Bluegrass History In Person- Part 3

In the last chapter I reviewed my first live bluegrass shows, which included none other than Flatt & Scruggs in Aug 1964 at Sunset Park in Pennsylvania.

Gibson RB-100 5 String Resonator Banjo (1969)
After I got home and Mom got the snapshot developed of Earl posing with 10 year old me, well, that put paid to my fooling with Dobro playing on my restrung Gibson guitar. As I had mentioned, Dad had bought both a new car and a new Gibson RB 100 banjo – he wanted to get into this bluegrass music real serious!! I was absolutely forbidden to touch that banjo! It drove me crazy seeing it there in its case. I have learned now, if you want a kid to learn to play an instrument, forbid him/her from touching it. Of course I sneaked that banjo out when Dad was at work, and fooled around trying to learn “something”. A neighbor lady who loved country music had a German or Japanese cheapo banjo and she could pick one or two tunes. She helped me get started. Once I had the very basics, I started playing along with Flatt & Scruggs’ LP “Foggy Mountain Banjo”. I worked real hard on Cripple Creek!

Within a few years I could play the Ballad of Jed Clampett. Dad had “found out” I was playing the forbidden banjo, and he more or less ceded the banjo to me. He was never able to develop any kind of a roll with his right hand (he was left handed).

About this time we were BLESSED with a real bluegrass band appearing live on our local NBC tv affiliate out of Bangor Maine – WLBZ TV. They were the sister station to WCSH in Portland Maine which had a long-running live country music tv show headed up by Ken McKenzie. Ken played a big custom pre-war Martin D-45 guitar no less, and was a real regional pro. He liked to carry a banjo player in his big western band too. This evolved into a featured 4-piece bluegrass BAND, known as Charlie & Jimmy and the Blue Mt. Boys. They got an added gig on the Bangor station with a weekly evening half-hour program. The “Jimmy” of the band was the Kentuckian banjo picker and tenor singer Jimmy Cox – later of great fame as a banjo builder. Charlie was I believe, a commercial fisherman around the Portland area. Well now! This was real traditional bluegrass of a very high order and we were just completely hooked. (20 years later we got to know their fine fiddler Smokey Val very well. He was also a fine Dobro player.)

Along about this time, perhaps we heard it announced on Jimmy & Charlie’s tv show, Don Reno & Bill Harrell and the Tennessee Cut-Ups made an appearance in our county seat town – Ellsworth Maine, at an old time movie theater. Now we had no idea who Bill Harrell was, but we knew who Don Reno was! So we eagerly trooped to this show and got BLOWN AWAY by their hard-charging, high-stepping show! WOWEE WOW WOW! Buck Ryan played fiddle, and Del McCoury’s little brother Jerry played bass. As smooth and restrained and effortless and masterful as the Flatt & Scruggs show had been, Don Reno’s band was like four hand grenades going off on stage. HOT HOT HOT. To this day I’ve never seen a bluegrass musician more “joyous” than Don Reno. He pranced, he laughed, he smiled and just generally poured it on.

Bill Harrell was a “gunner” on that guitar, I’ll tell you. He wanted to fight his way to that mic and flat-pick hot licks. Buck Ryan was an old champion fiddler who had played on Washington DC tv for years on the Jimmy Dean shows. He was over 6 feet tall, weighed maybe 95 pounds straight out of the shower, and flapped his legs and his arms like a windmill – and he was a hot, stylish fiddler. Also always grinning. Young Jerry McCoury was flogging that bass fiddle every second. Really wearing it out. I got a whole different appreciation of what bluegrass music could be from this show. If Flatt & Scruggs were “relaxed”, Reno & Harrell looked like they were playing at gunpoint. Dad bought their latest LP, and figured out that Don Reno and Red Smiley had parted ways recently.

Buck Ryan, Don Reno, Don’s ex-partner Red Smiley, Jerry McCoury, Bill Harrell

I was still “green” enough as a banjo picker that I couldn’t absorb anything from Don Reno’s playing though. I was still plugging away on basic Earl stuff.

Another event of this time period was a developing friendship with a regional bluegrass music promoter – Alan McHale of Cape Elizabeth Maine. Alan played mandolin and sang in the first native-Maine bluegrass band at the University of Maine in the late 1950s/early 60s – the Nonesuch River Boys. Alan had loved old country music and bluegrass since his youth, just like my Mom and Dad. Al McHale had a traveling sales route selling big billboards along the highway, for the biggest billboard company in the country. Alan would stop and visit with us when passing through and pick and sing and gossip a bit. He introduced us to a little magazine he carried with him, created the year before in Washington DC, called “Bluegrass Unlimited”. The first one he showed us, I suppose it would be January or February 1967, announced the death of Carter Stanley. This floored us, we had no idea! Al found out that Mom, Dad and I had a little bluegrass “act” The Bowden Family, and had appeared as local talent on a couple of Bangor tv shows (one was a folk music half-hour, the other was an open-mic local country talent show). He said he’d help us get a gig here and there if we wanted to, and invited us to a new Maine bluegrass club that was forming up in Brunswick Maine.

In these same years when I was in grade school, banjoist Jimmy Cox found out we lived right on US Rt. 1, which was on the sales route he worked all around the state of Maine. He got in the habit of carrying his banjo on the road and stopping at our house for coffee and picking once a month. I got to “try” to learn a lot of banjo things from Jimmy, also how to “play along” on songs I didn’t really know.

These contacts opened doors to discovering a bunch of like-minded bunch of folks from Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Up to this time the only “local” pickers I had seen was a little jug band riding a float in a local parade – they were from the next county and known as the Ridge Runners of some such thing. However, they had an old feller who was picking the first Gibson MASTERTONE banjo I had seen! That really caught my attention, with me plunking away on the entry level Gibson RB 100 (which had no tone ring). Subsequent to that we had met exactly TWO other pickers in the area, again across the county line. One was an excellent Scruggs style banjo player named Carl Francis and his buddy a guitar player in the Hank Snow style named John Sanborn. Carl wouldn’t play in public for a million dollars, but he would come to our house and pick a little after 1 beer, pick GREAT after 2 beers and stop picking with the 3 rd beer. My dad showed John Sanborn a couple of bluegrass guitar runs and we had a lot of fun. John stuck with us. Dad lent him bluegrass LPs and John eagerly figured out hot guitar runs by Jimmy Martin and Red Smiley. We got John Sanborn to accompany us to this new bluegrass club at their monthly meetings in Brunswick (where the Thomas Point Beach festival was later held). They got the use of Gibson Hall, the music building at the famed (in Maine anyway) Bowdoin College. It had a lecture room set up with tiered seating and a performance/lecture space that the front. I’ll tell you, we found glory at the meetings of the Pine Tree State Bluegrass Music Association! It turned out that Jimmy Cox was one of the officers. And the small membership/admission fee was used to bring in regional bluegrass bands from elsewhere in Maine, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island and sometimes Vermont or New York. Even better, before and after the “show” and even during the intermission many of the members busted out their instruments and jammed inside and outside the building. This was the whole package for us.

Paul Bowden (L) – Carl Francis ®

We met a band from Connecticut/Rhode Island headed by Fred Pike and Sam Tidwell. For whatever reason, in the 1960s they relocated to central Maine and got a bluegrass band together locally. For a little while they even had a tv show in Bangor Maine on the ABC affiliate channel. They sort of overlapped with Jimmy & Charlie who eventually tired of the drive from Portland to Bangor and back again. Fred and Sam continued on for a short while in Bangor. They were also officers of the Pine Tree State bluegrass association.

Fred Pike and Sam Tidwell

Here are some of the regional bands we got to see, hear and meet in Brunswick: Apple Country from Connecticut (they had recordings for sale!), Tiny Martin and Dottie, and White Mountain Bluegrass from New Hampshire, Bill Hall and Randy Hawkins from Rhode Island, Don Stover from Boston, The Old Time Bluegrass Singers from Boston, The Prindall Family from Maine, French fiddler Simon Pierre from Maine, and others that would form, dissolve and reform. Before long the Bowden Family (plus now John Sanborn on second guitar) joined the revolving cast at the monthly PTSBMA, as we had been inspired to learn and arrange our own repertoire of bluegrass songs so we could join the performers. By the late 1960s we were leaning heavily on the Country Gentlemen’s recordings for repertoire. I was absorbing all the banjo tunes I could hear; one of my favorites (and always requested by my encouraging grandfather) was Doug Dillard’s “Doug’s Tune”.

All the while Alan McHale would throw us a gig every now and then, or we’d go on the open mic country music talent show on Bangor tv – it was called, I kid you not, Frankenstein’s Country Jamboree. It was sponsored by a little department store called “Frankenstein’s” in tiny Milbridge Maine, way Downeast.

Incidentally, during the late 1960s our family befriended another Maine bluegrass fan, a tree surgeon by the name of Jim Lindsey. Originally from New Brunswick Canada, he split his year between, hang onto your hat, Bermuda and Camden Maine. He liked to pick and sing a little. I remember he used to say he liked to “cry tenor”. He had a nice early 1960s Gibson Mastertone banjo that he didn’t play much but that I coveted! I eventually worked up the courage to ask him if he’d trade it to me for my RB 100, and he agreed. With my meager savings I paid him some boot money, and then I was in the big time of banjos. Dad also got the instrument acquisition bug and bought a new Martin D-35 guitar and a bass fiddle!

NEXT TIME: 1970 is the gateway to the big time bluegrass festival lifestyle!

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden recently retired after a 45 year career in the paper industry, and moved from Connecticut to Big Indian NY (Ulster County) where he ekes out a precarious existence as a groundskeeper. Dick has been performing bluegrass music on banjo and guitar since 1966 in his home state of Maine, throughout New England, and internationally with The Case Brothers - Martin & Gibson. He has performed for HVBA with the Old Time Bluegrass Singers, and also sent in a squadron of Dick Bowden's Flying Circus. Most recently Dick has played Dobro (tm) with the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. Dick has written many articles for Bluegrass Unlimited, Bluegrass Today, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass magazine) and HVBA.

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