Commonwealth Journal

March 22, 2014

Bluegrass artist Rutherford no longer forgotten

by Heather Tomlinson
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset — Brothers Forest and David Rutherford this weekend met for the first time.

And that comes after more than 36 years of Forest knowing little about his biological family — hardly anything about his parents, his siblings and distant relatives, and the roots of his lineage.

“I didn’t know any of my family until two years ago,” said Forest on Saturday. “This is absolutely overwhelming and surreal.”

Forest, his brother David, their uncle — also named David Rutherford — and their cousins gathered Saturday at Somerset Cemetery to honor and remember the man who brought them together.

Leonard Rutherford, legendary Bluegrass music player and half of the popular Burnett-Rutherford Duo, died in Somerset in 1951. He was sick, possibly suffering from epilepsy, and he had fallen on hard times. A man who had once garnered an impressive following through the duo’s recordings in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s died at only age 53. He was buried in an unmarked grave at the cemetery.

Decades passed. Leonard’s six children scattered, and many died.

Forest, a grandson of Leonard, only knew his father’s name — Don K. Rutherford. Don, who died in 1990, was one of Leonard’s six children.

But Forest knew nothing of his familial connections.

The Detroit, Mich., resident spent his childhood in foster homes and group homes, with no knowledge of his biological family.

But he knew he liked music. And he knew his father had recorded musical albums.

“I wasn’t allowed to play music,” said Forest, about his difficult childhood. “But I always collected instruments. I can’t play them, but I’ve got 10 musical instruments.”

So it comes as no surprise that Forest traces his lineage back through his grandfather.

“It is just in the blood,” said Forest.

On Saturday, which, coincidentally, marked Leonard’s 116th birthday, close to 70 people gathered around Leonard’s unmarked grave to remember the legendary fiddler player.

And after Saturday’s ceremony, the grave will no longer stay unmarked and forgotten. Forest and David — themselves acquainted for less than 24 hours — unveiled a grave stone for Leonard, with the quote “One of the smoothest fiddlers ever to take a bow.”

The quote comes from Wayne County historian Harlan Ogle, who has researched extensively Leonard’s life and career with his musical partner, Dick Burnett. Ogle set the wheels in motion for Saturday’s event by contacting Somerset Cemetery Manager Tricia Neal.

“This whole thing became so much bigger than we thought it would be,” said Neal during the ceremony. “None of this would have happened if Mr. Harlan Ogle had not come to me curious about where Leonard was buried.

“I was afraid I would let him down,” Neal admitted.

But an index card, with writing in pencil on its back, pointed her in the right direction.

“I was so lucky just to be able to find him,” said Neal.

And soon, Neal and Ogle began discussing the idea of honoring Leonard with a ceremony — and with a long-deserved grave marker. Ogle is also with the Wayne County Museum, and the museum moved to purchase the stone.

Rutherford was born in Somerset and lived here most of his life, but both he and Burnett had roots in Wayne County.

Saturday’s ceremony was an emotional one for many of the people who gathered to honor a man long forgotten. Family members from as far away as Arizona, Michigan, Florida, and Pennsylvania made the trip to remember Leonard, and to connect with family members who had long ago lost touch — or never really established the connection in the first place.

“This is huge for them,” said Forest, about his two young sons, who attended Saturday’s ceremony with he and his wife. “From the absolute backward things I was told (when I was a kid), to what they’re learning now ... it’s the genealogy.

“I didn’t have that my whole life,” Forest added.

David Rutherford, Forest’s uncle and Leonard’s son, regaled the audience with a short passage about the origins of the Rutherford family, which stretches back to Scotland.

The Rutherfords’ ancestors came to America seeking better lives. Many didn’t find it right away. David said they moved eastward and south, into the Appalachian mountains. And traditional mountain music, now called Bluegrass, began to take hold. The music became a tradition. Leonard himself continued that tradition by taking up the fiddle as a teenager.

“The messages that it (the music) contained were not just of home, but hope for a new future,” said David. “About a new life, here in these mountains and beyond these mountains. Leonard carried part of this Appalachian hope.

“You all are here today to keep that tradition alive,” David continued. “It is alive and well here ... some of us travel back to those home grounds. But you know what? They’re not home anymore. This is home.”