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Roger Churchyard, photos courtesy Terence Page and Raymond Whiteway-Roberts

Roger flies away

Sean O’ Shea attended the funeral of local fiddler Roger Churchyard at the Hastings Crematorium on Wednesday 25th of February. With the help of Roger’s family and some of his friends he prepared the following tribute.

Some glad morning when this life is over
I’ll fly away
To that home on God’s celestial shore
I’ll fly away (I’ll fly away)

I’ll fly away oh glory
I’ll fly away (in the morning)
When I die hallelujah by and by
I’ll fly away

I’ll Fly Away, Hymn by Albert E Brumley, 1929

At St Helen’s crematorium on Wednesday 25th February friends and family gathered to say goodbye to the loved and renowned local fiddler Roger Churchyard aka Roger the Fiddle. It was an occasion of sadness and celebration as the boys in the Bluegrass Band played him out with touching performances of I’ll Fly Away and Soldier’s Joy.

Roger certainly brought plenty of joy to others through his musicianship and he found a permanent home in the hearts of his family and many friends. At the reception in the Stag Inn, Old Town on Wednesday afternoon a glass of red wine was placed on the table in front of Roger’s empty chair. Now is not the time to speculate about the future but one can’t help but feel that his place in the band will be hard to fill.

Roger by all accounts was a free spirit and a non-conformist who didn’t have much time for heaven or eternal life. However, in my opinion, many musicians have an instinctive connection to the sublime i.e. are ‘in the zone’ and so perhaps have less need for religion.

Later in the afternoon the boys were joined in their bluegrass jam session by the Irish singer and fiddler Chan Reid. They did a further rendition of I’ll Fly Away, which is often referred to as the most recorded gospel song and is a standard at bluegrass sessions. Chan, who is well known for her musical skills in the folk tradition, took the lead in singing this classic hymn, demonstrating the versatility of a true musician. It was a memorable occasion and a very fitting send off for one of Hastings’ finest and most admired musical talents.

Bluegrass at the Stag Inn

Picture courtesy Raymond Whiteway-Roberts

Mark Hardwick aka Mark the bass

I first met Roger around 1993. The Blueridge Boys, a bluegrass band I was in at the time, were in dire need of a fiddle player. Roger had retired from bluegrass and had not long moved to St Leonards. However we managed to talk him into joining us along with Gerry Rolph (banjo).

Roger started out playing classical music on violin but soon got hooked on bluegrass and spent a few decades touring round and living in Spain and also Finland for a time.

He worked with a number of bluegrass bands and had a lot of success with Orange Blossom Sound eventually opening the third country music festival at Wembley Stadium. They were spotted by a talent scout for A&M records who promptly signed them up with a recording contract and album release. He was at the record company office one day when he was introduced to a country artist from the USA, Johnny Cash. Roger was asked to show Johnny the sights in London which he did and they spent the day together. His most noted tune/recording was the instrumental tune ‘Orange Blossom Special’ (available on You Tube) and also recorded by Johnny Cash. Roger with his band Orange Blossom Sound toured the country and Europe in a Rover P6 with a double bass strapped to the roof. On one occasion the said double bass went flying off the roof on to the motorway.

Roger and Mark

Mark and Roger photo byTerence Page; - - - Orange Blossom Sound courtesy Mark Hardwick

Roger was an excellent fiddle player, very adaptable and had a keen interest in Cajun fiddle playing. He was a very good guitar player and singer and was always on top of the tune/song even if he had not heard it before. I played along with Roger (depping in other bands as well) and it was quite a regular thing for people to come up and introduce themselves and name a concert date when they had first seen him play. He was a thoroughly likeable person both in and out of the band situation and had a great sense of humour. He will be deeply missed.

Julien Matthews (Jules – Wakin’ Snakes)

I worked out that I must have played 400 gigs and sessions over a six year period with Roger (or Charlie, as some called him). It is stating the obvious to say that he was a real master of the fiddle. He had that special touch that made the violin sing and resonate; with the greatest of ease he would fill the room with his playing, even without amplification, no matter how noisy or large the audience.

He knew every traditional bluegrass tune like the back of his hand, as if the entire repertoire had been permanently implanted into his brain; which effectively it had been, during his twenties and thirties, when he was in his prime, playing with Orange Blossom Sound.

As a youth he was taught classical violin, having hated his piano lessons. He told me that he went back and forth to the library to borrow sheet music until he had learnt ‘every piece of classical music written for the violin’. His parents bought him a French violin and it remained, to his death, the only one he played.

Roger was modestly intellectual as well, having gained a degree in Portuguese and Spanish at Imperial College, London. He taught Spanish at a grammar school in Tunbridge Wells at the same time that he was just becoming a professional musician. A former colleague told me that, at the end of school, he used to race Roger up to London in time to get to his evening gig.

He had a very full life, touring Europe with OBS, recording with many bands, including Matthews Southern Comfort, playing so many gigs and living to the full – always with his fiddle by his side. No matter when, where or how, Roger would always play with complete mastery; even when you were thinking that he won’t be able to, he would be able to; such was the embedded skill that he brought to every performance.

As a resident of Hastings he was one of its very, very finest. Had he moved to America in his twenties, I believe that he would have been a household name amongst the Nashville Bluegrass fraternity.

Jez Nichol

I first met Roger about two or three years ago down at The Stag bluegrass session after a mutual friend invited me along to join in and play mandolin and sing with them. Roger was introduced to me as a great fiddle player who had played on live music shows alongside great acts such as Johnny Cash and Bill Monroe, both legendary musicians who have inspired generations with their music. Roger however was always very down to earth and would never brag about such experiences, and seemed to consider himself just lucky to have been in the right place at the right time, rather than having well earned his place with his own (not inconsiderable) talents. I then later learnt of his own place in British bluegrass history, with his own band Orange Blossom Sound being one of the first high quality trail-blazing bluegrass acts in the UK.

Roger was a very measured dependable player, and always mindful of doing exactly what a tune required with impeccable taste – he played with great focus and could certainly play virtuoso renditions of classic fiddle pieces (his version of ‘Orange Blossom Special’ was a master class of traditional playing) but always seemed happiest being ‘one of the band’, had no interest in any kind of showing off, and was certainly very considerate of those with whom he played. Those moments when a new tune or song would really spark his imagination, and you could then hear him pour everything he had into his playing, were really special…and it was then that you realised that he was a truly exceptional musician. Roger will be missed by both fellow musicians and the audiences he entertained and will be fondly remembered for many years to come.

Mark Smith, Mark Hardwick and John Hornig Roger, Jez Nichol and Mark Smith

Mark Smith, Mark Hardwick and John Hornig Roger, Jez Nichol and Mark Smith, photos Terence Page

Steve Bennett

I first met Roger when I went along to a bluegrass session at the Stag somewhere around 2006. He was immensely proud of once having beaten Peter Knight in a fiddle contest! And, if I remember right, he supported Buck Owens when his band was touring the USA. But I didn’t know him until well after he was at his peak. I enjoyed listening to him play tunes and improvise. Everyone I knew spoke very highly of him as a fiddle player. I remember one night at the Stag just admiring the way he could get people to spontaneously dance just by playing the fiddle, and I remember wishing I had that ability, too.

He was always supportive of me and encouraging me, even though I probably didn’t contribute as much as the other musicians, who had been playing much longer than I had. And if I didn’t show up for a few weeks, he would phone me up and encourage me to come along again. He must have done this four or five times, and I’ll always be grateful, because I think getting people to join in – and maybe improve themselves – was more important to him than someone’s ability. Roger was a real gentleman and a ‘charmer’. I know he enjoyed teaching, too.

John Hornig

I first met Roger at the Stag bluegrass night. He had an extremely distinctive and fluid style, and he never dropped a beat! One evening at the Stag bluegrass session there was a power cut. As the music is acoustic, it carried on regardless – in the pitch dark. Roger played a lightning fast solo, as always, and during this candles started being lit. To be in that beautiful pub, lit by candles and hearing that music coming out of the dark was a fantastic moment – proper hair standing on end stuff. He’ll be very sadly missed.

SOS March 2015

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Posted 14:15 Tuesday, Mar 10, 2015 In: SOS

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