Jim Gaddis

A Life Well Played

A life well played: Local musician Jim Gaddis shares his story

Jim Gaddis’ first love began even before his most significant whirlwind romance of 17 days.  Prior to his wartime draft. And well before he began unraveling mysteries surrounding a confederate brigadier general from Kinston. The Greenville resident is known not only as a technologist and historian, but also a writer, genealogist, and modern monetary theorist. But anyone who has spent much time with Gaddis knows the personal pleasure that has been a thread of continuity throughout his variety of life pursuits: music.

Photo by Donna Davis

“We were both born in Tampa, Florida, but our parents moved to Ohio when we were just little kids,” Gaddis explains. “So we grew up in southwest Ohio.” 

And when he says “we,” he is including his brother and fellow musician, Bob Gaddis. Their grandmother lived on a farm in Lenoir County, where they visited in the summers.

“Southwest Ohio was like most places in the 50s,” he recalls. “Rock and roll was becoming a big thing. Listening to the radio, I liked to turn the dial when I went to bed and listen to faraway stations. I landed on one called WCKY, Cincinnati, Ohio. They were playing Kentucky mountain music, I think they called it. And it was bluegrass music. I got enthralled with the sound, the roughness of it. And the fact that it was mountain folks instead of city folks.”

He bought bluegrass records but also folk music, beginning with the Kingston Trio, then Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary. His favorite was Ian and Sylvia, a Canadian folk duo. 

“I just loved them to death and still do,” he says. “I play their stuff all the time. But somewhere along the line, I decided I was going to learn to play the guitar. So I got a cheap guitar and learned the G chord, the D chord, and the C chord and learned how to strum the thing. A girl I went to high school with also played the guitar, so we formed a duet, kind of based on Ian and Sylvia.”

Then he went to college. He decided to go to NC State because at that time he imagined being a farmer and moving to Lenoir County, like his grandparents. When he got there, he met some boys from the western part of the state, playing banjo, guitar, and bass. Al Batten, from Johnston County, who would later become a well-known bluegrass performer, was there and played Hank Williams kind of material.

With the Panama Red Band about 1980

“And I said ‘Heck, I like this.’ I got with a couple of them and borrowed some guy’s mandolin–I’d never played the mandolin before, but everyone had a guitar. So I learned to play a couple of chords on it, and we started a little band called ‘the Smoky Mountain Lizards.”

“Lizards” was soon changed to “Country Boys.” 

The band members, from Turlington Dorm, were Al Batten, Gary McCurry, Doug “Roho” Bennett, and Gaddis. They blended bluegrass sound with Hank Williams songs. 

“But there was another group that played bluegrass, most of them from Chapel Hill,” Gaddis says. “They would come down to Raleigh and have 8 or 9 guys playing bluegrass music, and they were good. They were the Watauga County Squirrel Shooters, but would later become the New Deal String Band. This was 1968 or so. They were one of the first of the nouveau bluegrass bands.”

The Smoky Mountain Country Boys played in the 1968 NCSU Spring Fling Band Contest and came in second place, behind the Chapel Hill band. 

“We won $50 and we had to split it four ways,” Gaddis explains. “It was the first time I made any money playing music.”

Between 1964 and 1973, the U.S. military drafted 2.2 million American men. Gaddis lost his deferment so headed to an Air Force recruiter, taking an entrance exam that showed he had aptitude to be a computer programmer. 

“I left school after that and we never played again,” Gaddis says.

It was while at NC State that Gaddis met a girl named Sue–and married her 17 days later, in a story deserving of its own telling. They are still married after 55 years.

He still had a guitar and played for himself while in the Air Force but didn’t meet any other musicians. When he got back to the US in 1972, he got a job in Raleigh, and then in 1976 a job in Kinston, at Hampton Industries as a computer programmer.

The Panama Red Band: front David Aycock, bass; standing Tony Moore, guitar; Jim Gaddis, mandolin; Bobby Merritt, guitar, Doug Aycock, guitar; Ray Scott, banjo

“I met these guys in Kinston: Ray Scott, Bobby Merritt, Tony Moore, and the Aycock Brothers, Doug and David,” he says. “Somehow we all got together. We formed a clogging group and Ray would play for us while we clogged. We went to Shindig on the Green in Asheville. The Green Grass Cloggers were the acknowledged good cloggers. We were the Ditch Bank Shufflers. Jerry Howell, a noted healthcare guy in Kinston, was the leader of that group. He knew how to clog and taught us all to clog. That’s how I met Ray and these guys, and we formed a little bluegrass band: banjo, three guitars, mandolin, bass. We called ourselves the Panama Red Band.” 

Gaddis played with the band until his family moved to Florida and then played no music from 1982 to about 1989. Then in Boca Raton he met some players and formed a band called the Red, White, and Bluegrass Band. His family moved back to North Carolina in 1997 to his grandmother’s farm between Kinston and Greenville.

“Around 2000 I started playing with my brother, Bob,” he says. “Bob had started a monthly bluegrass event at the Livestock Arena in Kinston. We called ourselves the Farm and Home Band. At some point a motorcycle gang started following us and became fans. They liked our music and would go wherever we would play. We were playing one night and the club owner said, ‘We love your music, but we can’t have that bunch in here.’ So we never got another gig there.”

The band played at R.A. Fountain about 9 times, Gaddis remembers, and twice a year they’d play at the CSS Neuse in Kinston as the Gunboat Boys for a “Breakfast on the Boat” fundraiser. 

In 2013 Gaddis retired from ECU where he had worked as a business systems analyst since 2002. Two years later he published a book about the highest ranking Confederate officer in the state of North Carolina, who was from Kinston. The lack of information about him in war literature motivated Gaddis to write Richard Gatlin and the Confederate Defense of Eastern North Carolina, which won an award from the NC Society of Historians.

In 2017 the Highway Department took the Gaddis homeplace by eminent domain and his family had to find a new place to live. That’s when he moved to Greenville, along with his brother Bob, who was also displaced.

In recent years, Gaddis, who has an economics degree, has gotten more interested in modern monetary theory, saying, “It’s nothing like we think. It’s still based on the gold standard.” 

Maybe one day he’ll write a book about it that ordinary people can understand. Or maybe he’ll get creative and combine his interests in music, a military officer named Gatlin, and monetary theory, and write a bluegrass song that’s a spin on the Gatlin Brothers’ hit, “All the Gold in California.”

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originally published by the Daily Reflector June 24, 2023

Farm and Home Bluegrass Band in Kinston in 2006. L-R: H.C. Croom, Jim Gaddis, John Booker, Carlton “Shorty” Mooring, Bob Gaddis. Photo by Tom Whelan.