On September 25th, the acoustic music community lost a great luminary with the passing of guitarist and composer Al Petteway. For many years, Al and his wife and musical partner, Amy White, were beloved fixtures on the acoustic music scene through their solo and duo recordings, multimedia projects (both accomplished professional photographers), and international tours. Eventually, they settled into the Blue Ridge Mountains, where they operated a home recording studio and enjoyed the quiet lifestyle of the Appalachian country.
Al was a remarkably accomplished composer, producer, engineer, and photographer, and was especially known for his abilities as a solo guitarist and accompanist. He could play effortlessly with any musician and could easily transcend classic and contemporary folk, blues, modern string-band music, and the traditional music of the British Isles. Over the years, his resume as a touring and recording guitarist included work with artists as diverse as Jethro Burns, Roy Buchanan, Cheryl Wheeler, Peter Rowan, Bonnie Rideout, Tom Paxton, Maggie Sansone, and many others. In the early 1980s, he became part of the house band at the revered Birchmere Music Hall in Alexandria, Virginia, where he was part of the new acoustic music scene, often performing with musicians such as Tony Rice, Mark Schatz, and Béla Fleck.
This led to his first solo album in 1987, followed by his acclaimed recording, Whispering Stones, which featured a collection of original compositions and arrangements inspired by the traditional music of the British Isles. His subsequent recording, The Waters and the Wild, developed into a multimedia show that featured his original compositions and photography (by then he had been working for National Geographicas a photographer), and that project garnered the attention of then Vice President Al Gore, leading to an invitation to perform at the White House.
Al’s other honors and awards as a composer/guitarist include artist residencies at the Kennedy Center and Warren Wilson College, 45 WAMMIES (Washington D.C. Area Music Association Awards) including Musician of the Year, and the Swannanoa Gathering’s Master Music Maker Award in 2013. In 2005, Al won a Grammy award for his contributions to Pink Guitar, an album of Henry Mancini compositions. That same year, Al began his long collaboration with Paul Heumiller, founder of Dream Guitars in North Carolina, cultivating an extraordinary high-end retail guitar experience through recordings and demos, connecting new and established luthiers with guitar buyers.
Together, Al and Amy’s music often transcended the boundaries of musical genres and reached large audiences, including through their contributions to several award-winning Ken Burns documentary films and the acclaimed media broadcasts of the Scottish Christmas concerts with traditional artists Bonnie Rideout and Maggie Sansone. The duo’s music was particularly popular with the editors and readers of Acoustic Guitar, and Al’s recording Caledon Wood was named one of the essential albums of the past 20 years for the magazine’s 20th anniversary. AG readers honored him with silver and bronze Players’ Choice awards and voted Al among the top 50 acoustic guitarists of all time.
Al was also a prolific educator, serving on the faculty of and as the guitar week coordinator for the Swannanoa Gathering from 1996–2018. He produced numerous acclaimed video tutorials and methods for Dream Guitars and Happy Traum’s Homespun series, which often featured his playing and arranging in DADGAD tuning for the styles of blues, Appalachian music, slide, and Celtic music.
While I had been familiar with his music for quite some time, I had the privilege of meeting Al in 2011. He struck me as one of the kindest, funniest, and most genuine musicians I’d ever encountered. As a guitarist, I was amazed by his flawless performance—always in tune, with a pristine tone and impeccable technique. Watching him perform live was akin to listening to a finely produced recording. His approach to the guitar was influenced by his sensibilities as a producer and composer, which made him the consummate accompanist for artists in various styles. Al had the innate ability to seamlessly unite music with beautiful continuity.
In 2012, Al invited me, along with AG contributor Greg Ruby, to teach at the Swannanoa Gathering’s prestigious Guitar Week. Greg and I were both a little nervous, but Al’s warmth of character immediately set us at ease. He really encouraged us to be ourselves and to bring our skills and identities to the festival, which was very generous and liberating. As the Guitar Week coordinator, he had no agenda other than fostering a spirit of music and community, resulting in a uniquely special experience for all attendees—many of whom returned year after year.
“Al was an immensely kind human,” Greg recalls. “When he reached out to me to teach at the Swannanoa Gathering, we arranged a phone call to discuss details. What we ended up talked about, though, was music, life, and photography; how he decided to move to North Carolina; his playing with Jethro Burns; and my obsessions with Django Reinhardt and Oscar Alemán. Over the course of an hour, we covered every possible topic—except what I needed to teach at the Gathering. Al abruptly ended the call with, ‘It’s been great talking, and I think whatever you decide to teach will be great.’
“He saw it was my personality as well as my musicality that was the fit,” Greg continues. “A few years later, Al decided to step down as Guitar Week coordinator, so I called to check in on him. When I asked who would replace him, he replied, ‘I was hoping you would.’ We both heartily laughed and I quickly agreed. I had never previously been in a role like that, but he reassured me, ‘If you can lead a band, this will be a piece of cake. Just hire the best players who are the easiest to work with and let them do what they do best.’”
Al and his music will continue to be loved, and he’ll be remembered as a unique and prolific artist, incredible guitarist, lover of animals and nature, hilarious storyteller, and for his affable nature.
Editor’s Note: In early 2023 Acoustic Guitar asked Petteway to contribute to an article exploring ways to “break through“ when a guitarist is stuck in a rut. His response to our question (How do you push yourself and regain the sense of momentum and progress?) showcases both his mastery of the instrument and his love for sharing his guitar knowledge.