The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

Visit us on FaceBookGenerations of Memories
from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

Randall Hylton - Bluegrass Songwriter

By Vicki Moser © 1985

Issue: October, 1985

Fan Fair in Nashville, Tennessee is always a particularly important week for native Virginian Randall Hylton. For those of you who are not familiar with Fan Fair, it is a regular event in June of each year in which thousands of fans flock to the country music capital of the world to see their favorite stars and be entertained non-stop for seven full days and nights.

Although the primary appeal of the event is country music, it also attracts bluegrass music fans and bands as well, and in recent years the bands have been featuring more and more Randall Hylton songs.

Randall Hylton (a native of Willis in Floyd County) is known as the number one bluegrass songwriter in America. His songs have been recorded by such artists as Lester Flatt, Mac Wiseman, the Osborne Brothers, the Lewis Family, the Country Gentlemen, Curly Seckler, Ralph Stanley, Larry Sparks. Doyle Lawson, and the Bluegrass Cardinals. Altogether he has had more than seventy songs recorded.

Some of his best known works include Mountain Laurel, Country Poor and Country Proud, 32 Acres, and Pulleybone Gaden by the Bluegrass Cardinals, The Likes of You by the Country Gentlemen, and Hallelujah Turnpike, Goodtime Gettogether, and Slippers With Wings by the Lewis Family. A gospel song entitled Gonna Be Moving has been recorded by several groups including the Lewis Family, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, Vern Gosdin, the Primitive Quartet, and the Kingsmen Quartet.

Randall grew up on a farm on route 221 near Willis Elementary School. He attended Willis Elementary, Willis High School and graduated from Floyd County High School in 1964.

His ambition as a child was to he a country music singer, and he learned to play the guitar at the age of five. He began trying to write songs almost as soon as he could play, and he often performed at school functions and sang in church with his family.

Randall was exposed to a particularly fertile period for bluegrass music in the late 1940's and early 1950's. Most of the radio stations that served the Blue Ridge Mountains such as WBOB Galax, WPAQ Mount Airy, WM Bristol, and WDBJ Roanoke featured live performances by such artists as Charlie Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Mac Wiseman, and Don Reno and Red Smiley.

Nighttime radio provided additional bluegrass for the area. The Old Dominion Barndance from WRVA Richmond, the Grand Ole Opry from WSM Nashville, and the Wheeling Jamboree from WWVA Wheeling, all provided Saturday night entertainment and featured an abundance of bluegrass.

Randall would sit for hours with his ear to the radio listening to the Osborne Brothers and Red Allen, Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys, or the Country Gentlemen. He proved to be a quick study, and he could often memorize a complete song by hearing it only three or four times. Consequently he built an enormous repertoire simply from listening to the radio.

In 1967 the Lewis Family performed at the VFW Hall in Hillsville. Randall attended the show and was impressed with the way the Lewis Family performed church songs using the fiddle and banjo in the bluegrass style. Later that year when the Lewis Family did a show in Christiansburg, he asked them to listen to a song which he had written. They agreed to do so, they liked the song, I'll Be No Stranger, and they recorded it on Starday Records.

That began an association that continues to the present. To date the Lewis Family has recorded twenty-nine Randall Hylton compositions many of which are their most popular songs.

Randall writes gospel songs similar to those he heard in church as a child. He is particularly fond of Let Us Have A Little Talk With Jesus and I've Found A Hiding Place because the bass and tenor leads in the chorus with repeat lines of the other parts. He heard this type of song at Duncan's Chapel, White Rock Church, and Newman's Church in Floyd County. He likes for his songs to contain the energy and drive that he heard in the Pentecostal congregations as a child.

In 1973 Randall left Southwest Virginia and moved to Nashville with the intention of writing country songs. Country music, however, was in the process of leaving its roots and becoming more pop oriented, so in 1976 he switched to writing bluegrass. He set up his own publishing company, Greasy Creek Music (named for a creek in Floyd County), and began visiting the major bluegrass festivals and pitching his songs to the top name groups.

In January 1984 and again in 1985, he was named bluegrass songwriter of the year by the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America.

Randall states that he does not consider songwriting to be a gift but rather views it as a craft. He says that he has spent thousands of hours developing his skills and searching for the proper words and melodies to express his feelings and ideas.

He is one of the few songwriters who is able to take almost any subject and build a song around it just as if it were a writing assignment. Examples of songs that he has written at the request of others include China Grove My Hometown by Curly Seckler and Goodtime Gettogether by the Lewis Family.

He has cowritten songs with other writers such as Cadillac Holmes on Country Poor and Country Proud and with his sister, Wanda Dalton, on Slippers With Wings.

His songs include such diverse topics as bulldozer operators, Lee Berry Rye, water witches, Pulleybone Gaden, and pickup trucks, Roscoe Thompson's 1950 GMC, and it is a challenge to write songs about unusual subjects.

Randall often writes about places and happenings in his native Virginia and in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Titles of some of these works include Woolwine, Virginia, a tale about being stranded in a snow drift on Route 8, and Rock and Clay, a fictitious story about growing up at the foot of Buffalo Mountain both of which are available on cassette.

More recently he has written a gospel song entitled The Little River Mission which talks about turning an unused, one room schoolhouse into a church, a practice which was quite prevalent in the Blue Ridge Mountains during the 1940's and 1950's. The Bluegrass Cardinals plan to record this song on their next gospel album. He has also written a catchy tune entitled Beulah's Cafe about Ewell and Beulah Poff's filling station and restaurant on Route 221 in Floyd County which was a well known hangout until it burned down some years ago.

After achieving the status of one of the country's foremost bluegrass songwriters, Randall Hylton has written a book entitled How To Write and Sell Bluegrass Songs explaining where he gets his ideas and how he weaves his craftsmanship into a song. It should prove quite useful to bluegrass bands and persons who are interested in songwriting in general. One chapter tells in detail the steps he went through to write 32 Acres. It sells for $6.95 plus $1.50 postage and handling.

To date he has two cassette tapes of his songs available for sale at $5.00 each plus postage and handling, and County Records in Floyd, Virginia can assist you in locating record albums containing Randall Hylton songs.

You may contact Randall by writing to:

Randall Hylton
P.O. Box 24533
Nashville, Tennessee 37202

On October 26, 1985 there will be a fund-raiser for a new Willis fire department building. Randall Hylton and his band will be performing at Willis Elementary for the occasion from 7:30 - approximately 11:30. Refreshments will be served. Adults: $3.00; Children under 12: free. Everyone welcome!