The Pick of Apple Country

Veteran players team up to promote a Piedmont Blues-influenced sound

Eric Ellis, left, and Randy Sarton are the Gin Mill Pickers.
Portrait by Rachel Pressley

Randy Sarton and Eric Ellis are two laidback, gray-haired guys — seasoned musicians of a certain age — who turn into the Gin Mill Pickers when they take the stage. The sound is bluesy, but with something else mixed in. The songs are so classic you might not know their names, but you definitely think you’ve heard them before, somewhere along the way.

The duo promotes itself as a “blend of retrofitted folk/rag Americana and Piedmont Blues.” They are semi-unplugged, using both electric and acoustic guitars. Sarton usually plays a six-string, and Ellis leans toward an electric. When they sing, Sarton leads, and Ellis harmonizes. 

They both dabble in kazoo.

“We spent last winter in a pandemic bubble, rehearsing and waiting for the moment when the world would start to open up again,” says Sarton. “Finally, last May, we debuted at Bold Rock Hard Cider in Mills River. In the past seven months, we have performed over 50 times in about 20 or so venues, including the Hendersonville Apple Fest. We have been warmly received. Every venue we have played in has invited us back.”

Aside from performing in many of Hendersonville’s live music venues, they have been booked in Asheville, Black Mountain, Waynesville, the Hard Rock Cafe in Pigeon Forge, Pablo’s Last Resort in Port Charlotte, FL, and they have future gigs lined up as far away as Nevada.

“Randy and I have a friendship that actually goes back almost 25 years, and it’s wonderful that we now find ourselves blending our musical styles into the Gin Mill Pickers,” says Ellis. It’s that blending of styles — along with two lifetimes of musical experience — that’s paving their current path to stages near and far.

As a teenager, Sarton played guitar and sax and sang on the club circuit throughout Chicagoland. In college, he discovered folk and acoustic blues, and performed in coffeehouses, night clubs, and at concerts and festivals. He later became a college professor, entrepreneur, and ecotour guide. Native Canadian Ellis has been a lead guitarist for several nationally touring artists, such as ZZ’s Best, Jim Morris and The Big Bamboo Band, and Ronnie Morgan Band. He’s also produced two CDs of his own.

Technically, Sarton plays fingerstyle guitar, and Ellis is more of a retro-blues-based flat picker. Together they’ve incorporated North Carolina’s Piedmont Blues — syncopated finger-picking with distinctive ragtime-based rhythms — into their repertoire. “These two very different styles of playing seem to mesh together beautifully, and I believe really define our sound,” Ellis determines.

At any given gig, the Gin Mill Pickers will start mid last century, during the British Invasion — playing crowd pleasers from The Beatles, The Kinks, The Zombies — and segue forward to some original music, then way back to classic Piedmont Blues and old-time. “We’ve been told our repertoire is wide-ranging,” Ellis says. “We love when we see audiences swaying.”

 “I am fortunate to be able to follow my passion for music,” Sarton adds. “To play with a good buddy, travel, and entertain lots of folks — how satisfying.”

The Gin Mill Pickers play Saturday, Feb. 12 and Saturday, Feb. 26 at The Loft Cafe & Pub (111 Joel Wright Drive, Hendersonville), from 6-9pm; and Friday, Feb. 25 at Bold Rock Hard Cider (72 School House Road, Mills River,, from 5-8pm. Friday, Feb. 4, at Mills River Brewing Co. (336 Banner Farm Road), from 7-10pm. For more information, see “The Gin Mill Pickers” on Facebook.

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