The piano doesn’t normally play a prominent part in Appalachian music, but Jeff Little’s distinctive two-handed style influenced by the mountain flat-picking tradition is unique and strikingly native to his North Carolina home. Now he carries the legacy of the traditional music to a new generation.
Jeff Little on playing with Doc Watson and other musicians at a young age
I just started picking out tunes by the time I was five or six years old, or that’s what they tell me.
Jeff Little became interested in playing piano at an early age. In the years to follow, learning the piano was a different experience for him than for most practicing a new instrument, and involved a unique sphere of influence.
“My dad had a music store in Boone, North Carolina. It was an area where there were a lot of musicians, and there’d be a lot of people in there playing all the time,” said Little, “and he had great friends like Doc Watson.”
Little’s dad and the GRAMMY Award-winning folk singer/songwriter Doc Watson would play together, and Little said he started sitting in on their sessions.
“I just started picking out tunes by the time I was five or six years old, or that’s what they tell me,” he said.
While many starting out in music might take standard lessons, Little practiced in the company of well-established musicians like Watson. And this provided Little an environment fit to foster a career.
“I was so blessed because Doc and all the other musicians were just patient, even if I was eight or nine years old,” Little said, “and if everybody was playing something, when it came time to improvise and take a break they’d say, ‘Take one, Jeff.'”
It was a great place to figure out a pathway for being a musician, Little said.
The North Carolina mountain culture also played a role.
“That area of the mountains up there—I think it’s just part of the culture that that’s what people did, they got together and played music,” Little said.
Given his region and inspiration, it’s no surprise that Little’s piano playing style took on an Appalachian sound. But the style is also a sound that’s not typically heard from the piano.
Little himself has some difficulty describing his style.
“Oftentimes I think my left hand more emulates the thumb pick of a thumb pick guitar and there’s a little bit of a different groove to that. Or my left hand would be a bass and a mandolin chop, because that’s what I hear, and my right hand maybe emulates more what I heard on an acoustic guitar or something like that.”
Little plays with infectious energy; his music is fast-paced and upbeat, much like that of a string instrument used to play bluegrass.
He often performs at MerleFest, an annual music festival held at Wilkes Community College in memory of Doc Watson’s son Merle. Little’s dad has performed at past MerleFests as well.
“Being a piano player we have the freedom to play most any song, but the great part is there’s always a certain fiber of where you’re from when you play and when you come back to play at MerleFest, it’s kind of like coming back to play home for us,” Little said.
The significance of the music community that Little grew up with, and the community he plays alongside today, is reflected in his view of music.
“Music is more than just playing music,” Little said, “it’s kind of a community in a way. for me it’s been really cool to be kind of part of the history of where I’m from, even though I’m a piano player.”