In the last chapter I reviewed the growing bluegrass community around Maine and New England and getting more contact with the top people of bluegrass music like Don Reno. In the late 1960s and up to 1970 I was in high school and doing a lot of banjo picking with The Bowden Family band locally in Maine.
By this time, in addition to the live show by Reno & Harrell, I had experienced a Pete Seeger concert (disappointing except for one brief Scruggs style banjo break) and a concert by Doc and Merle Watson, both at the University of Maine in the basketball arena known as “the Pit”. Of course Dad made me bring my banjo to the Doc Watson concert, and he talked our way into the locker room (no Green Room) during the intermission to pick a tune with Doc and Merle. What I remember most about Doc’s concert is his joke about the Quaker and the difficult cow. Also, he identified my banjo as a Gibson as soon as I offered it to Merle and Merle tuned the 4th string. I was impressed that a blind man could so easily identify a brand of banjo from hearing one string tuned. I was happy to see these concerts although I didn’t consider them “bluegrass” – they were “folk music”.
About this time we extended our bluegrass network a bit more, crossing paths with other bluegrassers who lived, worked, performed or passed through Maine. We met a couple of instructors at the Maine Maritime Academy who picked and sang. The Academy in Castine was about 15 miles from our house (and I thought I might want to go to college there, as my great-great-grandfather Capt. Bailey Bowden had sailed his own schooner up and down the coast hauling trade goods, and later captained a commercial brig all the way around the world!) Tom Bennett was a good bluegrass fiddler from southern Maine who taught “loadmastering” at the Academy. He found out about us and came to the house to pick and sing. He invited us to visit his home in Casco Bay off Portland, which was a nice trip. Another instructor was Taylor “Ty” Searfoss from Whitehaven PA in the Lehigh Valley, who taught Naval ROTC. He was a Doc Watson lover and asked to come visit with us and we converted him immediately to bluegrass.
Mom and Dad noticed in the Bangor Daily News that a bluegrass band was playing for a whole week in a country music club in Bangor. I’m ashamed to say I can’t remember their name, but Mom and Dad invited them to the house and we picked a lot and had a cookout. The one name I remember was the fiddler; Kenny Kosek who later became famous playing with New York City bluegrassers including Tony Trischka and Breakfast Special, and later the Jerry Garcia band. Most of the band appearing in Bangor were young New York City pickers. Also, a real traditional 6 piece bluegrass band (with mandolin, fiddle banjo AND Dobro) from Seekonk Mass (near Providence RI), called Roger Williams and the Country Cut Ups, played that same club, and of course Mom and Dad invited them to the house. WOW! That was some real top level picking and singing! Their excellent banjo player was Richard Guilbault, who is currently active with the Rhode Island Bluegrass Association. They had a weekly radio show live from a club near Providence. They invited us to stop in if we were ever in the area.
So Dad and I took a trip south to visit Roger Williams on his home turf. We stopped at the Vega banjo factory in Needham Heights, Mass. I was a pretty serious banjo player by then, and I knew Vega made a banjo that Earl Scruggs endorsed. I had seen exactly ONE of them in Maine. So I was mightily disappointed that the Vega “factory” was just a cement block garage-type building where they ASSEMBLED banjos from parts shipped in from elsewhere. At the time they were assembling the new “VIP” model. (Grandpa Jones played one on Hee Haw.) No Scruggs models to be seen. I felt that part of the trip was a bust. But seeing Roger Williams and his band broadcasting live from a country music club was quite an experience. The did one set of “country” music with electric guitar, fiddle and steel, then after a break, a bluegrass set. Roger invited Dad and me to the mic and gave us a very nice introduction. We played and sang a Stanley Brothers song as I remember. That was pretty cool.
As winter arrived in Maine in early 1970 we kept hearing (and reading in Bluegrass Unlimited) about frequent bluegrass shows taking place at Harvard University. They included some recognizable “name” bands, plus regional up and comers. Reportedly the shows included an open “picking session” for all in attendance. (It was called a “picking session” instead of a “jam” back then.) So, of course, our guitar player John Sanborn, Ty Searfoss and I decided “let’s go to Boston!” Ty had a handsome new Pontiac GTO and he volunteered to drive. Down the Maine Turnpike, New Hampshire Turnpike and the partially-completed I-95 we went, then to Rt 1 into Boston and Cambridge to see THE LILLY BROTHERS AND DON STOVER! Another band played too, but I can’t remember them. The Lilly Brothers and Stover just POUNDED out their music at breakneck speeds. I particularly remember the jokey way Everett Lilly did his emcee work, and how he introduced his brother Bea. I believe the show was on the second floor of the Harvard Memorial Union. 100+ in the audience and we all loved it. The only disappointment was that we were the only audience members who arrived carrying our instruments. No picking session after all. Plus it was getting late, and the winter weather was supposed to be brutal for the return drive. I don’t remember “meeting” a single new person. We did a “turn and burn” round trip, meaning over 10 hours total driving under the best 0f circumstances.
So back toward central Maine we headed in the COLD black night. It was below zero Fahrenheit. Of course in those days before ethanol (gasohol) became a standard ingredient in gasoline, if you got ANY water vapor or condensation at all in your gas tank, in cold weather it would clog your gas lines with ice crystals. Yup, going up the Maine turnpike at 80 miles an hour, the engine started skipping due to ice crystals! It was white-knuckle time, as we were NOT dressed to get out and walk in well-below-zero weather! We were mighty thankful that the GTO made it to a turnpike gas station and rest area, where a pint an of gas line antifreeze (isopropyl rubbing alcohol) solved our problems, and we made it home fine, although in the wee hours of the morning.
Another contact with a top bluegrass act came to us as a big surprise. In January of 1970, someone called my dad to ask if he would help publicize and sell tickets to a February bluegrass show in the Armory of Brewer Maine (across the river from Bangor). The act was none other than RALPH STANLEY & THE CLINCH MOUNTAIN BOYS!!! (This was before Ralph received his honorary Doctorate). Plus, the promoter asked our Bowden Family Band to open the show! We knew of Ralph from our Stanley Brothers record collection of course, and we knew he had kept plugging along after his brother Carter died in 1966. (At that time, Ralph was NOT the bluegrass icon he later became.) We thought we would be seeing Larry Sparks as guitar player and lead singer, according to Bluegrass Unlimited reports.
Well, we opened the show with our repertoire of Country Gentlemen and Dillards songs to kind applause. Due to the raging snowstorm, the audience numbered about 65 people. Then I sat down in the front row of the audience and turned on our new reel-to-reel tape recorder to capture Ralph’s performance. Surprise! No Larry Sparks! Ralph had a brand new lead singer, who’d been with the show just 5 weeks. Roy Lee Centers, who later became famous, nay – revered,as the best lead singer Ralph every had. There was another surprise with good old “Aunt” George Shuffler playing bass fiddle. George was famous for his hot bass playing, cross-pick guitar breaks, and trio singing with the Stanley Brothers. So I was ready for some great music. Curly Ray Cline was the fiddler.
Now Ralph and the band had driven all the way from the southwestern tip of Virginia to central Maine in an RV in snowy, freezing weather, and they were EXHAUSTED from the white knuckle trip. In fact, Ralph and Roy Lee looked almost dead. Thank goodness old George Shuffler and Curly Ray Cline knew how to energize the band. When they walked out on stage, the bass fiddle was laying on its side. George STOMPED that huge size 13 foot down onto the steel peg at the bottom of the bass fiddle and made it JUMP right up into his left hand!! Curly Ray Cline darted in and around that mic and seemed to tease and torment Ralph into mock “fighting back” with his banjo. I’d never heard Ralph Stanley talk, and I was surprised at his low-key and old-fashioned speaking voice. The small audience hollered out a few requests for Stanley Brothers’ “hits”, but Ralph declined most of them saying “Roy Lee has only been with me about five weeks and we haven’t worked up many of the old songs.” Regardless, their pickin’ and singin’ was really wonderful, absolutely top notch. George Shuffler did a bit of guitar playing on some of the slower gospel numbers. During intermission, of course Mom and Dad went backstage to meet the stars. They implored me to come with them. Honestly I was too “in awe” of Ralph Stanley to dare even to say hello.
In the second set Ralph implored the small audience to do all they could to help “grow” bluegrass music in the area. He was sincere and impassioned about it. To lighten their load in the second set, they invited Fred Pike to come out with his banjo and pick some duets with Ralph. Fred had a half-hour TV show out of Bangor at the time. Fred got a nice welcome. At the end Ralph politely thanked the audience, and the band dragged themselves off-stage to collapse, I guess.
I treasured those tapes I had made for years. But after the novelty wore off and I got tired of buying more tape (expensive!) I STUPIDLY copied over most of the Ralph Stanley show with other material that was, of course, worthless in comparison. Only years later did I learn the value of live tape of old bluegrass shows. My chance to contribute to the historical audio record was lost.
The long-lasting effect of seeing Ralph Stanley up close and personal, was my enthusiastic embrace of his music and banjo style. That was pretty much the end of my interest in the Country Gentlemen and Eddie Adcock’s jazzy style of picking. I became a HARD CORE Stanley music lover. I worked hard to understand Ralph’s misleadingly simple style. Ralph had learned IN PERSON directly from Earl Scruggs in 1948 how to three-finger pick. Ralph spent the rest of his career simplifying Earl’s style, til it matched with Ralph’s austere Primitive Baptist mountain upbringing and viewpoint.
So as I headed into my senior year of high school, I felt like I probably had the best bluegrass exposure of any Maine native. I knew of only two other native Maine high school kids who were pursuing bluegrass – both were taking lessons from Jimmy Cox, on mandolin and banjo. But they weren’t in bands…yet…Well, I got a clue to our next “evolution” when our guitar man John Sanborn went rogue in 1969 based on an ad in Bluegrass Unlimited, and went by himself to Shade Gap Pennsylvania to a “Firemens’ Picnic” featuring a bunch of local bluegrass bands. It was a small festival. John already had a pop-up tent camper for family weekends. He came home telling us the wonders of seeing multiple bluegrass bands at one show and all the fans CAMPING OUT and having pickin’ sessions of their own with their instruments. He also saw a band with the hottest rhythm guitar player he’d ever seen – one Del McCoury. He said we ought to check out one of these out-of-state “festivals”. We had seen photo essays about southern bluegrass festivals in Bluegrass Unlimited but they seemed awfully far away, like in North Carolina. I started to get excited in spring 1970 when Dad suddenly bought a pop-up tent camper.
We had “networked” enough to find out there WAS good bluegrass in New England and New York. Our days of experiencing bluegrass music only via LP records or 8 track tapes was coming to an end. We were about to take a huge step up. But, there were no bluegrass festivals in Maine, New England or New York in 1970.
Next Time: The World of BLUEGRASS FESTIVALS!!!!