On the Beat

Al Batten, banjo-playing bluegrass godfather, dies at age 68

Al Batten and The Bluegrass Reunion perform during the IBMA Bluegrass Ramble on Thursday, October 2, 2014, in Raleigh, N.C.
Al Batten and The Bluegrass Reunion perform during the IBMA Bluegrass Ramble on Thursday, October 2, 2014, in Raleigh, N.C. rwillett@newsobserver.com

Al Batten, a banjo player who was Eastern North Carolina’s godfather of bluegrass, passed away on Sunday after an extended illness.

The Selma native was 68 years old, and he spent more than 40 of those years leading his band, Bluegrass Reunion.

“Al Batten was a North Carolina treasure,” said his fellow musician Joe Newberry. “He took all that great bluegrass music he heard as a kid in Johnston County, and he never lost that old-school bedrock.”

Batten was also a farmer, teacher, church deacon and volunteer fireman. But performing was his passion, with a stage show as memorable for comedy as music. A large man, he would make his entrance to declarations such as, “It takes three women to hug him and a boxcar to lug him.”

“I’m from Johnston County, and Al was the first live bluegrass band I ever saw,” said Russell Johnson, leader of local group the Grasscats. “He did a lot of funny comedy songs. But if something strayed too far out from tradition, he’d call it ‘hooey hooey music,’ and you didn’t want to get branded with that. Al was a great frontman and entertainer, always had the audience in the palm of his hand really quick.”

While Batten was best-known in his native state, his reputation went far beyond North Carolina and even extended overseas. One of his career highlights was playing in Northern Ireland at the Ulster-American Folk Park’s annual bluegrass festival, and he also took part in the N.C. Symphony’s 2007 “Blue Skies, Red Earth” tour.

“Every time I saw him, he mentioned how that was the highest honor for a North Carolina boy like himself,” said Newberry. “He brought everybody into the circle, and at times like this, it makes you glad that circle is unbroken. ‘We won’t see his likes again’ is a phrase that can become careworn. But we really won’t see the likes of Al Batten again.”

A “Celebration of Life” service is scheduled for 1 p.m. Wednesday at Bethany Missionary Baptist Church in Kenly. In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions may be made to SECU Hospice House at P.O. Box 1376, Smithfield, NC 27577.

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

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