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Rodney Roach; 'gentle giant' became champion banjo player

Rodney William Roach started playing the ukelele and the guitar as a boy, but once he heard bluegrass legends Flatt and Scruggs play the five-string banjo, his mind was made up.

The banjo would be his passion for the next four decades. Self-taught, he twice became New England 5-String Banjo Champion, in 1971 and 1972, and he performed with bands that made southern Appalachian music popular in New England. His talent was as prodigious as his stature, fellow musicians said. At 6-foot-7, he was called ''the gentle giant."

Mr. Roach, 63, died Wednesday of brain cancer in Beverly Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Plymouth. He had lived in Plymouth for 32 years.

''I used to tell Rod that he was the Chet Atkins of the banjo," said fellow musician Gayle Dayton of New Bedford, referring to the famed country guitarist. ''When Rod played, his fingers would float across the fingerboard. We knew what he was doing was complex, but he made it seem so effortless and a beautiful sound would come out."

Dayton, a guitarist and lead singer for Back Eddy Bluegrass, a band Mr. Roach belonged to, said that he ''showed people that bluegrass had a soul, that it reached beyond the everyday."

Mr. Roach played the banjo and sang harmony with the band well after his illness was diagnosed last March, said Ann (Sagar), his wife of 35 years. He is on a recent Back Eddy CD playing on his song ''Back Eddy Bounce."

He also wrote numerous songs, including a piece for the state's observance of the nation's bicentennial in 1976. He made soundtracks for movies. He taught banjo workshops.

Mr. Roach led a double life, understandable to other musicians who wish they could rely on music for a livelihood. All during his career as a banjo player, Mr. Roach had a day job working as an insurance claims adjuster. At the time of his death, he was senior insurance claims adjuster for Encompass Insurance in Quincy. ''Rod liked the idea of being an insurance adjuster," his wife said. ''He liked to know how things worked and found the investigation interesting."

Mr. Roach grew up in Chappaqua, N.Y. He went to Middlebury College in Vermont to study Spanish, but, his wife said, he ''spent most of his time playing music." While at Middlebury, she said, he founded the Otter Creek Ramblers, one of the earliest bluegrass bands in New England. The couple met at a wedding in Vermont where he was playing the banjo.

Mr. Roach's son, Rod Marsden of Glen Ridge, N.J., said that in the 1950s, his father played in rock 'n' roll bands. ''He made his own guitar, and could play guitar, mandolin, fiddle and dobro."

He influenced many young people to play bluegrass. One of them was Joey Deetz of Plymouth, a well-known musician. ''Rod was one of the pioneers of bluegrass music in New England," Deetz said. ''I first heard him play from the house next door in Plymouth when I was 10. He became my mentor and friend. He made me understand how bluegrass can move you and get deep into your soul."

Mr. Roach played with a variety of bluegrass bands, with such names as Stoney Lonesome and Eel River Bog Trotters. ''Rod was never flashy or calling attention to himself," said Stan Zdonik, of the Boston Bluegrass Union. ''His approach was to support other members of the band, to make the music as good as it could be."

Music and insurance claims were just two of Mr. Roach's interests. He was an amateur naturalist and archeologist who had a collection of Native American artifacts. He was an avid fly fisherman, made jams from berries grown in his garden, and made a rhubarb pie, according to his wife, that was written about in the book, ''American Pie" by Pascale Le Draoulec.

And he had a sense of humor that extended through his illness, Dayton said. One of the last songs he wrote, she said, he titled, ''BT Breakdown." BT was for brain tumor. ''It's a foot-stomping, jump-up-and-down tune," she said.

Besides his wife and his son, Mr. Roach leaves his mother, Rosella of Hendersonville, N.C.; two brothers, John B. of Trenton, Ill., and David of Evanston, Ill.; a sister, Cindy VanHooser of Overland Park, Kan.; and two grandchildren.

Services will be held at 12:30 p.m. tomorrow at Chiltonville Congregational Church in Plymouth. Burial will be private.

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