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Musician’s legacy full of high notes

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By Joseph P. King II

CARYVILLE—A subsection of Knoxville-based Carpetbag Theater, the Carpetbag Singers performed at the Louie Bluie Festival last weekend with a style they said was greatly influenced by the impact Howard “Louie Bluie” Armstrong had on the culture of Appalachian music.

A diverse ensemble that features multigenerational performers, the Carpetbag Singers consists of Julius Blue on piano, Nancy Brennan Strange on guitar, Sean McCullough on mandolin, Joe Tolbert on lead vocals and Linda Upton Hill on bass. Together the group performed songs from the play Between the Ballad and a Blues, which chronicles Armstrong’s life.

“It’s about him, but it’s also about him traveling and being on the road all the time,” Brennan Strange said. “That whole play really gives you a sense of who he was and his philosophy on life. I was lucky enough to meet him and hangout with him at the end. He was a great person, a great musician and really a lot of fun. I loved his wife, too. I got great joy and satisfaction by getting to know him because he was kind of one of my heroes before I even met him.”

Written by Linda Paris Bailey, the play includes actual songs written by Armstrong that highlight a piece of Appalachian history the group feels is often overlooked or forgotten.

“The play was great because not a lot of people of color get highlighted in Appalachian or folk history, so the fact that she wrote this play was a big deal,” Tolbert said. “Not a lot of people know that the Carolina Chocolate Drops took their inspiration from a guy who grew up in this part of East Tennessee.”

Tolbert said telling the story of Armstrong’s life and the impact he had on music and the region as a whole also holds a personal connection for him.

“For me, it was the affirmation to continue and support telling the African-American Appalachian history,” Tolbert said. “It was less of a philosophical thing, but more of a commitment to continue to do work uplifting that hidden history that continues to stay buried of people like Howard Armstrong and other people who are of African descent who have been influential to Appalachia.”