Kinston Native Bobby Merritt Keeps the Music Alive
He is Jimmy Buffet. And Johnny Cash. But he’s also Hank Williams, Charlie Daniels and Bob Dylan. For the price of a chicken salad sandwich or maybe a peck of oysters, customers at Bill’s Grill in LaGrange or Lou Lou’s Oyster Bar inside Kinston’s King’s Restaurant can relive memories of their favorite musicians.
Lenoir County’s singer/guitarist Bobby Merritt provides a certain homegrown accessibility to the music that has many advantages over the original artists. Fans can do a little two-step or shake their groove thing four feet away from Merritt’s guitar, staying within grasping reach of a sweet potato fry. He’ll even talk to them during his break. Try doing that at an Eagles concert.
“Please come to Boston,” he croons, channeling a wistful 1974 Dave Loggins. “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em,” Merritt sings, breathing life into the songs of musicians his audience was just not ready to let go, like Kenny Rogers.
He was singing “Margaritaville” and “Pirate Looks at 40” when Jimmy Buffet was still rocking the yacht, but now the songs take on a greater significance.
Merritt’s friend and one-time bandmate Jim Gaddis expressed it well to him: “Hats off to you for keeping the music alive.”
His delivery is simple and unpretentious; he’s not trying to put on airs and impersonate. He is unabashedly Bobby Merritt, a name that strikes a familiar chord, rather like the Bobby McGee he also sings about. His set list has been honed over years of experience singing in front of hometown audiences, seeing the light that comes in their eyes when he strikes up a tune they recognize. The song that was playing on the 8-track in the bronze ‘68 Camaro with their first girlfriend.
Armed with just an acoustic guitar and a microphone, he’s often accompanied by his friend Ray Scott or Dave Wilfong. Dave sits on a drum box and when he’s not adding rhythm, he embellishes the sound with harmonica. When Scott partners with him they are “The Famous Ray and Bobby Band.” The “Famous” adjective is likely equal parts tongue-in-cheek and truth.
He first started playing guitar when he was 13, he said. “My buddy, his dad and all them had a barn behind the house. So I’d go over to his house, we’d get out the guitars. We played for a short while in a teen, sock-hop band until I went off to college.”
“When I came back I got a job at a tobacco company, and I was often in motel rooms, so I thought ‘I’m going to take my guitar,’” Merritt explained. “And then the guys would ask me to come and play. When I got back home, my buddy, Ray Scott, had learned to play the banjo. So him and I started playing.”
Jerry Howell, the Hill Brothers, and Jim Gaddis were clogging while Ray Scott played banjo and Merritt was friends with Scott and Doug and Dave Aycock. Together they decided to form a bluegrass band along with another friend, Tony Moore, and they called it Panama Red. The band name was based on the album by “Old and in the Way.”
“Dave played the upright bass, Doug played the harp or guitar, I played the guitar–we had a lot of guitars…Jim played the mandolin. Jim sang all the high parts. I think we played from ‘78 to ‘82 or something like that,” Merritt said. “Our claim to fame is we opened up for Super Grit Cowboy Band in Durham at an outdoor concert.”
Merritt remembers a particular night the band played at The Treehouse in Greenville. “We were like the band, The Blues Brothers: when we got ready to leave, we owed them $37.50. We didn’t make a dime. We also played at a famous bar called ‘Four’s Enuff’ and we kind of drifted apart.”
Merritt and Scott were sitting around one night and Merritt said, “‘Ray we need to get a group together, just me and you,’ so we were trying to think of a fancy name. Since Ray was the banjo player, we gave him top billing: The Ray and Bobby Band. I always thought the name should have been the Bobby Ray Band–it’s just a better name. But Ray over-rode me. So he and I started playing and we’ve been playing for years together at small bars and weddings and things.”
“Ray moved to New Bern and we were still playing right much until COVID hit, and it just shut us down. Dave lives just down the street from me. He plays the drums and harmonica, so me and him started playing. We invited a few friends over in the backyard and called ourselves the Flu Fighters. One night I put it on Facebook and 60 people showed up and they were not doing the COVID thing and my wife shut down The Flu Fighters.”
“Since then it has been me and him, or me and Ray, and I do some solo stuff. I’d rather have someone playing with me. I’ve just been having fun with it. It’s nice to make money, but you’re not in it for the money. My wife says ‘You play more now than you’ve ever played.’”
Merritt has been married for 38 years to the also locally famous Allison Albritton Merritt, who was owner/operator of Allison’s, a popular hair styling shop in downtown Kinston for many years. They have two sons.
While he was playing music all through the years, Merritt also managed to maintain a successful professional career, retiring as Director of Workforce Development at the North Carolina Community College System.
“My wife said ‘How long are you going to play?’ I said, ‘As long as I can still sing.’” Maybe the music and Merritt have a reciprocity agreement to keep each other alive.
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Originally published in the Daily Reflector Deember 9, 2023.