‘Keep on the Sunny Side’

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 9, 2013

SALISBURY — Whether on stage, at church or in a circle with other musicians, Paul Hill always seemed ready — more than anyone else — to play his Martin guitar.

First his eyes would brighten. Then a smile would spread quickly across his face as his fingers picked out a country, gospel or bluegrass tune.

And there were so many of them.

“His music, in my humble opinion, came from his heart,” said longtime friend and fellow guitar picker Clay Lunsford of Union Grove.

Hill, 82, died at the Hefner VA Medical Center Monday morning after a lengthy fight with cancer. He last played in public at the release of Matthew Weaver’s CD Dec. 6 at the Rowan Public Library.

Hill always called Weaver “my piano boy,” while Weaver called him “my musical hero.”

“I’ll cherish every memory, traveling and playing together,” Weaver said. “He was a mentor and friend.”

During a life filled with many musical diversions, Hill played guitar for groups such as Cross Crowd, Sunnyside Band, Blue Grass Ramblers, Black Mountain Boys and the Silver Bells.

He strummed behind the late U.S. Rep. Bill Hefner, when Hefner was a gospel-singing congressman. Hill also played for musical groups appearing on the Arthur Smith television show and on Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker’s PTL program.

He was a friend of Doc Watson’s and played at some of the past Merlefests in North Wilkesboro. In studio work, Hill joined many other musicians in cutting CDs together, from Nashville to his own little studio at home.

When he wasn’t collaborating, Hill won many individual playing awards, including the coveted Basco Lamar Lunsford Trophy on three different occasions at the N.C. State Fair — 1983, 1995 and 2009.

In 2012, he told Weaver, “You’re going to win that this year,” and Weaver did.

Throughout his life, Hill played at churches, rest homes, Masonic homes, revivals. festivals and fiddlers conventions. Beyond the Lunsford trophies, he was especially proud of all his ribbons, including an early first place he won at the 1963 Union Grove Fiddlers Convention.

“He could preach you a sermon on his guitar,” said Marti Lakey, who attended Liberty United Methodist Church with Hill. “He had such a sweet spirit, playing that guitar for anybody and everybody.”

Hill probably played for his biggest crowd in 2010 in LaCrosse, Wisc., when he performed “Freight Train” at the televised National Veterans Creative Arts Festival as one of the national winners.

“He was always humble when it came to all he had won,” said Lunsford, president of the N.C. Thumb and Finger Style Guitar Association. “He was a gentleman and, in the world of music, he was a statesman.”

Lunsford first met Hill at an apple festival in Wilkesboro in 1974, and it started a lifelong friendship connected to music.

“We lost a great Christian man and entertainer,” Lunsford said Monday.

Many people didn’t know it, Lunsford said, but Hill was a well-rounded musician who also could play instruments such as the banjo, mandolin, fiddle, dobro and autoharp.

It just seemed as though he always had a guitar with him.

Lakey, who sings in a quartet at Hill’s home church, said Hill could never hide the joy he found in music.

“He would pick up the guitar and play for you anytime,” she said.

Hill backed up the church quartet. Sometimes when Lakey found herself off tune or missing a note, “I’d say, ‘Ah, I messed that up.’”

Hill always found the silver lining.

“If you don’t mess up every once and awhile, nobody will notice you,” Hill told her. So it became a comfort to Lakey if she did make a mistake — Paul Hill said it was OK.

“And I never knew Paul to mess up,” Lakey added.

Both Lakey and Weaver visited Hill in the hospital last week. Lakey said Hill’s spirit seem to brighten at the suggestion of smuggling one of his beloved cats into the medical center.

Weaver also saw Hill at his home before he entered the VA hospital over Easter. Hill wanted Weaver to play the piano, and Weaver obliged for a solid 30 minutes.

“He was bound and determined he would come back and play,” Weaver said.

Weaver met Hill for the first time when Weaver was about 12 years old. Weaver fell in love with Hill’s style — “we immediately clicked musically,” he said.

Hill started early, too, picking a banjo when he was 10. His oldest brother introduced him to the guitar two years later, and the guitar passed to him when the brother died in an automobile accident that same year — 1942.

Hill taught himself to play. Most mornings he practiced while waiting for the school bus.

He soon was playing guitar at Saturday night corn shuckings, on the porch and in high school. He bought a Gibson guitar in 1948 for $85 and played it until 1968, when he traded it for his first Martin.

In the early 1950s, Hill served a hitch in the U.S. Army as part of the 2nd Armored Division in Germany.

Back home, Hill worked for Brown Supply in Granite Quarry before moving to the Owens-Illinois plant in 1962. He retired after 30 years at the box plant.

In the late 1970s, Hill formed the Sunnyside Band, a gospel group which included niece-in-law Bonnie Hill.

The song “Keep on the Sunny Side” became identified with the group, and Bonnie said it served as a mantra for Paul Hill’s life.

“He was a very talented man who used his talent to make other people happy,” she said. “He was self-taught, and that’s the beauty of it. It came from his heart.”

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263.