The Jon Boy & Lefty Band Exemplifies Caldwell County Musical History

(Editor’s Note: This is the fifth article in a series on the 25th Annual Caldwell Traditional Musicians Showcase. Previous articles can be found here).

LENOIR, N.C. – The 25th Annual Caldwell Traditional Musicians Showcase: Heroes and Friends, will be held at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday, March 4 at the J.E. Broyhill Civic Center. It will be the last Showcase to be hosted by Strictly Clean and Decent, though the show will go on, as Lenoir musician Andrew Massey will be the new host beginning next year.

Scheduled to perform this year is Strictly Clean and Decent, which includes Kay Crouch, Patrick Crouch and Ron Shuffler. Additionally, Milan Miller, Tall Paul and Kristie Bobal, and emcee Nancy Posey will bring a collective Nashville connection to Lenoir.

Notably, the other group scheduled to perform is the Jon Boy & Lefty Band. It is deeply rooted in Caldwell County, exemplifying the musical history of Caldwell County, of people who work the farms, factories and mills by day and would be found pickin’ with their neighbors on somebody’s porch after supper.

Members are Jonathan Doll, Kent “Lefty” Spears, Coty Robinett, Wes McCall, and Andrew Massey. Doll and Spears have been performing as a duet in the community as Jon Boy & Lefty for a couple of years and have slowly but steadily gained a following. As we talked at Liquid Roots in Lenoir recently, it was apparent that the two are aware of how being in the Showcase affords them an opportunity to uphold a legacy that has been part of the county’s history since the first European settlers put down roots in the 18th Century. 

Doll plays guitar, is a songwriter and sings. Spears plays the harmonica. Coty Robinette plays guitar and the banjo. “He’s the real deal” offers Spears of Robinette. “He’s gregarious. We love to play with him.”  Doll adds, “He’s charismatic.” McCall is the drummer. Doll shares, “He’s been all over and plays all kinds of music. He doesn’t overpower you. He’s skilled and a really likable guy.” He’s also a regular at Liquid Roots. Andrew Massey will play bass.

From left, Kent ‘Lefty’ Spears, Jonathan Doll and Andrew Massey. Courtesy photo.

While Doll has been playing for about 20 years, he’s comfortable letting Spears do the talking about their partnership. Spears says, “We are traditional musicians in the sense that we both hold day jobs.” Doll adds, “It’s tough to practice.” Spears chimes in, “We are traditional musicians. We work for a living by day and then play at night. That’s what I think of when I think of traditional – working people, sometimes even sharing their music at work.”

Spears explains their working process. “We’ll exchange texts. I’ve grown to appreciate it. I’ll ask, ‘What key?’ Then I think about what licks I need to learn to make it sound ok. Jonathan comes up with good music and lyrics.” Doll offers, “So far I’ve written about 20 tunes suitable for public performance.”

One such song is “40 West.” You can listen to it here.

While Spears is new to public performing, he was raised in a musical home. His grandmother was self-taught and would play an autoharp. “She’d play Wildwood Flower and that sort of thing.” He adds, “My sister is a classically trained soprano.”

Still, Spears offers, “There are a lot of people that have helped us out. That’s just the way people are around here. And a lot of them are 10 to 15 years older.”

A native of Patterson and Happy Valley, Doll recalls, “Over 20 years ago, to stay out of trouble, I talked my dad into buying me a guitar. It got me down the right path.” Many of his songs are about the mills his family owns. Blue Ridge Tissue. Though he has played in several bands, he took a break from playing after his last child was born 12 years ago, before picking the guitar back up again.

Spears has quite a different background. He and his wife had asked local blues musician J.J. Hipps to play at their 30th wedding anniversary. “I had heard him play and said, ‘Why don’t we have these guys?’ I wanted to learn one song to play with them. I was thinking that would be a fun thing.” After considering an instrument he could learn in time for the occasion, he chose the harmonica. “I learned one song. It was fun. When I heard J.J., a harmonica seemed like something I could pick up and play music with other people.”

Jon Boy & Lefty play at Liquid Roots. Courtesy photo.

So, afterwards, he decided to show up at a Wednesday Open Mic night at Liquid Roots. “I’ve met a lot of folks up here. It’s kind of a farm system.” It was there that he began receiving encouragement from Patrick Crouch, who runs the Open Mic a couple of days each month. “Jon and I both have the same intent. Meeting musicians,” says Spears.

Offers Doll, “I’ve known Patrick since I was a kid. Patrick encouraged me. Spears said the same and they both added, “That’s just the way Patrick is.” Spears continues, “I’ve known Patrick a long time. He has always been supportive. Patrick is music. Because of him, people have a sense of community and enjoy the good times, forget about the BS.”

So, being asked by Patrick to be in the Showcase is no small thing for the duo. “You make tens of dollars as a musician. It’s usually a deal where you might break even,” shares Doll. Adds Spears, “But, even then we enjoy each other’s company and guidance.”

As to how they’ve developed an effective working relationship and following in a relatively short period of time, Spears shares, “We just kept showing up. We did 55 paid shows just in the Unifour during the past year, allowing an opportunity to continue to learn to play together and improve overall.” Doll emphasizes, “It just goes back to showing up, building on our common musical interests.”

Strictly Clean and Decent play at the Happy Valley Fiddlers Convention.
Photo credit: David Cortner

It has paid off. Doll recalls that he and Spears were in the J.E. Broyhill Civic Center sometime in the last couple of years. “We looked at the space, considered all of the musicians who had played in previous showcases and asked, ‘Why not try?’” Adds Spears, “It won’t happen if you don’t set goals.”

Hence, admits Doll, “It’s a dream come true.” He continues, “The Showcase is an opportunity to learn from other musicians.” He continues, “It always draws other musicians – not only on the stage, but in the audience.” Though acknowledging that it is a bit daunting, it is also a welcomed opportunity, Doll adds. “Collaborating is always fun and beneficial.”

To learn more about the 25th Annual Caldwell Traditional Musicians Showcase: Heroes and Friends, contact the J.E. Broyhill Civic Center box office at 828-726-2407. Learn more about the meal available before the performance.

© Michael M. Barrick 2023. Note: This article has been corrected to properly identify Wes McCall as the drummer and that Andrew Massey will play bass.

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