Bill Birchfield of the legendary Roan Mountain Hilltoppers dies

Published 9:09 am Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Contributed Photo Old-time musician Bill Birchfield of the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers died Friday.

Contributed Photo
Old-time musician Bill Birchfield of the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers died Friday.

Bill Birchfield, a longtime musician and member of the nationally renowned Roan Mountain Hilltoppers, died Friday.
Family members said Bill died early Friday after suffering a stroke the day before.
He was known widely as a banjo picker and fiddler and for his many years of performing with the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers.
In his memory, a potluck wake, pickin’ party and jam will be held at 1 p.m. May 30 at Picnic Pavilion No. 3 at the Roan Mountain State Park Campground.
His wife, Janice, said it was among Bill’s final wishes for a party to be held in his honor.
“He wanted all his friends and fellow musicians to gather and have fun playing old-time music,” she said.” May 30 would have been his 70th birthday.
“He spent a lifetime making people happy. He was a common man who could not even sign his name, but he was proud of his family, Roan Mountain and Carter County. He loved to entertain.”
His wishes were to be cremated.
“His ashes will be driven to the May 30 celebration in his 1982 white Dodge truck, just like he wanted it,” his wife said.
The Roan Mountain Hilltoppers were legendary and had performed all across the country, earning numerous honors and awards through the years. Bill, left-handed, was known for playing the fiddle and banjo upside down and backward. He also played the autoharp.
Bill Birchfield was the son of fiddler Joe Birchfield, who died in 2002. Joe started the musical group more than 40 years ago. The original band included Joe, his brother; Creed Birchfield, banjoist; Bill; and Bill’s mother, Ethel, who played washtub, sang ballads and told stories. Later, Bill’s wife, Janice, joined the band, playing washtub bass.
“They were very talented musicians — gifted, and good-hearted people. They didn’t play for money. They performed because they enjoyed their music and sharing it with others,” Janice said.
Bill assumed leadership of the band after his father’s death.
His day job was doing mechanic work, and his business was at his home, located between Roan Mountain and Hampton off Highway 19-E.
The Roan Mountain Hilltoppers were one of America’s most authentic old-time string bands. Tunes played by the band date back to the early settlers of Upper East Tennessee and Western North Carolina.
Strongly committed to the preservation and teaching of traditional Appalachian music, the Birchfields through the years have played their brand of mountain music to such prestigious events as the Festival of American Fiddle Tunes in Port Townsend, Wash.; the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville; the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.; Merlefest in Wilkesboro, N.C., and the National Folk Festival at Wolf Trap in Vienna, Va., as well as numerous other events.
Additionally, the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers were part of the documentary Chase the Devil – Religious Music of the Southern Appalachians, by British filmmaker Jeremy Marre and Talking Feet, produced by the late Mike Seeger and Ruth Pershing, about Appalachian dancers. In 2009, they were presented with the Uncle Dave Macon Days Heritage Award for their lifetime commitment to preserving old-time music. They have been in Rolling Stone magazine and are part of the recently released book and CD, Hands in Harmony: Traditional Crafts and Music in Appalachia by photographer, Tim Barnwell. Their work can be found in The Library of Congress, East Tennessee State University’s Center for Appalachian Studies — Archives of Appalachia and the Tennessee State Library and Archives.
According to family members, Bill enjoyed leading jammin’ session.
He was often a featured performer at Bristol’s Rhythm and Roots and at the Paramount Theater.
His loss will be mourned by the large community of old time musicians in Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, and West Virginia where the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers have been popular, and by all his family and a wide community of friends.
In addition to his wife, Bill is survived by a son, Billy Chris; a daughter, Deborah Alaine, and three grandchildren.

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