Noam Pikelny is crying. While speaking about his friend, the late Jim Rollins, Pikelny’s been trying to keep his emotions in check. But the more he talks about Rollins’ knowledge, his kindness, and his tragic, senseless death in a car accident at age 54, the more the tears flow.
“I’m sorry,” Pikelny says at one point. “I’m getting emotional thinking about him.”
Pikelny has met a lot of people as the banjo player for the all-star bluegrass group The Punch Brothers, led by mandolin master and “Prairie Home Companion” host Chris Thile. But meeting Greenville’s Rollins, a banjo player and vocalist for the Upstate bluegrass group the West End String Band, is something that sticks out in his mind.
“We met at this vintage banjo gathering that was happening during a festival. And he was just passionate about Gibson bluegrass banjos,” Pikelny recalls. “He was a pretty central figure in that world of vintage banjo aficionados, and as a 19-year-old kid, obsessed with banjo, I was hungry for any opportunity to play those instruments or meet people who could share some knowledge. And that first time I met him, he was so generous with his knowledge and his instruments. He had two vintage banjos and he let me play them, and he told me everything he knew about them, and he did it with this great sense of humor.”
The two men forged such a strong friendship that Rollins, whose taste in bluegrass ran to Flatt & Scruggs and The Stanley Brothers, came to every Punch Brothers show he could, even if their progressive style wasn’t his cup of tea.
“Anytime I played anywhere in the area, whether it was East Tennessee or North Carolina or South Carolina, he would come to the show,” Pikelny says. “Some people who knew him would find this hard to believe, given his dedication to more traditional bluegrass, but he saw maybe 15 or 16 Punch Brothers shows over the last 10 years. He was there more than any friend or family I have. He was an incredible supporter.”
For Pikelny, Rollins wasn’t just a kind, knowledgeable friend but also a model of the strong relationships in the bluegrass community.
“Jim brought so much joy to every festival, every concert, every hang he was ever part of,” he says. “He epitomized everything I think was special about the bluegrass community.”
Charlie McDaniel, who stood alongside Rollins playing guitar as part of the West End String Band, is also full of emotion when he talks about his late friend, but he has a smile on his face, and laughs a lot, often referring to Rollins in the present tense.
“He was like an ambassador for bluegrass. It’s not a form of music that everyone knows about, and he tried to introduce people to the music,” McDaniel says.
“And people across the nation, anybody you could imagine, would call him, looking for information on a flathead banjo they needed to know about, and all they had to do was read off the serial number to him. He didn’t have to go back and look it up; he could tell them about it right off the top of his head.”
“He was generous with his time to everybody, and he loved to talk and make people laugh. He was always smiling, and shaking hands with people. He was just a kind person.”
But it’s when McDaniel talks about Rollins’ skill as a singer and player that he smiles the most.
“He’d listen to banjo tunes in the car,” McDaniel says. “He’d ride for hours just studying banjo parts. And as far as singing goes, he had that real high tenor; he could blast that out. When he was feeling it, you didn’t need a mic on him. As far as the music goes, I think he’d want to be remembered as a lover of real bluegrass music.”