By Tim Gardner
A large, framed display and a separate photograph of Oscar “Red” Wilson–one of Avery County’s most well-known natives—was recently donated to the county’s historical museum in Newland by his daughter, Anne Wilson Castro.
“Red” is nationally-known in musical circles as a master fiddle player and more importantly, is a World War II hero, who earned the Purple Heart medal. The display features notes by “Red” in his own handwriting about being drafted to serve in World War II, receiving the Purple Heart and his recovery from the wound he took in earning the medal as well as pictures of him and citations he has received, including the Purple Heart.
Castro also donated the separate photograph of “Red” to the historical museum with him holding a fiddle wearing his signature music-playing attire–overalls, a long-sleeve shirt and a colonel’s fedora hat.
“We are most happy to receive the display and additional photograph about one of Avery County’s most prominent natives in who excelled as a great musician and is a war champion who helped America defeat Germany and Italy in the European Theater of World War II,” said Avery County Historical Museum Director Aneda Johnson. “On behalf of our museum’s Board of Directors, volunteers and county officials, I extend deepest appreciation to Mrs. Anne Wilson Castro for donating the display and other picture of her father. They are wonderful additions to the museum.”
Two other Avery County Historical Museum officials—Virginia “Tense” Banks and Leandra Slate—were also present for the donations.
If you could ask all those with musical backgrounds or simply those who are just music enthusiasts from this region to compile their choices about who are the top musicians from Avery County and the North Carolina High Country, or with ties to both, the name Oscar “Red” Wilson would likely be on every list.
Growing up in the Powdermill section of Avery County in the 1920s and ‘30s, he purchased his first guitar from Spiegel with a down payment of $5.00 and then $5.00 in monthly payments. He learned to play and did so every chance he got.
Many times in his early days, he played with his close relatives, the Waites Ledford Family from neighboring Mitchell County (NC) where “Red” eventually moved. The Ledfords were known for their large repertory of older musical pieces and their skillful performances. “Anytime you wanted to hear music, you could go to their house and they’d play,” Red recalled. “You’d get them started playing music and they would go all night.”
“Red” particularly found inspiration in the fiddle playing of the Ledford family patriarch, Waites Ledford, and Waites’ son, Steve, and “Red” learned to accompany both of them on guitar. Soon after, “Red” began playing fiddle and banjo and developed an ability to sing lead and harmony.
And he and Steve Ledford eventually performed on a regional radio station in the North Carolina Mountains.
“Red’s” local music-playing career was interrupted when he was drafted into the United States Army at age 21. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor he was sent overseas to North Africa and then to Sicily where he was seriously injured by a mortar shell while serving under General George Patton. As one of three survivors of his battalion “Red” spent two years recuperating in an Alabama hospital before returning home to North Carolina. Because “Red” was wounded, he was honored with the Purple Heart Medal.
Once back home, he had to walk with crutches for several months because of his war injuries. “Red” lost much of the muscle in his right leg from the injury and that leg was almost entirely only bone from his just above his knee to his right hip.
But after returning to North Carolina, “Red” soon met and fell in love with Marie Greene, who became Marie Wilson on April 5, 1945. They raised two children—Anne and Roger. “Red” and Marie also have two grandchildren, Anne’s daughter, April, and Roger’s son, Joel.
“Red” eventually started working as a professional musician and then became famous for his fiddle-playing. In the late 1940s, he toured and recorded with Wade Mainer, another Western North Carolina musician who led a popular string band. In the 1950s, the Toe River Valley Boys, a band that had a large local following, recruited “Red” to play fiddle for the group.
Specializing in Folk and Country music tunes as well as Bluegrass standards, the group played square dances for many years at Geneva Hall in Little Switzerland and at the Penland School of Crafts, both in Mitchell County. While playing for the band, “Red” began composing fiddle tunes, adding those to the songs he had written on occasion during his musical career. He also started to repair fiddles, often free of charge, and eventually he built several instruments. He earned a reputation as an ace fiddle maker.
“Red” contributed in various ways to the musical life of the Toe River Valley area in the North Carolina Mountains. His participation in the Carolina Barn Dance in Spruce Pine helped it build consistently large audiences. The venue’s popularity enabled several regional entertainers to launch performing careers.
“Red” also built a recording studio next to his home in Ledger (located between Spruce Pine and Bakersville in Mitchell County), that he named Mayland Recording Services. He helped musicians make demonstration tapes and recording masters at his studio. And he donated his music-playing on many occasions for community benefits and civic events.
Additionally, “Red” taught classes in ‘old mountain music’ from the East coast to the West coast and he participated in the American Fiddle Festival in Seattle, WA.
“Red” also sang during many of the concerts in which he performed as well as on video and record, 8-Track, cassette, compact disc and video recordings.
After he retired, he focused on the old-time music that he heard in his youth. He was still often asked to perform at festivals and traditional music workshops across the State of North Carolina and beyond and he did so despite being retired. He was the subject of both documentary audio and video projects. In his later years, “Red” also performed often with regional musicians Bruce Greene and Rob Levin.
“Red” influenced many musicians—especially those in the North Carolina High Country. In 2002, he was a recipient of the Mitchell County Chamber of Commerce Living Legend Award. Then in 2003 he was a recipient of the North Carolina Heritage Award for music. “Red” also was recognized by the North Carolina Arts Council as a Living Legend.
He and his wife, Marie, welcomed travelers from all across the nation to their home who dropped by their home in hopes of hearing “Red” play and sing a tune or two, or join him in playing and singing those tunes. Musicians also came by seeking lessons or hoping to purchase or trade instruments with him. Friends and neighbors brought over old family fiddles in need of repair, and local banjo pickers and guitarists gathered with him regularly for an afternoon or evening of music-making.
“Red” once told this reporter: “I just love music—especially fiddle music. The older the music; the better. And I love people. I’m thankful I’ve had the opportunity to play and sing music so many times to a whole lot of listeners. But one of my greatest honors came in serving our nation in the military!”
“Red” passed away in 2005 at age 85, and Marie died in 2017. They are buried in the Mountain Home Military Veterans Cemetery in Johnson City, TN, where the remains of a husband and wife can be if one, or both, have served in the military.
Oscar “Red” Wilson’s musical influence will live on in Avery County and in its historical museum as well as throughout the North Carolina Mountains and beyond forever. He will always be remembered as a true hero of our nation’s military in general and World War II in particular.
-Some information from oldtimeherald.org and blueridgeheritage.com, both of which highlights musical personalities from this region, was used in this article.