Bluegrass music means a lot to W. Scott Street III, a respected attorney by day and a banjo player whenever he can get away with it.
He regularly would drive to Nashville — to get his teeth cleaned.
His dentist, Terry Comer, was a friend of a friend who also was a musician. Street would make the 600-mile drive for a late-afternoon appointment, after which Comer would close the doors for the day, and he and Street and anyone else in the office who could play would break out their instruments and hold a dentist-office jam session.
True, maintaining a dentist in Nashville might have been little more than a ploy and an excuse to visit Music City periodically and then hang around for a few days, but Street’s wife of 47 years, Gini, has to admit the trips were worthwhile.
“No cavities,” she said with a laugh.
Such devotion to music begs the question: Is Street an attorney who just happens to be a banjo player, or is he a banjo player who just happens to be an attorney?
“Good question,” Street said with a smile. “I hope I was a better attorney than banjo player.”
But which did he enjoy more?
“Wellllllll,” Street said, “there’s no question about that.”
Fact is, Street has been plenty good at everything he does and maybe even best of all at being what his longtime friend and musician Martha Adcock describes as “a fabulously prime human being.”
Right now, though, Street is in a tough spot, which is what brought three of us — two other longtime friends of his, former radio personality and musical activist Tim Timberlake and photographer Bob Brown, along with myself — for a visit Friday afternoon to Street’s Goochland home.
Street, 70, is battling a rare form of cancer that apparently began in his appendix. He was diagnosed just last spring, but in a few short months the disease has swiftly and ruthlessly, as Gini Street said, “sort of taken over.”
“We’re taking it one day at a time,” Scott Street said, “but there doesn’t appear to be any cure out there for this.”
We met in his study, flames leaping in the fireplace behind Street as we talked and laughed about people and places he has known. The stories were mostly about music, but only because those who were visiting are more familiar with guitars and picks than torts and injunctions.
But Street knows jurisprudence.
He has practiced law for 45 years, the past 34 at the firm of Williams Mullen, concentrating in business and corporate litigation. He has served a term as president of the Virginia State Bar and for more than 40 years as secretary-treasurer of the Virginia Board of Bar Examiners. He joked in a 2005 article in The Times-Dispatch about a former law partner from the 1970s that their practice was so small at the beginning and the work so spare that “we had to try cases together because we only had one case.”
So, how does a high school valedictorian, graduate of Hampden-Sydney College and the University of Virginia School of Law and a son of suburban Richmond far from the then-niche world of bluegrass — except for hearing his father singing “Watermelon Hanging on the Vine” as he worked the family’s large garden — become a banjo aficionado?
He was truly introduced to bluegrass at Sunday afternoon concerts at Hampden-Sydney in the 1960s by people like George Winn. A few years later, after he became an attorney, Street found himself in a music shop while representing a client who was a concert promoter. Looking at the banjos on the wall, Street made small talk with a salesman.
“You know I’ve always wanted to play the banjo,” Street said.
“Well,” the salesman said, “you ain’t getting any younger.”
So, at about age 30, Street purchased the cheapest banjo he could find and went to work learning to play, asking for guidance from local banjoists but largely teaching himself. He played in a number of groups over the years and could be found picking on flatbed trailers at the Shad Planking or under tent at the State Fair of Virginia or at gatherings of lawyers or elected officials. He became so proficient that his most recent (and a most gratifying) gig was playing on stage with a group of most familiar faces: George Winn and The Bluegrass Partners.
In between buying that first banjo and hearing George Winn say he’d love to have Street be his banjo player from here on, Street has made a lot of friends and left a lot of good impressions.
Martha Adcock called Street “a patron of the arts and devoted musician” with a “wide-ranging wit — urbane to hillbilly” and an “unparalleled equanimity.” She said the tall Street “stands above most others in terms of character, good humor, good will and good deeds.”
Eddie and Martha Adcock have been Street’s friends and his clients, so they have seen both his goodness and his tenacity all rolled into one. Or as Martha put it, “The nicest guy in the world … happened to be a dogged, devoted and generous ‘fixer,’ too. How blessed have we been to have him in our lives? There are no words.”
Timberlake, who has known Street for years through music and their time on the board of JAMinc, a nonprofit whose mission is to “open minds, hearts and ears to music deserving a wider audience,” said his friend is “just this wonderful, gracious Southern gentleman who has kind of defied the sort of paradox of being a distinguished attorney and a banjo player. That’s what’s so charming about him. There’s just not a nicer guy out there. It’s really heartbreaking for everybody who knows him.”
An unfinished project resides in a box in Street’s study — years of interviews, notes and stories that Street has compiled and hoped would become a biography of influential bluegrass banjo player and singer Sonny Osborne. Time is all he needs to finish it, but time is also the great unknown.
“Basically, nothing else can be done medically,” said Gini Street.
But, she added, “everybody’s prayers I know are working because they’re giving us strength to take each day. So, keep the prayers coming.”