September 20, 2020

Country picker’s pals bid fond farewell

ORRINGTON – Smiling Billy surely was smiling down Saturday as his family, friends and fellow pickers gathered to say “goodbye.”

They brought their guitars, banjos and mandolins and packed into the clubhouse at the Rocky Knoll Country Club, swapping chairs and taking turns in a circle jam, playing all of the late Billy Orcutt’s favorite country and bluegrass songs.

“He would have loved this,” his daughter, Rhonda Wallace, said. “He would have been right in the middle of it, picking and telling jokes.”

Billy Orcutt was an icon of country music in this part of Maine, according to Jim Leighton, who helped to organize the informal jam session in Billy’s honor.

Orcutt, 61, died in December, and many of the people with whom he’d made music over the years were not able to attend a benefit affair last month.

“We wanted to get everybody together so the pickers could remember Billy and the songs he used to play,” Leighton said.

Over the sound of the tunes Orcutt loved, old-time country favorites such as “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” “Sweet Dreams” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” friends remembered him as a fine musician who loved a good time and who had a big heart.

He loved to play in informal jam sessions, just like the one being held in his honor, and he also played regularly with several different groups, put together to play weekly sessions at local nursing homes, retirement homes and churches. And he would go anywhere to play a benefit for a worthy cause.

“If you called Billy, he’d be there,” longtime friend Cecil Ross said.

Ross met Orcutt when they were working together at a shoe shop, and the two started playing guitars after work on Fridays. That led to regular Saturday night sessions where Ross and Orcutt would play into the night while their wives waited to go home to bed.

Orcutt had a way of finding musicians to join him, sometimes guitar players who had stopped playing or who played by themselves at home, like Leighton and Orrington Town Manager Dexter Johnson.

“Just by being himself, he touched a lot of lives,” Johnson said. “He made a lot of people happy and motivated a lot of these people to go on and play. That’s a great thing.”

Often, he would go out looking for a new guitar buddy. That’s how he met Dave Morrison, a part-time preacher who played at one of the weekly sessions at the Brewer Rehab Center with Orcutt.

“I was out walking out on Parkway South and I see this old pickup truck. Billy rolls out and says, ‘I heard you pick a guitar.”‘

That started a friendship that included not only picking sessions, but regular Bible discussions as well. An avid reader, Orcutt had read the Bible through (along with the encyclopedia) and was on his way through it again when he died.

Morrison visited Orcutt in the hospital just before he died, and, true to form, he brought his guitar with him and the two friends sang “Long Black Train.”

Orcutt was a big man – topping out at well over 400 pounds before gastric bypass surgery trimmed him down to 209. He loved to put humor into his music and wasn’t above poking a little fun at himself as he did in one of the standard tunes he played that everyone at the jam session recalled, “I Guess I Just Don’t Look Good Naked Anymore.”

As much as Billy loved music, he wanted it to be traditional. He didn’t go for amplified music.

“He didn’t like that plugged-in stuff,” Morrison said. “He liked being unplugged. That’s why nobody’s plugged in today.”

The music went on for three hours, with the musicians – many who had never met each other – taking turns singing the songs they remembered, strumming, with the banjo or mandolin picking out the melody, stepping away for a cup of coffee or some food, later jumping back in when someone else got up to do the same.

And when 2 p.m., the announced time for the jam session to end, came around, nobody paid much attention to the clock. Although musicians came and went, the pickers kept on picking and grinning.

It was just what Billy would have wanted, according to Mitch Geel.

“There was nothing you could have done to honor Billy more than to get together and play music.”

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