By KATE COIL
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLUEFIELD, Va. —
While his profession deals largely with rock, Ron Mullennex spends much of his free time playing old-time music on a variety of stringed instruments.
Mullennex, a geologist and senior vice president at Marshall Miller and Associates, said the love of traditional American old-time music has been handed down in his family for generations.
“I grew up with music,” Mullennex said. “My family and friends were all involved in music since I was a child. I grew up playing the old-time music and I have been playing it all my life. I’ve been very active in it all my life. I’ve played throughout the region and in the circles of old-time traditional music. I have played with a band invited to go to England a couple of times and to the West Coast and things like that.”
Mullennex often competed in old-time music contests when he was younger.
“When I was younger I competed a lot,” Mullennex said. “I won the state championship for performing old-time banjo for a few years. I taught a series of workshops going back into the 1970s and at a lot of music summer camps and workshops for teaching and getting people access to musicians.”
Throughout the years, Mullennex has taken up several stringed instruments.
“I play fiddle, mandolin, guitar and banjo,” he said. “Each instrument is very different. They are tuned differently and are played differently. They have different numbers of strings. They are played differently with the right hand and have different techniques to play each one of them. They are each their own separate instrument.”
Though he enjoys all four instruments, Mullennex said he is the most comfortable with the banjo.
“The instrument I play depends on my mood at the time,” he said. “It changes constantly which is why I play them all. Most people know me more as a banjo player because when I’m out in a band playing, it is what I’m most comfortable with. I do enjoy the banjo whether playing in a band or solo. I feel more comfortable with it probably because I play it more and have fallen into playing it more in a band.”
Mullennex said the challenge is not in learning how to play an instrument but in learning to play an instrument well.
“I would say the fiddle was the most challenging for me to pick up,” Mullennex said. “Any of these instruments can be played to a certain level. I would say it’s easy to become a very mediocre guitar player, but it can be hard to become a really good guitar player. That is true for all instruments. How hard an instrument is to play depends on how well you play it.”
One style of old-time music Mullennex is especially proficient in is the clawhammer, a stringed instrument style dating back hundreds of years.
“There are a lot of different styles and the clawhammer is one of several styles,” Mullenex said. “It is a very old style that goes back into the 1700s and before that. On banjo-like instruments it wouldn’t have sounded the same as it does on what we call the banjo now. It was played on instruments that were like the banjo back then. Clawhammer is a very old style.”
Mullennex describes this style of music as “heirloom music.”
“These instruments are a part of our heritage,” he said. “It is not something to be put on a shelf like a museum piece, to stand back and be looked at. It is something to be employed and used. To me, it is an essential tool that remains completely relevant. The music itself is relevant. I listen to all kinds of music and like a lot of different kinds of music, but the old banjo and fiddle tunes that are 100 years old or more are just as relevant as the pop song you hear on the radio. Actually, it is probably more relevant.”
Mullennex said many people do not understand the subtly and nuances of old-time music.
“There is a breadth and depth to the music,” he said. “Too often that is lost. You see parodies of it on TV and things like that. They make it look different from what it’s really like. They do sketches that don’t accurately represent the full music. It’s more than what people just take at a glance.”
Mullennex said the music he plays is deeply rooted in both Appalachian and American culture.
“It is music that had its roots in where we come from and has roots in our Scotch-Irish heritage and African ancestry as well,” Mullennex said. “It’s a blend of those two heritages to a large degree. It wasn’t brought here and never changed. A lot of it evolved and changed and we have descendants of these old tunes and rhythms. Its origins date back even before this country was founded. The old-time music we play now has its foundations in older music. Similar tunes are still played in Scotland. The tunes are the same, but the melody may be different or the lyrics or the emphasis we put on certain parts. I like to see it appreciated by the next generation as well. It’s very important.”
One of the ways Mullennex passes on old-time music is through performing with his son, Rory Mullennex.
“My son also plays music,” he said. “I would assume I influenced him some in that regard. He plays guitar. We play together quite a bit. Certainly, it is satisfying to have my son to play as well, to have yet another thing the two of us can do together. There are lots of things that we enjoy doing together and performing is one of them.”
Ron and Rory Mullennex will both be performing during the Tazewell County Old Time Bluegrass and Fiddler’s Convention at the Crab Orchard Museum.
“I am enthusiastic that we have the fiddler’s convention now,” Mullennex said. “Fiddler’s Conventions have a long heritage in Southwest Virginia, but until this one was started by Charlotte Whitted and the Crab Orchard Museum, Tazewell County didn’t have one to call its own. They’ve done a super job organizing and promoting it. I go to a lot of those kinds of venues and a lot of different locations, more in the past than currently, but it’s something that anyone with an interest in music will appreciate. There is plenty there to enjoy. I have a lot of friends I see at these conventions and meet there. It’s always great to hear them perform. For me, it’s something I do for fun. I’m a geologist by profession and play music because I enjoy it.”
The Tazewell County Old Time Bluegrass and Fiddler’s Convention will be held today and Sunday at the Crab Orchard Museum in Tazewell, Va. Weekend passes are $12 and single day passes are $7. Children 12 and under are free with an accompanying adult. For more information on the convention call 276-988-6755.
— Contact Kate Coil at