Gene Guilliams is a Virginian
and mountain man through and through. Born in
Franklin County, he has lived in southwestern Virginia all
his life. Following his retirement from General Electric
in Salem, Virginia, he and his wife Elsie purchased a beautiful
farm near Oriskany, Virginia and they built a large log
home on the banks of Craig Creek. A picturesque swinging
bridge crosses the creek right at their front porch. Gene
loves hunting, fishing, driving his tractor
At first, Gene was a closet musician, only playing his
guitar and singing for his and Elsies enjoyment. But
Carol Lewis encouraged him to play and sing in public, and
the Oriskany Strings was born. Gene has a prodigious memory
for songs and lyrics. He can sing the words to just about
any older bluegrass, old-time, or southern gospel song you
can name, and his strong voice sounds a lot like Hank
Williams. Gene has had a few strokes in the past couple
of years, and each time hes had to re-learn how to
play the guitar. His dedication to the music and his perseverence
in the face of hardship are truly an inspiration to the
rest of the band.
Carol Lewis is an editor and
writer by trade, but making music has always been one of
her great loves. Her family was always musical, singing
hymns on Sundays around the old pump organ in her grandmothers
house. Carol sang duets with her younger brother at age
5 (strongly encouraged by her mother!), and sang in church
and school choirs in her childhood hometown of Martinsville,
Carol took piano lessons as a youngster, but piano never
really took on her. She grew up watching the folk music
TV shows like Hootenanny, and she bought a guitar
when she was 18, and a banjo at 19. At Mary Washington College,
she sang and played in a country/folk trio with two other
women, performing at coffee houses and other venues. Music
was put on a back burner when she pursued an engineering
degree at the University of Maryland, and then moved to
California in 1985 to work in technical publishing, but
she still played and sang with other family members when
they got together.
Carol has been playing regularly with the Oriskany Strings
since 1997, and she says that it has fulfilled a heartfelt
need. Theres nothing like music, she said,
to soothe the soul. The simple, foot-tapping gospel
music we play always takes me back to a simpler time and
refreshes my spirit.
Rita Parady has always loved
music of all types, but gospel is her favorite. She lived
all over the states, as well as in Taichung, Taiwan, before
settling down in the little mountain village of Oriskany,
Virginia with her husband Dick. She and Dick together built
a log home on a ridge with beautiful views of the surrounding
mountains, where they have lived for more than twelve years.
She says that's longer than any other place and says she's
finally put down some real roots in Virginia.
Rita grew up listening to gospel music on radio programs
such as "Jubilee" and going to gospel quartet concerts with
her family. As a youngster she joined her sister and two
of her four brothers to regularly sing in a quartet in her
church in Oklahoma where she grew up. In college she started
out as a music major, singing in opera performances and
chorale tours, but finished college with a degree in business.
No matter where she lived, Rita continued singing in churches
and community choirs.
Rita was introduced to old-time and bluegrass music by
her husband Dick, who played the clawhammer banjo. When
she began singing with Gene, Carol, and Dick, she longed
to play an instrument as well as sing. But she had never
played a musical instrument before. Dick happened to have
an autoharp, so she gave it a try a few years ago and is
now a die-hard old-time music fan. Now the combination of
her angelic voice and the heavenly sounds of the autoharp
make for some mighty fine listening.
Dick Parady decided he wanted
to play the banjo back in the 1950's and 60's when folk
music was in its heyday. The Kingston Trio, The
Weavers, Pete Seeger and a whole host of other
popular figures influenced his musical interests. He tried
to learn the Earl Scruggs three-finger bluegrass
style but says "my fingers just wouldn't cooperate." Eventually
he came across some old-time string band music and he was
hooked. Unfortunately, there weren't many other teenagers
(or anyone else for that matter) in San Diego who shared
his enthusiasm. While everyone else was singing "Michael
Row the Boat Ashore" and "Kum Ba Yah", Dick was singing
"Turkey in the Straw" and "Baldheaded End of a Broom". "Guess
I've always been a bit out of the mainstream," he says.
Born in Hawaii and growing up in San Diego, he wanted to
be a forest ranger and attended Oregon State University.
However, Uncle Sam requested his service in Vietnam, so
he joined the Air Force. As he says, "Flying over the jungle
seemed like a much better option than walking around in
it." His travels around the country as well as the world
have given him a rather eclectic taste in music. He still
prefers the old-timey stuff epitomized by Grandpa Jones
and Charlie Poole, but his record and tape collection
also contains early Bob Dylan, Dvorjak, Tom
Lehrer, and Ladysmith Black Mambaso.
"Music and my banjo have always been a big part of my life,"
Dick says. "It's like a dream come true to find a group
of talented people who enjoy the same thing. When Carol
Lewis talked us into playing together, the group seemed
to mesh together very quickly." Dick's old-time clawhammer
style fits the simple gospel music and the music fits his
spiritual life as well. "Sermons are great at teaching you
the word of the Lord," he says, "but nothing can get me
more emotionally involved with the Holy Spirit than music."
He must be right, because he can really knock out 'I'll
Fly Away" or "Gloryland".
Jack Lewis was a military
officer and an engineer most of his adult life. He never
studied music until he got interested in playing the bass
fiddle. Since then he has read several books on music theory
and has carefully studied the bass fiddle training videos
of the great bass fiddle player, Marshall Wilborn
of The Lynn Morris Band. Jack says he was never satisfied
with having an orchestral bass fiddle in an old-time band
and wanted to learn how to play a washtub bass. But must
people told him you really couldn't play music on a washtub
bass, "you just thump it." Undaunted, Jack found
a washtub bass on the internet that really plays musical
notes and now he's become the rhythm section of the band.
James Christian is both a
song writer and outstanding vocalist who also plays and
sings with The Craig County Boys. He retired from
Elizabeth Arden a few years ago. He and Shirley, live in
New Castle, Virginia in a home tucked back in the woods,
where their back porch looks out over John's Creek. James
first played guitar with the Oriskany Strings on their "Mostly
Gospel" CD recording session in October 2004. Since
then he has appeared with the band at almost every performance.
James has been singing and playing for many years and he
plays a number of instruments, but banjo and guitar are
his favorites. Lately he has been playing mostly guitar.
James sings both lead and backup vocals with a clear bluegrass
baritone voice that draws any listener into every song he
sings. James has composed both lyrics and music for many
songs, most unpublished until recently. A bit shy and very
modest, he has finally agreed to put his music out for the
rest of the world to enjoy. His songs reflect his bluegrass
mountain heritage as well as his Christian faith.
Elsie Guilliams, wife of lead
vocalist Gene Guilliams, is the band manager, booking agent,
and head cheerleader of The Oriskany Strings. She grew up
over the mountain from Oriskany, in Daleville, Virginia,
attending the Daleville Brethren church as a child. She
says that she has no musical ability or background herself,
but has always enjoyed listening to string music. Her family
had an old Victrola record player that played 78 records.
"My brother would order the records through the mail.
He loved bluegrass music, and I loved to listen to his records.
We also listened to gospel groups like The Chuck Wagon Gang
and the Carter Family on the radio. They were really big
at that time." Elsie says that she is still surprised
that her husband Gene now plays in a band, after so many
years of never playing in front of anybody. "I just
love the Oriskany Strings's music," she said. "It
means a lot to me."