KELLY PERDUE - REST IN PEACE
Leader Of The Mando Mafia Band Dead At 45
by Derek Halsey
On the morning of December 15 the music community lost yet another musician with the passing of Kelly Perdue. Perdue was the leader of the Mando Mafia band based out of Charlottesville, Virginia. He leaves behind his wife Libby and his two sons Ben and Daniel. Only 45 years old, he died of natural causes on Thursday morning and could not be revived.
Kelly Perdue was a multi-instrumentalist who carried on the tradition of old-time music with a twist. His fellow band mates in the Mando Mafia include Rick Friend, Bill Giltinan, Vaughan Mairs, and Pete Marshall. The band is a big part of the current old-time music scene that combines hundreds of years of songs and musical heritage with the sensibilities of these modern times. One example of this is a cut from their latest album – Get Away – called “Yellow Barber/Brain Damage.” It is a combination of an old-time fiddle tune that was brought to the fore by the late blind fiddler Ed Haley that is blended with the Pink Floyd classic. The band has successfully combined old-time with many other kinds of music as well. As it says in the liner notes for the Get Away album, “With each recording we try and push the envelope a little further.”
To describe Kelly as a multi-instrumentalist is an understatement. On the Get Away album alone he plays his trademark mandolin as well as fiddle, guitar, clawhammer banjo, tenor banjo, banjo ukulele, and lead vocals. The Mando Mafia have played concerts throughout central Virginia as well as festivals like Merlefest and the 2005 Floydfest. They were regulars at the Appalachian String Band Festival where they won numerous band contests as well as headlined the event.
On a personal note, I first met Kelly at the 2003 Appalachian String Band Festival (to be hereby referred to as the Clifftop Festival) held in the New River Gorge area of my home state of West Virginia. It is a weeklong camping and pickin’ festival and you tend to get to know someone a little bit when camping next to them for six or seven days in a row. I grew up listening to bluegrass music more than old-time, although the two intertwine at times with many shared songs and history. But what I didn’t realize in 2003 was that there was a thriving modern old-time music scene happening. While the fiddle can dominate this genre of music, here was Kelly leading the way with his mandolin. He had an amazing way of playing the fiddle parts of a song on his mandolin, matching the melody and harmony of the tune note for note. ‘Lead mandolin’ is the best way I can describe it. That just made sense to me, and I’ve loved to watch him do his thing ever since.
Another big fan of Kelly’s playing was bluegrass great Tim O’Brien. Kelly and Tim got together a few times over the years to pick. One session in particular that Kelly enjoyed a lot was when Tim showed up with Mike Seeger at the annual Clifftop Saturday afternoon cocktail party hosted by the Mando Mafia and others in the Charlottesville music community. As the afternoon progressed Kelly and the Mando Mafia jammed with Joe Mead, John Murphy, and Tim O’Brien and others in a circle while Mike Seeger sat in a chair in the middle of all of them listening with his eyes blissfully closed.
I talked with Tim O’Brien the day after Kelly died. Here are his thoughts;
“It was a shock to hear about Kelly. He just had this gentle magnetic personality. He really made you feel welcome. Behind the gentle air and façade he had a head for fiddle tunes that was really something. He was full of fiddle tunes and you couldn’t stump him. He knew them all. He was a guy who didn’t strut is stuff or anything. He just sort of drew people in and everybody was comfortable and he made the conditions right for good music. Of course, he played his butt off, but he was real self-effacing about it. He was proud that he knew all of those tunes, though. He knew a lot of songs. Another thing, in the old-time scene they kind of frown on the mandolin some and he grew up playing that music and he said, ‘Hey, I take exception to that. I grew up playing this stuff and it’s as traditional as it gets to me.’ He showed that there was room for all of it in the music. (His playing the fiddle parts with the mandolin) was a beautiful thing, the unison playing. The mandolin is tuned the same as the fiddle so it works great that way. But most people don’t play it that way. They just kind of chord along a little bit and if somebody gives them a solo they don’t play the same as the fiddle. But he was a shadow. He would reinforce what was happening with the banjo and the fiddle, sort of tracing along the same lines. And that makes it drive along real good.
“I remember, and I’ll continue to celebrate, he held an annual Mando Mafia cocktail party at Clifftop every year. At 5 o’clock on Saturday everybody gathered around and it was a real lovefest. And just because he said, ‘Hey, come over and play some tunes,’ everybody wanted to be with Kelly. I’ll be back, hopefully every year, to keep the spirit alive. He was a one of a kind dude. I think we’ll all have to get together at Clifftop at the Saturday evening cocktail party happy hour and keep his spirit going. Get all the mandolins together and try and get some of his music out there. I’m so sad that he is not going to be there next year.”
– Tim O’Brien Dec. 16, 2005
I had a lot of questions about this music back at my first Clifftop in 2003, and many in the old-time community have helped me out along the way. I wrote an article about the experience for Gritz Magazine that tells the tale of that first road trip. My uncle Wayne ‘Wormy’ Smith talked me into going, bugging me about it for years. Finally I made the trek and the rest, they say, is history. One of the folks that took the time to answer my many questions was Kelly Perdue. He was patient with me, and when I was finalizing my article I called him at his house to follow up with some final questions. While I called him again but a couple of months ago, the last time I saw him in person was last August at Clifftop 2005. I would walk past his camp and hear that familiar voice of his call my name out, and we would sit and talk and socialize. One day he called me into his tarped compound to eat some steak with him. He and Libby were always very hospitable.
Old-time music is not known for being improvisational as is bluegrass. I only heard Kelly improvise once and that was during one late night session last August. Every year at the Clifftop Festival there are CD release parties. Various bands will put up flyers around the grounds announcing a release party for their new CD and inviting folks to come to their camp and enjoy some food and drink. Then the band plays a few tunes and tries to sell a CD or two. A band called Bad Dog, that features Mark Olitsky on banjo, Andy Williams on fiddle, Leo Lorenzoni on guitar, and Jason Sypher on bass, asked Kelly to jam with them during their party for their new album titled Old Time Blah Blah Blah. The jam was held at 1am on a basketball court under the stars. In one jam the guitar player, Leo, held a song in place and called out to trade licks with Kelly. The improvisation started as both of them went at it for almost ten minutes. “And they say Kelly Perdue can’t improvise,” laughed Kelly afterwards. While the old-time ghosts of the past were rolling over in their graves, it was blast to hear, and a lot of fun.
I have written about Kelly and the Mando Mafia many times in Gritz Magazine over the last few years. One article in particular that gets a good response to this day is the original Road Trip To The Mountains feature from the Spring 2004 edition. In honor of one of the inspirations of that piece, and for someone who helped me to get that article right, we are reprising it here again for Kelly. I will miss that unmistakable voice. I will miss that in-the-groove head nod that he had when he was getting into a pickin’ session. I will miss a good camping neighbor and friend who taught me a lot.