Herschel Sizemore, Mandolin Virtuoso and Roanoke Valley Resident, Dies | Local News
Bluegrass fans are listening this weekend to a catchy song called “Rebecca” in tribute to the composition’s creator, Roanoke County resident and mandolinist Herschel Sizemore, who died on Friday.
A family member confirmed his death in a social media post.
Facebook swelled with love and appreciation for Sizemore, 87, and his musical contributions. One commenter suggested an author should write a book about the Alabama-born virtuoso who moved to the valley in 1969, according to a biography of Sizemore on the BlueGrassToday website. Sizemore originated a widely imitated style of mandolin playing and spent some of his time teaching the instrument to young people.
Sizemore told an interviewer in 2017 that he first chose his best-known composition while reclining in a chair with his mandolin at his home near Peters Creek Road. “This tune came to me, and within 15 minutes I had it,” he said, according to a YouTube video.
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“Rebecca” was released in 1993 and is named after her mother, according to music websites. Sizemore has performed with legions of artists, many of them great. Some of the bands he played with included the Dixie Gentlemen, the Shenandoah Cut-Ups, the Dixie Pals, and the Bluegrass Cardinals.
Mandolinist/vocalist Chris Thile of the Punch Brothers attended a benefit concert for Sizemore and his wife Joyce in 2012, after each had been diagnosed with cancer the previous year. Thile remembers choosing with Sizemore in an instrumental workshop in Roanoke as one of the greatest thrills of his life. The Jefferson Center is set to host the Punch Brothers next month.
Beyond specific works, some fellow musicians recognize Sizemore for what Roanoke County musician Jeff Midkiff called “fidelity to melody”.
The melody “is the foundation, like a house has a foundation,” Midkiff said. “If you create a solo and the melody isn’t there, all you play is a bunch of notes that are about you and not the song. Herschel was the master of this concept – fidelity to the melody is above all Midkiff, a bluegrass and classical musician and composer who leads the band at Patrick Henry High School, said he didn’t know Sizemore personally, but drew a lot of inspiration from him.
For years Roanoke has had a thriving organic bluegrass scene. Sizemore supported young artists who were still learning the small instrument. Musician Warren Amberson of Vinton recalled that during his teenage years Sizemore helped him coax his mandolin music to Roanoke Fiddle and Banjo Club meetings. The club performed at the Berglund Center.
“Herschel took time off with me when I was a kid,” said Amberson, who has been playing music for 40 years. Sizemore’s kindness and encouragement included him “telling me I had the potential to do something good with my music and I believed him”.
Amberson, while serving in the U.S. Army, created the first recognized U.S. Army bluegrass band, he said. His group Acoustic Endeavors spanned 30 years, including 28 at the Buchanan Theatre.
Amberson said Sizemore splits his time between family and music, a point echoed by Junior Sisk of Ferrum, frontman of the Junior Sisk Band.
For Sisk, Sizemore was a mentor as well as a musical colleague. “He taught me a lot, not just about music, but about life in general. He was a devout man and a family man more than a musician,” Sisk said.
Sizemore appeared in high spirits when Sisk recently visited him at his home, Sisk said.
“He was a legend, just like Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass. He was there at the time. He wasn’t playing the Monroe style, he had his own style. So many people over the years have copied that style ,” Sisk said.
“You can’t go anywhere without hearing that tune played by a mandolin player,” Sisk said.
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