“Slate Hill” Phil Gianniny seemed like a fixture busking on the Downtown Mall. A couple of weekends ago, in his usual spot in front of The Paramount Theater, there was a poinsettia and a note that said, “We love you Phil.” Gianniny died on December 23 at the age of 31, and the turnout at his memorial the following weekend was a testament to the variety of people in town whose lives he touched.
Many musicians in town see Slate Hill Phil (center) as standing for the odd man out, the guy who is not represented in modern society.
Gianniny had deep roots here. He was born in town, began playing piano in church at the age of 10 and picked up the guitar and banjo shortly thereafter. While he had a rock phase, he settled on music that had an older soul—traditional American and bluegrass music. He said that some of his musical upbringing came from his Great Granddaddy Brown and his Granddaddy Sampson, who drank and played Hank Williams and Ernest Tubb tunes. But mainly, Gianniny said that his musical influence came from growing up poor.
Gianniny played on the Downtown Mall as a teenager, and some of his earliest public performances were with Piedmont blues legend John Jackson. Songwriter Jamie Dyer says, “I have known him since he was 13. I don’t even remember meeting him. He was just there.” His friend Sam Mays, who sold Gianniny the Washburn banjo he was playing towards the end of his life, says, “I knew him from playing on the Mall when [music store] Stacy’s was still there, 15 or 20 years ago. I liked him as a person and he was a talented musician.”
Gianniny was an original member of the Hackensaw Boys, who took their 1964 GMC bus cross-country with 12 band mem-bers in the summer of 2001. He contributed to their first CD, Get Some. He was also a member of The Hogwaller Ramblers and valiantly led the band when Dyer took an occasional Sunday off, sometimes standing on top of a table at Escafé with a hat that lit up like it was Christmas. Gianniny was also a member of The Virginia Vagabonds, the old-time band that Lovell Coleman started in 1937 and gigged several times a year.
Gianniny and Dyer took off for a tour in 2005, and Dyer describes a scene in Tennessee. “We got up early and went into The Bell Buckle Café where everybody in the place knew and loved Phil. They gave us breakfast and then put us on the radio.”
Gianniny also led his own bands, like The Slate Hill Boys, who put out an excellent record, Memory Lane. That disc should still be available through County Records. His second CD, Carnival of Oddities, came out last year. Original Slate Hill Boys Charlie Bell, Andy Thacker and Ben Jacobs performed at the memorial.
Many musicians in town see Slate Hill Phil as standing for the odd man out, the guy who is not represented in modern society. Even Reverend Hopkins said as much at the memorial, that he could not find common enough ground during Phil’s time on Earth to get to know him. Dyer puts it this way: “He was an artist, and the Phils of the world are the repository for a lot of music that is out there. In a culture where money is foremost, Phil is an important person. He was an organic part of the musical soul here in town.”
Anyone interested in playing music, telling stories or viewing films of Gianniny’s recent performances, can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to find out about a get-together that will benefit his daughter Julia.
Giants among us: Nelson County resident and remastering engineer Chris King just earned his tird Grammy Award nomination for Good For What Ails You: Music Of The Medicine Shows 1926-1937.
One CD that Gianniny would have enjoyed just earned Nelson resident Chris King his third Grammy Award nomination. King is the remastering engineer on Good For What Ails You: Music Of The Medicine Shows 1926-1937 on Old Hat Records. King remastered the project from rare, original analog 78 RPM recordings. The project has also been nominated for a Grammy for best historical liner notes. King was awarded a Grammy in 2003 for a CD compilation of Charley Patton music and was nominated last year for his work on a Charlie Poole CD. We live among stars.
And if you want to catch a fine show of local music this week, get out to Gravity Lounge on Saturday night for the release of Tom Proutt and Emily McCormick’s new CD, Pancake Mamma. These two fine singers and musicians will be accompanied by special guests Mary Gordon Hall, Jeff Romano, Darren Snapp and others. Should be a great show.