When a young musician named Scott Ainslie showed up on the Washington and Lee University campus in the early 1970s, he found himself in a burgeoning folk music hotbed.
One of the first people Ainslie met there was Pleas Geyer, an upperclassman and generous with the new kid on campus. Once Geyer understood that Ainslie was a fellow guitarist, he gave the freshman two records that would change his life — the Mississippi John Hurt album “Today!” and Jesse Winchester’s self-titled debut album.
“Those two records just changed my musical life in a really deep way, both of them,” Ainslie remembered in a recent phone conversation.
The elegantly finger-picked, deceptively simple work that Hurt did on guitar, in particular, challenged him.
“I spent most of my freshman year, when I was not doing the work I needed to do, trying to figure out how John Hurt did what he did,” Ainslie said.
On Saturday, Ainslie will stop in Floyd for workshops at the Hotel Floyd. Two sessions, one focused on Hurt’s techniques, and the second a slide guitar session based on Robert Johnson’s music, are co-presented by the Floyd Country Store’s Handmade Music School. That night, he will do a concert at the hotel.
While most of his old friends from Lexington have moved on or passed away, he has made a new set of guitar-picking friends — 13-year-old Dylan and 7-year-old Nicholas Underwood among them — in a connection that will bring him to Floyd. The Charlotte, North Carolina, boys met Ainslie at the Swannanoa Gathering, near Asheville, North Carolina. Dylan and Nicholas studied with him there and befriended Ainslie and his wife.
Ainslie has been teaching at the Swannanoa Gathering’s Guitar Week for about a quarter-century.
“Over the 3 years that Dylan has gone, he said that Scott was one of the best,” the boys’ mother, Ananda Underwood, wrote in an email exchange. “Dylan and Nicholas quickly adopted he and his wife as grandparents.”
The teacher was glad to “adopt” the two students in return.
“It’s a family affair,” Ainslie said. “Dylan of course is quite a guitar player for his age. He really likes the stuff that I play and has worked really hard to get some of it under his fingers ... Their mother is the age of some of our kids. We’re just another set of grandparents for them, but we love ’em.”
Ananda Underwood, a Floyd native, suggested that Ainslie talk to the boys’ actual grandmother, Kamala Bauers, about doing something in Floyd, where an acoustic music scene thrives. Bauers and her partner, Jack Wall, built and own Hotel Floyd.
“So we stopped by on one of our [tour] runs through the country and just fell in love with [Bauers],” and with Dylan Locke, “the other Dylan,” who runs the Handmade Music School, Ainslie said.
Ainslie, born in Rochester, New York, moved with his parents further south as the years went on, with the family winding up in Alexandria by the time Ainslie enrolled at Washington and Lee. He went there as a music major, and fell in with a growing crowd of old-time music pickers led by geology professor Odell McGuire.
The professor had heard clawhammer banjo, fell in love with its sound, and “set out to fashion himself into an old-time banjo player,” Ainslie remembered. “It was very hard work for him. I had been playing since I was 3, and came in well-armed to take on this music.”
He picked up on clawhammer banjo, old-time fiddle and ballad singing, and wound up among a group of people learning the roots of the music from members of the Hammons family, in Marlinton, West Virginia, and Tommy Jarrell, in Surry County, North Carolina.
“It was a very interesting time to be immersed in that, with a whole bunch of other people who were at the very beginning of learning that music, all of us on fire to play it accurately and well and to receive the gifts we were being given,” he said.
He still plays fiddle and banjo live, as well as a fretless gourd banjo, an instrument that allows him to school listeners about the African influences on Southern old-time music.
After graduating from W&L and spending an extra year in Lexington working on compositions with his mentor, music professor Rob Stewart, he moved to New York City, where his resume included a role as part of the picking and singing house band in “Cotton Patch Gospel,” a musical with songs by Harry Chapin. The New York Times wrote in 1981 that “A little of it goes a very long way,” but the musicians, including a young Jim Lauderdale, were “a constant reinforcement.” Chapin’s brother, Tom, was the musical director, and Ainslie made a lasting friendship with him.
The play debuted in 1981 at Lamb’s Theatre. Ainslie, playing steadily in a 360-seat hall with no microphones or any other sound reinforcement, had to develop as a singer.
“They wanted to understand every word to the back wall, or we’ve got a guy wants your job; that was the deal,” he said. “So I learned to sing loud and to project and developed tremendous vocal power in those eight months.”
After touring with the show and taking over as musical director, he looked to use his voice. He turned to the blues.
“I was not just a white folk singer anymore, or a church singer,” he said. “I had some volume and projection to work with. I thought, you’ve played blues for a long time, but singing it is another matter entirely. And I just thought, I’m gonna try this.
“I apprenticed myself to great black singers, famous and not, and started trying to figure out what the techniques were, what this was all about, without, as a friend of mine said, ‘singing in blackface.’ The trick is not to imitate black dialect. There’s something else going on, and the people who’ve figured this out you can kind of count on one hand, as far as white singers crossing over.”
“Over 35 years of doing this, I’ve figured it out. The singing was the most transformative part. A lot of people can play the guitar techniques. It’s not that they’re simple, but you don’t have to cross over a tremendous cultural barrier to get there, whereas singing blues is a real transformative journey. You have to embrace. You will change.”
He has been teaching vocal workshops in the past three years, but said he chose to do the instrumental ones in Floyd. If Saturday’s sessions work out, he’ll consider expanding his offerings there.
“It’s fun to be had,” he said of Saturday. “It’s going to be quite a long day for me, but I’m looking forward to it.”