Eddie Pennington:
fingers 'n' thumbs

A new world opened up to Eddie Pennington when Mose Rager threw his door wide and invited him in.

Pennington, then in his teens and hankering to play some real guitar, met a fellow who said Rager lived over in Drakesboro, Muhlenberg County, Ky. And Rager, well, he was one of the masters, and Pennington simply had to meet him.

It was quite a distance to travel from his home in Nortonville, Hopkins County -- "It was a long way, like 21 miles. For a country boy who'd never been anywhere, that was pretty far," he recalls -- but Pennington convinced his family to make the trip.

"I started knocking on doors, 'til I got directions to his place," Pennington says.

"When he opened the door, I asked if he could point me to Mose Rager. He said, 'You're looking at what's left of him.' Then he said, 'Boy, you a box picker?' I said, 'Yes sir, I am.' And he told me to bring my family and come inside."

And Pennington's life was never the same again.

"He opened the whole world of thumbpicking to me when he opened up that door and let me in his house," he says.

"I've seen better players, but he made a guitar come alive. I could almost see it breathe," Pennington adds. "I knew right then he had hooked my heart. The rest of my life, I was going to try to sound like he did."

He and his son, Alonzo, will share their talents Sunday at an afternoon workshop and evening concert at the Unitarian Universalist Church in York, Pa. Both events are sponsored by the Susquehanna Folk Music Society.

Pennington, now 55 and a National Heritage Fellowship recipient, is considered one of the world's top thumbpicking guitarists. Thumbpicking is a style of playing distinguished by using the thumb to create a rhythm accompaniment on the guitar's bass strings while using fingers to play the melody on the higher-pitched strings.

Music was always a family tradition in the Pennington home, he says. But, although his parents, siblings and grandparents all had their talents, nothing clicked for Pennington until an afternoon when he was 8 years old and playing hide-and-seek with a friend.

"I hid in a neighbor's smokehouse, and there was an old guitar hanging in there," he says. "I asked my friend if his daddy would sell it to me. His daddy said I could have it. I ran all the way home with it in my hands." It was in terrible shape, Pennington remembers. But his father took that guitar apart and rebuilt it. By age 9, Pennington was learning chords.

"I got to where I could play rhythm while my dad played the fiddle," he says. "Then when I was 11, I started taking lessons from a fellow. He was really a great Chet Atkins-type player, and I learned to read music from him."

That teacher inspired Pennington to use a thumbpick, he says, which led him onto the path previously trod by the likes of Merle Travis, Chet Atkins and, of course, old Mose.

Pennington now is counted among their number as one of thumbpicking's finest players. But he balks at the label. "If anything I've been lucky to hang around with some great players," he says. "I'm not modest, I'm just honest. I've got a lot of room to improve."

Music wasn't always his career goal, Pennington notes. He was pre-med in college, then switched over to the mortuary business, which kept him occupied for the next 18 years. "The pay wasn't rewarding and the hours were terrible," he says. "It was a hard, depressing job. I worked 18 years in that profession until I was done with it. I got out, and I had the music."

He was named National Thumbpicking Champion in 1986 and 1987, which solidified his reputation.

Now, he tours sometimes with his son, who has his own way with a guitar.

"We don't play all the time together. This is a special deal," Pennington says. "It's a treat when we get to go out together. We hope this is a nice trip, and the weather's good."

Alonzo, now 31, started playing the fiddle when he was 6, Pennington says. It was about that time he learned a few chords on the guitar. "He never did let me give him lessons," Pennington says with a hearty chuckle. "He asked me some things sometimes. But if ever there was a kid who was around guitar players, it was him."

The boy was a sponge growing up, his father insists, and he absorbed a great deal of skill that is largely self-taught.

"I might hold my own with him in thumbpicking, but he can play every style," he says. "That's one of the greatest things there is, to see your gift passed on."

Pennington is still trying to pass it on to anyone who loves the craft. "I've tried to keep it alive. Everyone is playing more modern styles. The old thumbpicking stuff is dropping by the wayside," Pennington says.

"If I could give someone half of the feeling that Mose Rager gave me that day, they'd have enough to go on searching for the rest of their life. That's what I'd like to do."

[ visit Eddie's website ]

interview by
Tom Knapp

19 November 2011

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