Darrell Webb: The Road to Excellence
No one would argue that Darrell Webb hasn’t earned his stripes in traditional bluegrass. He has moved from being a much sought-after sideman in traditional bluegrass settings to establishing himself, in his early 40s, as a solid band leader who has found his own sound and developed his own distinctive style. Webb represents a good example of how native talent, lots of encouragement, and plenty of experience can lead to emergence as a mature and, hopefully, enduring performer in bluegrass.
Born in West Virginia in 1974, Webb describes his earliest years as being spent living in a tumble-down home with the roof falling in in Jolo, West Virginia, a small, unincorporated village in Southwest West Virginia, less than 40 miles from Ralph Stanley’s home in Clintonwood, Virginia. Jolo is best known as the home of a snake-handling church depicted in a well-known documentary film. It’s a deeply rural, mountain bump in the road in the midst of coal country. Here’s the Darrell Webb Band singing Miner’s Hell, recreating life in the mines and his early introduction to the mandolin.
Webb describes an early start in playing instruments and singing bluegrass and country music. His father took him to many instrument contests, where Webb competed against other budding musicians. As he was developing his skills, he says his father was always pushing him to work and improve, seeing music as a path out of the mines and enduring poverty. Webb developed his musical skills quickly and soon became known for his fine high tenor voice, which captures the sounds and feelings of the mines and mountains, as well as his virtuoso mandolin playing. He made his professional debut with the Lonesome River Band, replacing Dan Tyminski in 1993. Here’s an early video taped in Olive Hill, Kentucky. It’s a little muddy visually, but it captures his youthful voice with this still highly acclaimed band. In it he sings harmony and plays mandolin on “Norma Jean” and then solos on “I’d Worship You.”
In adolescence, Webb became known as a musician of such extraordinary skills he became featured in a number of top bands as well as new bands coming onto the bluegrass scene. He also became a much-in-demand session player and guest performer on other people’s recording projects and festival appearances. He performed with Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper as lead singer and guitarist as well as with Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, singing what many consider to be his most requested, signature song, “Little Maggie,” made famous by Ralph Stanley, whose high tenor vocals fit well into Webb’s interpretations.
In 2001, Darrell formed, with several other alumni of J.D. Crowe’s band, a group called Wildfire, which toured for several years. Originally formed with Robert Hale as lead singer and Phil Leadbetter, the band was first the house bluegrass band at Dollywood, and it also toured nationally. “It was a great band and some of the best times I’ve ever had playing music … ,” Webb said. “We all looked out for each other and the guys were like family.” The cut below, recorded at Hoofer’s Barn in Georgia, was, according to Webb, probably recorded in 2002, right at the height of the band’s popularity.
After more than a decade of playing in other people’s bands, always as a featured singer and fine instrumentalist, but nevertheless a sideman playing and singing someone else’s vision, Webb decided it was time to front his own band and to follow his own musical destiny. Since creating the Darrell Webb Band, he has released five CDs featuring a combination of bluegrass classics and original songs. His band, like most others, has seen changes in personnel over the years. Constant in the band has been Jared Hensley, a fine flatpicker. More recently, he has added veteran bass player Carl White and his wife, Rachel Maye, on fiddle and vocals, adding new animation and vocal color to the band.
One of the characteristics of the Darrell Webb Band is repurposing songs from other genres for bluegrass stringbands. He continues to emphasize his heritage with songs about the poverty, danger, and hard work found in the coal fields of West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio. The band’s mix always contains a solid mix of traditional bluegrass, with a particular nod to Ralph Stanley, always a much appreciated addition. Here’s an earlier version of the Darrell Webb Band playing his song about his father’s life, “Shinecreek.”
Some years ago, Webb moved to Sevierville, Tennessee, to perform first at Dollywood, then later at several of the distillery locations offering live music along with corn liquor (now legal) along the main tourist strips of Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg. Performing five or six sets a day almost daily, when he’s in town, has sharpened the band and served to improve his showmanship, expanding his appeal to a variety of audiences. Webb’s wife, Amanda, has, according to him, provided steadfast support for him and their two daughters, Nora and Marabelle.
Darrell Webb has taken his career in his own hands by fronting a band, creating a vision and a sound that represents how he wishes to be experienced, becoming an increasingly effective entertainer and a strong leader of his band. The last song here shows much of this quality. “Crossroads” is a song written by bluesman Robert Johnson, and adapted by Eric Clapton into a huge hit as a blues/rock interpretation. Webb has returned it to acoustic music with his own emphasis and energy.