By Kara Martinez Bachman
As dobro player and vocalist Hershel Blevins tells it, his band’s name wasn’t chosen with a bunch of forethought and hemming and hawing. It just kinda happened.
He and banjoist Gregg Welty were on the road together, headed out to Renofest in South Carolina. They were talking to a radio broadcaster and had the call on speaker. Just after she asked what their band was named, Welty gave Blevins driving directions.
“Take this exit here,” he said, in the background. Blevins answered quickly with something like, “…on South 79?”
On the other end of the call, it sounded as if South 79 were the band name. Blevins just went with it since it seemed to fit.
“It was kind of an accident. It was a fluke,” he explained, adding that the moniker worked since “it was the route we take to many of our gigs.”
It appears South 79 is relaxed and takes a lot of things as they come. It’s kinda cool, to let things happen as they will, without a lot of planning. It’s kinda cool that for these guys, many things are spontaneous.
“We like to bring professionalism and unpredictability,” Blevins said, about what sets South 79 apart. “For each show, we like to change it up and be a little different each time we play.”
Not only is this good for fans, but it’s great for the band; even after a decade of performing together, it never gets old. He said it helps that three different voices take the lead at different times. That way, there’s constant change not just from set to set, but within each performance. He said he takes the lead on most “Doyle Lawson type songs,” another guy takes the Balsam Range covers, and another specializes in performing material original to his native home of Canada.
In addition to Blevins, regular band members include Toby Hammond (guitar, vocals); John McNaughton (bass, vocals); Gregg Welty (banjo); Scott Pearson (fiddle); Mitch Meadors (banjo); with additional occasional jamming offered by banjo player Stacy Wilcox.
It’s not just the music of South 79 that’s unpredictable; it’s the onstage banter.
“Nothing is ever scripted,” Blevins explained, his humor showing through as he talked about the band’s penchant for lighthearted ribbing of each other and sometimes, much to everyone’s delight, members of the audience. Blevins tries to include them as a part of the show.
“The band is kinda worried sometimes…who’s he gonna pick on now? What’s he gonna say? Who’s under the microscope today?” Blevins joked.
It’s never mean-spirited. It’s just good fun, and according to Blevins, audiences seem to eat it up.
His humor is apparent in his everyday conversation, especially when he says things such as this: “Bluegrass is about loving and losing…you sing a love song, a religious song, a song about killing somebody…that’s bluegrass.”
Most of their songs are covers — they’ll do anything from Lawson and Balsam Range covers to numbers by Lonesome River Band and Blue Highway. Blevins has himself written about eight or nine originals, and South 79 regularly performs about five or six of those.
Blevins may have learned lessons in stage presentation from his early life with some of the greats. At age 13, he toured with Jimmy Martin, playing bass for the man he referred to as “the wildest man in bluegrass.” These early experiences shaped what Blevins does today.
“He [Martin] told me, ‘I’m putting on a show for these people,’” explaining that they could just stay home and play the records if it was only about the music.
“I remembered that,” Blevins said, “and he was right.”
One notable moment — one he referred to as “magical” — happened once in New Jersey. He ended up onstage with Jimmy Martin, Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley all at the same time. It’s cool to get to perform with your three musical heroes while just a teen. How, exactly, can that be beat?
Well…maybe it can. It’s easy to sense how much Blevins loves what he does with South 79. He says although those early memories are magical, just as much magic still happens today when he jams with his bandmates, with whom he’s formed “a very close-knit brotherhood.”
“It’s just as magical to me as me being onstage with Jimmy Martin,” he explained. “I’ve had a lot of great highlights since that time. “I always figure the best is yet to come.”