Bluegrass maestro Alvin Breeden, an internationally-known banjo player and accomplished musician on multiple instruments, was known to friends as a kind, humorous, laid-back man who would help anyone in need.
Mr. Breeden, of Earlysville, died Tuesday of complications related to lung cancer. He was 70. He was a well-known performer in bluegrass music circles for more than 50 years before retiring in 2010.
"Alvin was one of the best people I've ever known and he'd give you the last dollar in his pocket, said Donnie Shifflett, of Greene County, who was recruited by Mr. Breeden to play bull fiddle with his band, The Virginia Cutups. Mr. Breeden also worked often for Shifflett as a painter.
"He was real easy-going and never in my days did I see that man complain. He might say before a [performance] that he couldn't wait until it was over, but he'd get on stage and he loved to play and he'd play well," Shifflett said. "He was the kindest man I know."
"He had an easy sense of humor. One of his favorite sayings when you asked how he was doing was, 'Well, I got up before breakfast, today.' That's the way he was," said Geoff Stelling, of Madison County. Stelling is the maker of some of the industry's most sought-after banjos. The instruments bear his name. Mr. Breeden played one for decades.
When Mr. Breeden's mobile home burned on Christmas Eve morning in 1993, he first rescued all of his instruments before getting out himself. Later that day, his musician friends banded together to get him into a new home by Christmas.
"Well, it's something, that's for sure," Mr. Breeden said as he watched his friends prepare a site for his new mobile home. "When something like this happens, you find out who your friends are, for sure. I sure know who mine are."
Most people knew Mr. Breeden for his playing.
"He was pretty much the torch bearer for the Don Reno school of playing banjo," said John Lawless, editor of Bluegrasstoday.com "There were two schools of banjo in the 1950s, the Earl Scruggs method and the Don Reno method, and Alvin Breeden was an excellent student of the Reno method. Alvin kept his own style on the banjo, but he also kept the Reno sound alive."
Lawless said in recent years younger banjo players have taken to the Reno style, which involves more chord structures and melodic lines.
"There are a few who found [Mr. Breeden] because the Scruggs style pretty much took over most of the banjo world and there aren't too many people who played Reno-style," Lawless said.
Mr. Breeden found a love for music at an early age, friends said, noting that he learned to play guitar and then switched to banjo. His mother taught him to play claw hammer-style banjo when he was 10.
At 16, Mr. Breeden was playing professionally with Bob and Cindy Dean. He later formed the Cutups. The band still performs as the Virginia Ramblers, retiring the Cutups name with Mr. Breeden.
Mr. Breeden's ability to play instruments from guitar and mandolin to fiddle and banjo, and a strong sense of pitch and harmony made his adaptation to the Reno method a natural, friends said.
"He could tell you if you need to tune a bit higher or a bit lower or if the fifth string on the guitar was out of tune," Shifflett said. "He was an amazing musician and really understood harmony and melody and how instruments worked together."
Stelling said he had communicated via email with friends Gayle and Robert Noble, members of the Central Virginia-based bluegrass group Willow Branch, about Mr. Breeden's passing.
"They put it best when they said Alvin had an usual ability and talent for knowing what to play, when to play and how to arrange it so that people weren't singing or playing on top of each other," Stelling said. "Alvin studied a lot with Don Reno, who was known for his melodic play, and would go see Don when he lived in Lynchburg. When we played together, he could play Don Reno-style and I'd play Scruggs-style and he'd make it sound great together."
Shifflett said he'd known Mr. Breeden most of his life when Mr. Breeden invited him to join the Cutups after the group's bass player left the band. Shifflett for years played bass guitar for country music bands, giving it up to spend more time with family. He said he wasn't sure he was up to performing again.
"I told him I'd come and play with him and we had a great time," Shifflett recalled. "He finally said, 'Fill in for me until I find another bass player,' and I said OK. He never did find another bass player. I was playing bass guitar and I felt I needed to learn to play bull fiddle because I knew he needed an upright bass in the Cutups."
"He had a lot of musician friends and I was lucky to get the chance to play with him and know him personally," Stelling said, adding that Mr. Breeden won his banjo in a Don Reno picking contest in which Stelling was a judge.
"We couldn't see who was playing and we thought Don was just trying to pull a fast one us and was actually playing," Stelling recalled. "It was Alvin, and the first time I'd heard him play."
Lawless said Mr. Breeden had a major impact on bluegrass, especially in keeping alive his unique playing style.
"He will be missed," Lawless said.
Services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at Preddy Funeral Home in Madison.