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08/20/2010 06:25 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

'If Trouble Don't Kill Me': The Story Of Clayton And Saford Hall, Bluegrass Legends (PHOTOS)

Saford was born first. That much I know. Clayton followed either ten or fifteen minutes later, depending on who was telling the story and when they told it. The twins fell from Mamo's loins into the bony, waiting hands of Granny Hall on May 4, 1919, just as the dogwoods bloomed and peaches sprouted fuzz and young men came home from the War to End All Wars. They were the last of Judie Hall's bastards born in The Hollow, a rough section of red dirt wedged hard between the Virginia mountains and the North Carolina line.

Clayton died last. I saw him the day he died. He had trouble staying awake -- because of sickness or maybe the company -- but when he was alert he talked about the birthday party Uncle Asey was going to throw in two weeks. He told me to bring my fiddle and we'd play music like we used to. Of course, he wasn't strong enough to hold a guitar, but I told him I'd bring the fiddle, the one Saford left me, and we'd play all day and night. I'd show him how I'd learned "Florida Blues" and "Natural Bridge Blues" just the way Saford had played them. But it didn't happen. Instead, Papa Clayton dropped dead in the living room that night after asking my grandmother to make him a tomato sandwich.

I returned to the house after I got the news to find family and neighbors standing glumly around the small, cramped kitchen, telling me how sorry they were about Papa Clayton. He was a good man, can't believe he's gone, he'll be missed. I wasn't that sad, to be honest. I was certainly going to miss Papa Clayton, but how could I be sad? The man helped MacArthur return to the Philippines and he sang with Roy Rogers, for heaven's sake. He lived enough adventure to fill two lives, so it's a good thing he had a twin. I would have known my great- uncle Saford better had he not run off to North Carolina when I was a kid, but you can't do much with a rambler except let him go and hope he finds his way back. Clayton figured that out a long time ago.

Papa Clayton died of some kind of pulmonary fibrosis, scar tissue in the lungs, just like Saford and Mamo. The twins had smoked and worked in the bad air of furniture factories most of their lives, but the fibrosis was probably genetic. The twins died the same way, but they didn't always live the same way. Clayton was more laid-back and dependable than the wandering Saford, although he, too, had a short fuse. I saw his temper in action only one time, when I was seven, and it was a doozy. My younger brother Ricky and I were staying at Papa and Grandma's house one afternoon while my mom was working at the beauty shop. I was in the living room when Ricky, about four, charged like a loose beagle from the kitchen and fell smack- dab in front of the fireplace hearth. Papa Clayton raced in right on his tail and grabbed Ricky by the arm and commenced whipping him with a rolled-up magazine. Papa had told Ricky not to run so close to the hearth, because he could fall and hit his head. Ricky sassed Papa, which was not the thing to do to a former army sergeant who had fought the Japanese; then came the whipping. The story lived forever after Ricky cried to our mother later, "Papa whipped me with a paper switch!"

We laughed and told stories about Clayton the night he died. After everybody left, I helped Grandma stack up the plastic plates and cups. That's when I saw it on the table: the tomato-sandwich-in-progress, open- faced with a smear of mayonnaise. It looked lonely. Papa Clayton never got to eat it. He really liked those tomatoes from Tilley's store. Or maybe this time they were just an excuse to get Grandma to run by Mount Bethel and see if it was a Smith who was being buried. I picked up the bread and threw it away.

From "If Trouble Don't Kill Me" by Ralph Berrier, Jr., a features reporter for The Roanoke Times. His work has earned more than 20 state and national awards, including those from the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Newspaper Association of America and the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors. He learned to play bluegrass fiddle from his grandfather, Clayton Hall, and great-uncle, Saford Hall, who are the subjects of his book, "If Trouble Don't Kill Me." He lives in Roanoke, Va., with his wife and daughter.

If Trouble Don't Kill Me