford, were members of Roy Hall and His Blue Ridge Entertainers. They made records for Bluebird, played daily on radio station WDBJ in Roanoke, Virginia, and played the Grand Ole Opry a couple of times,” explains Berrier.

In high school, Ralph Berrier liked classic rock, and The Beatles. He always loved to sing, but didn’t start playing guitar until he was an 18-year-old college student at Radford University. “In those days, I was heavily into alternative rock. I wrote songs, made some homemade recordings, but basically never got out of the basement,” he says.

When Berrier became a reporter for The Roanoke Times, he went back to his roots. “My wife gave me a fiddle as a birthday present and pretty soon I got the hang of it. I learned mostly by ear and through a few informal lessons from my Uncle Saford and Papa Clayton,” he says.

In 1999, Ralph Berrier co-founded the Black Twig Pickers, an old-time band in the New River Valley of Virginia, with Mike Gangloff and Isak Howell. “We made three albums for VHF Records before I ‘retired’ from the band in 2006,” says Berrier. He now plays in the bluegrass band Java Brothers. He is also the founder and leader of the Radford Fiddle and Banjo Jam. The jam, begun in 2000, is an affiliated partner of The Crooked Road.

A features reporter for The Roanoke Times, Ralph Berrier wrote the book If Trouble Don’t Kill Me: A Family’s Story of Brotherhood, War, and Bluegrass (Crown, 2010) about his grandfather and great-uncle.

Who are your main influences?

Pop, rock, and classic rock as a kid and alt-rock bands in college. My grandfather and his brother influenced me with their playing and their love of Western music. Other traditional influences are Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, and musicians from my birthplace.

Why do you continue to make music?

You never grow too old to play the kind of music I play these days—bluegrass and old-time mountain music.

How do you continue to learn?

The Radford Fiddle and Banjo Jam is better than any lessons or practice. Playing with a group of people makes all the difference in the world. I learn new tunes, I get to sing a lot, and I have made many friends.

What benefits have you found to making music?

My friend Wayne Frye calls the jam his “weekly therapy.” He’s right. I truly get lost in the music, whether it’s a casual jam or a Java Brothers show, the whole world is shut out, except for the sounds we’re making from the stage.

How do you make time for music in your life?

I don’t play quite as much as I once did. The jam gives me the chance to play/practice at least once a week, plus the Java Brothers score a couple of paid gigs most months from spring to fall.

What advice do you have for someone getting back into music later in life?

Don’t delay; just do it. Don’t worry that you are too old to be playing “this kind of music” because you probably are. Do it anyway. I used to think that, unless I had learned an instrument by age 12, there was no point in trying. That was misguided thinking. You might never be a virtuoso, but you’ll get better than you think and you’ll enjoy it.

What is the best memory you have of making music?

The Black Twig Pickers were invited to Amsterdam to play on the Netherlands main public radio station VPRO. We were interviewed, played a recording session, then performed with three other alternative-traditional acts.


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