Flint Hill columnist Richard Brady, who jammed with Ronnie Poe for many years, remembers the man behind the banjo.
By Don Del Rosso
Bluegrass legend Ronnie Poe of Amissville died last week playing banjo.
Poe, 79, collapsed Thursday night after a few songs into a jam session at his backyard garage, surrounded by musicians like Richard Ashby and Richard Brady, who had known him and played beside him for decades.
“I was standing right next to him when he went down,” said Ashby, 69, a guitarist and retired U.S. Navy architect who lives near Orlean. “He always wanted me to stand next to him. He liked the way I played rhythm.”
Beginning in the 1960s, jam sessions at Poe’s became a weekly ritual, drawing musicians from as far as 50 miles away.
“When I got there” on the night he died, Poe “was holding forth, as he always did with his banjo,” said Brady, 67, a guitar player and retired federal government contractor who lives in Flint Hill. “I noticed he didn’t look very well. His color was somewhat ashen and gray.”
In between tunes, Brady asked Poe about his health.
“I said ‘How you doing, old friend,’” Brady recalled. “He said something like ‘I’m feeling slow. I don’t feel that well.’”
After he had fallen to the floor, Poe, a mechanic who owned and operated Old Towne Texaco in Warrenton for 32 years, never regained consciousness.
Kevin Roop, a real estate investor who lives near Marshall, joined the Thursday night jams about 34 years ago.
The 48-year-old banjo, fiddle and guitar player rarely missed a session.
Roop, who learned about Poe from a fellow church member, said the jams appealed to him because he liked “being around grandfatherly types and especially getting to know Poe,” who he described in almost reverential terms.
“He just didn’t have anything bad to say about anybody,” said Roop, who with Ashby and Brady planned to perform three songs during Poe’s funeral service at Amissville Baptist Church. “If he didn’t agree, he’d say, ‘I don’t mean no disrespect to so and so, but….’”
Poe took life as it came, Ashby said.
“I rode many miles with him to gigs and stuff,” he said. “But I never saw Ronnie get mad. He just flowed with the punches. He just accepted you for what you were.”
Beginning in the early 1970s, Poe and Ashby played in three bands together -– the Virginia Travelers, Shenandoah Travelers and Free State Ramblers.
The Thursday garage sessions started at around 7 p.m. and “back in the day” routinely lasted until 1 or 2 a.m.
In recent years, though, Poe would call it quits at 10 p.m., asking the late-night crowd to turn out the lights and lock the door behind them as they left.
The men would swap stories, tell jokes and catch up with one another’s lives and the news of the day, Roop said.
Poe “called it group therapy for the regular guys,” he said, laughing.
But Thursday at the garage was mostly about music.
“Any musician was always welcome,” Ashby said. “It didn’t matter if you were just starting, he’d give you a turn to do what you could do.”
Except if you were a woman. Early on Poe banned them from jams for what he viewed as practical reasons.
“I got some static about it,” he explained in a Richmond TV profile of him from the early 1990s.
“I don’t mean no disrespect to the ladies at all. But it’s just a bunch of guys pickin’. You get to talking and telling jokes. You’ve said something you shouldn’t have [in the company of females] and it makes you feel like a fool.”
Word-of-mouth about the weekly gatherings proved so strong that Poe “didn’t seek out beginning or aspiring musicians, people came to him,” Brady said. “He was welcoming to all those who came and encouraged them.”
Anybody with a serious appreciation for bluegrass knew something about Poe.
Roop said when he attended bluegrass festivals, his association with Poe invariably entered conversations.
“They say, ‘Show me the Ronnie Poe roll, show me the Ronnie Poe lick,’” he recalled.
With Poe’s death, Thursday nights no longer will be the same for jam regulars like Roop, Brady and Ashby.
“He was one of a kind,” Ashby said. “He’ll be greatly missed.”