A 13-year gap between solo albums might suggest that an artist has been on sabbatical, perhaps taking a break from music.
Such is not the case for Riley Baugus, a clawhammer banjo player from Walkertown.
In the time since releasing “Long Steel Rail” on Sugar Hill Records in 2006, Baugus has recorded with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant on their 2007 blockbuster album, “Raising Sand,” as well as Willie Nelson on his 2010 Americana album “Country Music.” He’s toured Great Britain several times, taught at banjo camps, been a regular performer at the National Folk Festival and built lots of banjos in his workshop.
He also became acquainted with John Lennon’s anguished song, “Mother” while on tour with fiddler Dirk Powell in Finland.
“We were on tour and Dirk picked up this guitar and started singing, ‘Mother,’” Baugus recently recalled. “I said, ‘Man, that’s the best country song I ever heard. Where’d you get that?’”
Baugus grew up in the sticks in Alleghany County hearing only snatches of rock ‘n’ roll on the radio. And ‘Mother,” from Lennon’s “Plastic Ono Band” record is not on the playlist of many classic rock stations.
“I decided that I had to learn it and I just thought, ‘Wow, this is great,’” Baugus said.
“Mother” is one of several standout tracks on Baugus’ new album, “Little Train a Comin’,” released in October. The song includes lap steel from Dashawn Hickman of the Allen Boys, a sacred steel band from Mount Airy. Hickman’s steel swells change the color of the song, from a tortured cry to a sorrowful lament. Hickman’s wife, Wendy, sings backup and harmony.
Baugus met the Hickmans, from Mount Airy, last year during a performance organized by Laurelyn Dossett. He was taken by their musicianship and enlisted them to help on his album, which was recorded in Floyd, Va.
The album includes a mix of traditional and contemporary songs.
“I had been working on material for quite some time and had gone into the recording studio in Winston-Salem, and it wasn’t feeling right,” Baugus said. “So I just put it in on the back burner.”
Baugus found the right producer in Joe Dejarnette, who has worked with Rhiannon Giddens and Lake Street Dive among others.
Baugus is fresh off a four-week tour of Great Britain, where he performed in clubs and at house concerts. Not a lot of old-time musicians have the luxury of performing abroad, but Baugus acknowledged that a lot of good things have fallen in his lap, none more so than the chance to perform songs to the soundtrack to “Cold Mountain,” the 2003 film adaption of the Charles Frazier best-seller. Baugus also had a bit part in the film.
The soundtrack resulted in a personal and working relationship with its producer, the legendary T-Bone Burnett. Through Burnett, Baugus was tapped to add banjo to several songs on “Raising Sand,” which won five Grammy Awards and led to an onstage shout-out from Plant at the awards ceremony.
“Cold Mountain,” Baugus said, allowed him to quit his job as a welder and blacksmith and play music full-time.
“It’s really difficult to get your name out there as a musician if you don’t have a major project that spreads your name far and wide,” he said. “That was the project that opened doors outside of our area to what Riley Baugus had to offer in terms of singing, playing banjo and story-telling. And it gave me the confidence to know I could do it.”
Known for playing the Round Peak style of banjo that originated in Surry County, Baugus has added more storytelling to his performances, picking up on a desire from audiences to hear more stories and fewer instrumentals.
Storytelling comes naturally to Baugus, who has an encyclopedic knowledge of the songs and stories of the mountains of Northwest North Carolina.
Baugus was recently named the first artist in residence at the John C. Campbell Folk School in Cherokee County, which will involve playing music and telling stories to school children in that corner of North Carolina.
“I’m going to go around to local schools and show them that it’s cool to be a hillbilly,” Baugus said.