Les Butler and Friends: Jeff Tolbert of the Primitive Quartet
I’ve known Jeff Tolbert for many years, and I like him a lot. He’s a great husband, father, musician and one of the all-time greatest singers I’ve ever heard. I thought I knew most everything about Jeff, but even I was surprised at some of his answers to my questions. For example, did you know that over the years he played for Jeff and Troy Tolbert, the Stanleys, the Easter Brothers, Jeff and Sheri Easter, and he filled in with the Lewis Family, Karen Peck and New River, the Isaacs and Ricky Skaggs. Of course, it feels like he’s been a member of the Primitive Quartet forever. You’ll enjoy getting to know my friend, Jeff Tolbert.
Les Butler: What is your earliest musical memory?
Jeff Tolbert: My earliest memories (for me) were singing with my dad. We sang everywhere; in our community, churches, outdoor festivals and at many radio stations. We were featured a lot on the Saturday Morning Merry Go Round at WPAQ in Mt. Airy, N.C.
Butler: What was the first instrument you tried to play?
Tolbert: I started playing the guitar and bass guitar about the same time, around the age of seven. After that, I started picking up other instruments. I remember my dad telling me when to change chords on the guitar. I couldn’t wait for him to get home from work so we could pick.
Butler: What instruments do you play now?
Tolbert: I play the bass guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, harmonica, autoharp and a little on the dobro.
Butler: Who are your top three musician mentors?
Tolbert: I would definitely say my dad is my first musical mentor. He taught me so much about music as well as life. His spiritual influence and walk with the Lord started me on my journey many years ago, playing music and living for my Savior. I miss him dearly, but I know we will sing together again.
The Easter Brothers would be my second mentors as well as much of their family. The Easter Brothers were from my home town of Mt.Airy, N.C. Their music has always been a part of my life. I still say, no one can sing three-part harmony like Russell, James and Edd. My third musical mentor would be Ricky Skaggs. From Ralph Stanley and JD Crowe until now, he’s always been my favorite singer and musician. I grew up learning how to sing harmony with Ricky’s records. After reading Ricky’s autobiography that he published, I realized our upbringing was so much alike, as we were both raised in a godly home with a love for music. I cherish his friendship and appreciate his music.
Butler: If you could only do one thing; sing or play, which would you choose?
Tolbert: As much as I love to play, I would have to choose singing. Dad always told me, (when) you sing a song, listen to the words. If the song helps you, it will help others. I want to be a help and encouragement to someone. I want to be able to tell folks there’s hope in a lost and dying world, and there’s joy in knowing Jesus.
Butler: How long have you been a member of the Primitive Quartet? Did you ever see yourself as a member of the Primitives and how did you get the job?
Tolbert: When I worked with the Isaacs, we did a lot of dates with the Primitive Quartet. Many times, they would ask me to play fiddle with them. I loved their music and they were some of the nicest gentlemen to be around. I thought it would be great to be a part of them. In the spring, I was working for Ricky Skaggs. I was having a blast, being on the Grand Ole Opry and getting to perform with some of the absolute best musicians and singers. Things were going great for me, but I realized God had let me do this for a short season.
I prayed, “God, if this is where you want me, you will let me know. If not, I’m willing to do what you want.” I knew I had to sing gospel music. The call to go back on the road never came. Nothing was wrong, things were going great, God just had other plans for me. I planned a trip with some friends for the week of July 4th, then I got a call from Reagan Riddle with the Primitive Quartet. He wanted to know what I was doing and if I could play with them at the Hominy Valley singing the week of July 4th. I told him I had already made plans but Reagan made a few more calls to me after that and I told him, yes. Twenty-three years later I’m still here. What an honor it is to be with them for so many years now.
Butler: What do you enjoy the most; playing live or in the studio?
Tolbert: Playing live versus playing studio are totally different. To be honest, I love them both. To play live, I love the people and the acoustics. Most of all, which is the most important, I love the sweet spirit. In the studio, it tests you in so many ways. It makes you think more. Recordings don’t lie, so it makes you stay on your game. Building a song from just a thought on a piece of paper to recording it, then listening back to what you have created, the process is amazing.
Butler: What’s your biggest or most special musical moment?
Tolbert: The most special musical moment for me was when I sang for the first time to my beautiful wife on our wedding day. Of course, she had heard me sing many times but this was the first time I sang a song just to her. I sang “Walk Thru This World With Me.” I remember her grandfather saying, “That is the most appropriate song you could have sung to my granddaughter.” He prayed with us that day and gave us his blessings.
Butler: Tell us about your family. Are any of them musical?
Tolbert: I met my beautiful young lady, Shaytonya Morrow, in the concession line at the Hominy Valley Singing in 1999. We dated for three years. I love her and could not do what I do without her. Shaytonya is from Sweetwater, Tenn.
On September 27, 2004, we had our first baby, Briley Ryan Tolbert, weighing in at nearly 10 pounds. Eleven years later, on August 18, 2015, we were blessed with a baby girl, Ilah Ruth Tolbert. I’m so thankful for the family that God has given to us. Briley plays the guitar, mandolin and sings some. But like my wife who was very athletic and played college volleyball, Briley loves the game of football. We are very proud of him and his love for the Lord.
Ilah is our little song bird and loves to sing and make up songs. She loves the stage and will take a microphone away from you.
I was born in Mt. Airy, N.C., on February 19, 1971 to Phyllis and Troy Tolbert. I can’t say enough about my parents. They have prayed and supported me from day one. I pray I can be the parent to my children as they have been to me.
Butler: When you’re not picking and singing, what are you doing?
Tolbert: When I’m not on the road. I love to be with my family, no matter what we do. Just being together means so much. I love to be outdoors too. I enjoy hunting, fishing, and camping with my best friend Jimmy Earl Burchfield of the group Walking by Faith.
Butler: Give us a brief testimony… Tolbert: At a youth camp in Asheboro, N.C., our church went on a retreat for a week. There were lots of activities during the day and at night we would have service. I remember the preacher asking the question, ”If you didn’t make it through the night, where would you spend eternity?” Even at a young age, it broke my heart, making me realize I was lost. God was speaking to my older sister at the same time. We both got saved that night. Since then, my sister has passed away.
I thank God for the hope that I have. I will see her again. I’m so glad I have a time and a place where I can go back to where the Lord saved me.
By Les Butler
First published by SGNScoops Magazine in May 2019
Read the July SGNScoops Magazine Online HERE