Winchester’s Sweetwater String Band reunites

By Josette Keelor

When mandolin player Sam Glynn moved to Texas in 2006, Sweetwater String Band of Winchester broke up.

Banjo player Rudy Massey called it a hiatus, but at the time none of them knew that. In fact, Massey stopped performing almost entirely.

“Mainly I just jammed,” he said. And he filled in with other bands as needed.

Then this summer Glynn emailed that he and his wife were returning, and just like that, the four musicians reunited.

“Are you kidding?” Massey said. “I was like, ‘we’re getting back together.'”

At a recent Thursday night rehearsal at their home, Charlotte Swanson Smith plucked the strings of an upright bass beside her husband Charley Smith, who strummed against an acoustic guitar.

“Every band has their own thing,” Swanson Smith said. “We like to do some traditional, but primarily we are doing ‘not your daddy’s bluegrass.'”

And judging by their choices at that rehearsal — like Eric Clapton’s “Lay Down Sally,” The Everly Brothers’ “Wake up Little Susie,” Bob Dylan’s “Wagon Wheel,” the gospel song “Three Men on a Mountain” and the Washington Redskins’ fight song “Hail to the Redskins” — it isn’t hard to imagine all that their slogan might indicate.

As Glynn put it, “A lot of bluegrass, they call it plum pitiful.”

Sweetwater plays “anyone that has good harmony,” Massey said.

Swanson Smith started the band in 2001 for a benefit at the Winchester Eagles Club, and Massey helped her name the band. Once Smith and Glynn joined, they played at area venues like vineyards and summer evening Gazebo Gatherings in Front Royal.

“You go to parties and you pick with everyone,” she said.

“It’s been tough choosing from all the songs,” she said. “We have played every Thursday night just about since Sammy’s been back.”

Massey said he thought they would have lost more knowledge than they did over seven years’ time — like Patsy Cline’s “Walkin’ After Midnight.”

“We haven’t played that together in 10 years,” Massey said.

He started playing banjo at age 18, and “It just took me away from everything else. I just had to spend the rest of my life doing it.”

Chromatic banjo lets him play note for note, although “other styles have to suggest a lot of the melodies.”

The Smiths kept their interests going over the last seven years through The Charlotte and Charley Smith Duet, often bringing in other area artists to play with them. But Smith and Massey said Glynn is their hero for his musical past that includes more than 20 years playing with his family in the New Liberty Band. Even in Texas, he wouldn’t let his interest in music die.

“I played in four different bands down there,” he said. If he hadn’t, “I probably wouldn’t have had any friends down there.”

Part of what makes them unique in the Northern Shenandoah Valley is Sweetwater’s four-part harmony. Swanson Smith typically sings lead, while her husband takes baritone, Glynn high baritone and Massey tenor.

“We can sing anything really,” Massey said. “When you’re in a group like that, it’s enjoyable.” Plus he said it’s nice not to feel pressured to get everything perfect. “We’re playing for ourselves.”

After lending a bluegrass twist to a Simon and Garfunkel song, Swanson Smith reiterated that what they play is all for fun.

“You don’t usually hear rock and roll in bluegrass, but that’s what we like to do. We like to do the oldies, bring ’em into bluegrass.”

“I always say that the main thing we play is what people recognize.”

For more information at Sweetwater String Band, call Charlotte Swanson Smith at 540-662-2490.

Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or jkeelor@nvdaily.com