Huffman, Roby

[Smithfield, NC] Roby Huffman, the premier bluegrass tenor in eastern North Carolina who fronted the Bluegrass Cutups since the late 1950s, died here on December 29, 2012 after a brief period of declining health. He was 74.

Roby, in white hat, with his long-time friend & pickin’ partner Keith Glover, at R.A.Fountain

Roby Leroy Huffman was born July 15, 1938, in rural Burke County, NC. He moved to the Smithfield area after Hurricane Hazel, in 1954, searching for work in the storm cleanup. What he found there was a wife and an untapped talent for singing bluegrass tenor. “Roby said he had never played a guitar or sung in public before he met Judy,” the Rev. Dennis Pollock said during the New Year’s Day funeral service. “She must have taught him pretty good.”

Roby and Judy Huffman were married for 55 years. In addition to Judy Huffman, he is survived by their three daughters and son, Jeff, who has been the band’s lead guitarist for several years; six sisters and two brothers; 12 grandchildren; and 4 great-grandchildren.

Huffman’s funeral was held on a cold and rainy afternoon at Tee’s Chapel Free Will Baptist Church, between Brogden and Smithfield. Principal eulogist was Al Batten, who recalled Huffman fondly and with great respect. “My tears,” he said, “are of both joy and sadness, the sadness of knowing we’ve lost him, but the joy of knowing that he did not suffer long in this world.”

Batten, whose first banjo jobs were with Huffman and his Cutups, called him “one of the world’s best tenors, and one of the truest tenors in the business.” He remembered their first meeting, when he was but 16, and being stunned at the power of such a little man’s voice. “He was small,” Batten said, “because he never stopped working long enough to eat.”

Batten played gigs with the Cutups between 1968-72, filling in for Jesse Harmon when he was unable to play. 

Although he traveled successfully with the Cutups, especially in the 1980s and ’90s, Huffman never quit his day job as a brick mason, preferring the steady work to take care of his family instead of the uncertainty of the road. In recent years, he had confined his performances to festivals, venues, and churches near his Smithfield home. 

He and his band made three LPs and three CDs, all of which are out-of-print, but several song performances from Marshall Stephenson’s 2006 television show “Bluegrass Train” are available as YouTube videos.

The funeral service included recordings of original Huffman bluegrass gospel songs, as performed by his band, played through the powerful house sound system. In the standing-room crowd of over 400 were Lorraine Jordan, Russell Johnson, Clyde Mattocks, Daniel and Samantha Casey, Ray Bridgers, Marshall Stephenson, Mike Rose, Tim Myatt, J.R. Stafford, and Ted Jones. Nearly 500 mourners had stopped by for visitation prior to the service.

Russell Johnson recalled that the first music that meant anything to him was on two 8-track tapes he had, one by Huffman and the other by the Osborne Brothers: “And it’s true,” he said. “I couldn’t tell which was which if I didn’t know which one was in the machine.”

Burial was at Oakland Presbyterian Church near Clayton.