Word came this week of the death of two giants of bluegrass and country music, bluegrass banjoist Bill Emerson and country singer and songwriter Tom T. Hall. Emerson was a long time fixture on the influential Washington DC bluegrass scene, an important member of more than one major bluegrass band, and a composer of several iconic banjo instrumentals. Hall began his career as a country songwriter with several huge hits to his credit, most notably “Harper Valley PTA,” before establishing himself as a leading country singer. Hall’s story songs translated well to bluegrass and he often performed bluegrass material and played with bluegrass artists.
Prior blog posts about John Duffey and Cliff Waldron have touched on Bill Emerson’s contributions to bluegrass in the DC area. At the risk of minor repetition, this post discusses Emerson’s accomplishments in more detail. Bill Emerson was born in 1938 in Washington DC. He began playing the banjo when he was about 16. Around that time, he met mandolinist and singer John Duffey, who was a few years older. He credited Duffey with teaching him the rudiments of bluegrass banjo picking and also how to sing baritone harmony parts.
By 1957, Emerson was playing banjo with Buzz Busby and the Bayou Boys, then one of the leading DC area bluegrass bands. When Busby and several other members of the band were injured in a car crash, Emerson and fellow Bayou Boy Charlie Waller (who were not involved in the accident) recruited Duffey to fill in so the band wouldn’t lose its bookings. They soon realized that Duffey and Waller had a special vocal blend, and a new band, the Country Gentlemen, was born.
Bill Emerson’s banjo playing is heard on the band’s earliest recordings, and it is especially powerful on the band’s very first recording, from October 1957, “Going To The Races,” a song that Carter Stanley wrote and gave to the band to record. Emerson left the Country Gentlemen after two years, finding Duffey not always easy to work with. He later played in the bands of Bill Harrell, Red Allen, and Jimmy Martin. One of Emerson’s memorable early gigs with Martin was a stand at the Golden Nugget Casino in Las Vegas. It was with Martin that Emerson wrote and recorded two banjo instrumentals that have become jam session favorites: “Theme Time” and “Sweet Dixie.” In the early 60s, he also recorded several instrumental albums for budget labels.
By 1967, Emerson had formed a new band with singer/guitarist Cliff Waldron. As detailed in my earlier profile of Waldron, the band was innovative, and along with the Country Gentlemen, expanded the limits of bluegrass repertoire to include songs from rock, folk, and country sources. Emerson’s banjo playing had by this time blossomed into a fully realized style, much imitated by up and coming banjoists, that creatively emphasized the melodies of the songs. A good illustration is his picking on the Gordon Lightfoot song “Early Morning Rain” from the band’s “Bluegrass Session” recording.
In 1970, Emerson returned to the Country Gentlemen. Duffey was gone from the band by then and Emerson’s second stint with the group is most famous for their recording of the rock song, “Fox On The Run,” which Emerson brought to the band. Although Emerson had also recorded the song with Cliff Waldron, it is the Gentlemen’s recording which popularized it in bluegrass. Emerson’s banjo style is also well illustrated on a video of this edition of the band performing “Matterhorn,” another of its signature songs.
In 1973 Bill Emerson enlisted in the Navy and for the next 20 years he performed with Country Current, the Navy’s bluegrass band. During and after his time in the Navy, Emerson continued recording, including making two well received albums with bluegrass songwriter Pete Goble and several solo banjo recordings. One of the banjo projects, “Home Of The Red Fox,” featured another of Bill’s banjo compositions that have become jam session favorites, “Cowboys And Indians” (previously recorded with the Country Gentlemen). Bill Emerson continued to perform and record with his band, Sweet Dixie, until recently.
Tom T. Hall came to Nashville in 1964 at the invitation of his music publisher to pursue, or continue, a career as a country songwriter. This biographical datum comes from Hall’s engaging memoir, “The Storyteller’s Nashville: A Gritty and Glorious Life in Country Music.” He had already written several songs that had been recorded by country artists Dave Dudley and Jimmy C. Newman. In the early days Hall also worked as a touring guitar, bass, and piano sideman for established country stars. After a few years writing songs in an office from nine to five each day, he wrote “Harper Valley PTA,” which was a huge hit in 1968 for Jeannie C. Riley. Soon he was recording his own songs—his first was “Washed My Face In The Morning Dew,” which was covered in bluegrass by Cliff Waldron almost immediately. Hall became known as the “Storyteller” because of his lived in voice, understated singing style, and his love of songs that told a story. Among his best known compositions were “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died” and “Old Dogs, Children, and Watermelon Wine.” By 1971 he was a member of the Grand Ole Opry.
Tom T. Hall had an affinity for bluegrass music and bluegrass artists. In 1982 he recorded an album with Earl Scruggs, “The Storyteller and the Banjo Man,” which included Hall’s song, “The Engineers Don’t Wave From The Trains Anymore.” In 1997, Hall recorded a bluegrass album, “Home Grown,” that included “Bill Monroe For Breakfast,” which describes growing up on a farm listening to Monroe’s music on the radio every day. I’m sure he was thrilled when as a member of the Opry he performed on the Opry stage with his childhood idol.
Finally, I was saddened also to learn this week of the death of noted local banjoist and teacher Bob Altschuler. Bob was for years a friendly presence on the local music scene, an accomplished banjo player, a key member of several bands, and, perhaps most importantly, a valued teacher and mentor to countless banjo students, including those whom he instructed at many banjo camps over the years. In recognition of Bob’s outstanding abilities as a banjo teacher and performer, Hot Rize banjoist Pete Wernick certified Bob as an instructor in the Wernick Method of banjo teaching. Bob will be missed. Our deepest condolences to his family and his many friends.