Al Batten, master banjo player and bandleader of the beloved North Carolina-based bluegrass band Al Batten and the Bluegrass Reunion, died on Sunday, 11-20 after a long illness.
First formed in February of 1972 with David Turnage, Al Batten and the Bluegrass Reunion have been a staple of bluegrass in their home of Selma, North Carolina and beyond for nearly 45 years. For the first 20 years of the band, it was mostly a local project as Al Batten and the other members focused on careers, raising families, church, and participating in their local communities. Along with a bluegrass player, Al Batten was a farmer, a former Boy Scout and FFA leader, and agriculture teacher, and performed many other civic duties throughout his life.
Later as the members of Bluegrass Reunion began to retire, they were freed up to tour more, and made regular junkets across the east coast of the United States, and even made their way to Ireland on a number of occasions to participate in the International Bluegrass and Folk Festival. As a banjo player, Al Batten was inspired by Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, and Bill Emerson among others, and developed his own unique style of banjo playing over the years. He first picked up the instrument at the age of 17 before attending North Carolina State University.
As the bandleader of the Bluegrass Reunion, Al Batten led the outfit to being awarded numerous accolades by The Eastern NC Bluegrass Association and The Piedmont Council of Traditional Music, or Pinecone. Beyond his band accomplishments, Al Batten was considered a kind-hearted, down-to-earth friend with a quick wit. On stage, he was just as well known for his banjo playing and singing as he was his funny stories and song setups (see below).
The band had announced in October that Batten was sick and in the hospital. Al Batten is survived by children Brian and Lori, and grandchildren Lily, Cate, Sarah, and Nickolas.
“Our family is deeply saddened to inform you that our Dad, Al Batten, passed away this morning after an extended illness,” said his son and daughter Lori and Brian said in a statement. “Thank you for all the prayers and support over the last several weeks. Dad touched many lives not only through his music but as a teacher, a farmer and a friend. As many hearts are heavy on this day we hope you will find comfort in your time and memories with our Dad. He was truly one of a kind! We will announce arrangements in the coming days.”