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Bluegrass in His Blood: Band Member Shares How His Roots Influenced His Future
By Karen Appold

David Patton (pictured) spent most of his childhood in Lyon County, Kentucky. He moved to Colorado in 1991 to attend graduate school. While always a closet bluegrass fan, it wasn’t until the spring of 1995 that David began playing banjo. In 1997, David started a bluegrass jam in Louisville, Colorado, and became part of Coal Creek Bluegrass Band. In addition to his hard-driving banjo picking, David is the band’s emcee and sings tenor just like he heard it sung back in the hills of Kentucky. David shares how he realized his dream in this exclusive interview with www.dycusburg.com. 

Q: When did you become interested in music?
Patton: I have always enjoyed music. I remember singing in bed when I was just 6 years old. My brother and I would lie in our twin beds and sing every song we knew until Mom or Dad came upstairs and told us to shut up! Neither of my parents played an instrument. Mom can sing and she has plenty of natural talent, but she never really sang much around the house or listened to music much. Only at Christmastime was music plentiful at our home. As a kid, I hated piano lessons. I never became a big fan of a band and I didn’t pretend every spoon I picked up was a microphone. But music was still there. 

I wanted to play the banjo when I was around 10, but we didn’t have enough money to for one and lessons. My Mom’s friend gave me a saxophone, so that was my instrument, and I was thrilled. I joined the marching band. I really enjoyed playing the sax and was pretty good at it. As a junior, I decided I wanted to go to Oneida Baptist Institute back in the hills of Clay County. My folks were unhappy with my decision, but they let me go. There, I became passionate about sports and my sax didn’t get pulled out of its case nearly as often. But at the same time, that was the first time I listened to bluegrass music. I didn’t even know what it was. We listened to albums my buddies had by Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers. Just hillbilly music, I guess. But we loved it.  

In college, it was rock and roll! After I graduated from Western Kentucky University, I joined the Army as a second lieutenant and eventually ended up at Fort Carson, Colorado. I bought a cheap banjo on a whim, but I couldn’t figure out how to play it. My brother, Doug, was a cadet at the Air Force Academy just across town and he borrowed the banjo for the summer. I finally got it back 10 years later! By then, I was out of the Army and living in Louisville, Colorado. I decided that for my 35th birthday, I would give myself lessons. That was 8 years ago. 

I don’t have a tremendous amount of natural talent for playing a string instrument; my manual dexterity is average on a good day. But playing is so much fun, that I can somewhat overcome my limitations just with enthusiasm. And, I have a knack for remembering a song. I can’t remember someone’s name or where I left my jacket this morning, but I can remember the words to a song I heard once 20 years ago. How’s that for a useless skill?  

Q: Describe your early musical accomplishments.
Wow. This is going to be a short answer for a change. I know I showed a lot of aptitude on the saxophone in high school, but I never stood out. I was just another kid in the band. And it took me quite a while to find my voice. In high school, more than one person commented that it was good I played a wind instrument, because that way I wasn’t tempted to sing! Well, I guess you might get a debate on whether I can sing now, but I think my voice works for bluegrass, and I sure love singing it. 

Q: Why did you choose bluegrass?
Patton: Well, I really chose the banjo. I didn’t know much about bluegrass when I started playing. I had listened to it in high school, but I didn’t know any of the bands or the music’s history. At first, I only wanted to learn instrumental tunes. Then, as I started listening to the music, I became hooked. I joke with people that bluegrass is musical crack cocaine. Once you start listening, you’re addicted for life. The music is just incredibly authentic. It’s all acoustic; there are no effects or synthesizers. What you hear is the musicians and their instruments. And man, what musicians! I am still amazed at the talent of so many bluegrass musicians. And not just the big stars; some guy at a local jam may be as good as any star in Nashville, but he just picks for fun.  

Bluegrass is almost a secret club. No one else knows how much fun we’re having! For a picker, going to a bluegrass festival is like going to summer camp and seeing all your friends, only with no curfew! Headline acts oftentimes come out to the campground and pick after the show. It is incredibly exciting to be standing around a campfire playing the music you love and one of your musical heroes is standing right next to you. I can’t imagine not having bluegrass music in my life. 

Q: When did you join the band, what prompted this?
Patton: I started a bluegrass jam in Louisville, Colorado, after I had played several years, so I could learn to play with other musicians. Prior to that, I knew about 10 songs, which I had learned rote from my instructor. I didn’t know how to create a solo break in a song or even how to figure out chords or play simple backup. The jam was a great crash course. Some of the best local pickers started attended and we announced the jam on KGNU, a Boulder radio station that hosts a Saturday morning bluegrass show.  

Dave Goldhammer, the guitar player in Coal Creek, started coming to the jam about a year after it started. He was just learning to play bluegrass, although he already knew a bit about playing guitar. But man, he played so softly no one could hear him! Well, he is even more “ate up” with the music than I am, and he improved at a phenomenal rate. We hit it off well and enjoyed playing music together.  

A short time after Dave started coming to the jam, five regulars started their own band. I was excited and envious at the same time. I thought being in a good bluegrass band was far beyond what I could ever accomplish. They called themselves the Stanleytones and suddenly they were playing a lot of gigs around Boulder. About that same time, a group of guys I had played with in Nederland, Colorado started calling themselves the Yonder Mountain String Band and their band took off. Not a traditional bluegrass band by any means, but they perform with bluegrass instrumentation and they are touring nationally and filling big venues.  

I still thought that it just wouldn’t happen to me, I would never be that good. But Dave Goldhammer what seeing what these other bands were doing and he’s thinking, “Those are guys we know; they aren’t some higher life form. Man, we can do this!” So Dave starts encouraging me to start a string band. I was skeptical. But Dave got five guys to show up at my house one night in late December 2000 for our first practice. And surprisingly, we all knew each other, even though Dave had met each of us at different jams.  

At that first practice, I finally saw what Dave Goldhammer had seen all along. We could do this; we could be in a bluegrass band! We’ve only changed one member since then. We all get along, we have similar goals and something wonderful happens when we are on stage. We are so much better as a group than we are individually. I’ve never experienced anything like it. When we get going, it is just so much fun I can’t stop grinning. And we get paid for it! 

Q: How did the song “Night Riders Killed Henry Bennett” come about?
Patton: About 2 years ago, my wife, Kathy, and I read an article in the Kentucky Explorer magazine about the Night Riders, who murdered Henry Bennett. The events described occurred in western Kentucky, where we are from, and it piqued our curiosity. Kathy had never heard of the Night Riders; I had as a child, but knew almost nothing about them prior to reading the article. So we asked my Dad, Hudson Patton, who grew up in Lyon County, what he knew of the Night Riders. Besides telling us what he remembered hearing from his father and uncles, Dad also mailed us the book On Bended Knees, by Bill Cunningham, which expanded on Dad’s stories.  

Dad had vivid memories of the murder of Henry Bennett. Some of the facts that he remembered weren’t in the book, but the factual account, combined with the tales handed down from my grandfather and probably my great-grandfather, created a compelling story. I kicked around the idea to write a song about the Night Riders almost from the start. After reading the book, I was determined to create a ballad that captured both the historical events and the emotional impact of Henry Bennett’s murder. 

Writing “Night Riders Killed Henry Bennett” was actually a lot of fun, although it took a while. I pulled out Cunningham’s book several times to fact check. I also sat down with the Kentucky Gazetteer and revisited the small towns I knew as a youngster. The song references many of these towns, which gives a sense of place, and hopefully conveys to the listener the historical accuracy of the lyrics. I added very little in terms of creative license: I decided that Bennett was tied to a chestnut tree, a common type of tree in Bennett’s time, but have since almost vanished because of disease. I also reluctantly modified the epitaph on Henry Bennett’s gravestone to better fit the stanza. The stone actually reads “Killed by the Night Riders.” whereas the song uses “Killed By Night Riders.” The biggest challenge was deciding what to leave out—whittling down all the interesting facts and haunting details into a few lines of verse. 

Putting a melody to the words was by far the easiest step. The chord progression and tempo give the song an anxious and foreboding feel; perfect for a murder ballad. The fiddle work on the recording was performed by Justin Hoffenburg. He was 15 years old at the time and had been in the band just a few months. We had only practiced the song a couple of times prior to going into the studio to record. Justin and I worked out what he would play in the studio right before we recorded the song. I decided where to put the fiddle break, but the rest was all up to Justin. We recorded the song live, which is rare for a studio recording. I think we did three or four takes, with everyone in the band standing in a circle around the microphones.  

The recording isn’t perfect, mainly because of my mistakes. I inadvertently changed Henry Bennett’s name to William Bennett. By the time I realized that goof, we had already pressed the CD.  

For more information, visit www.coalcreekbluegrass.com.