Dick Bowden’s Bluegrass Trivia: June 12 & 19

Title of the document

This Contest is Closed
The winner is Andy Bing!!

June 19, 2020 Trivia Question
What do the following musicians have in common?

  Earl Scruggs
  Charlie Cline
  Lester Flatt
  Don Reno
  Edd Mayfield
  Gene Meadows
  Bill Napier
  George Shuffler
  Curly Lambert
  Carter Stanley
  Doc Watson
  Everett Alan Lilly
  Clarence White
  Big Dan Crary
  Tony Rice
  JD Crowe
  David Parmley

  • A. They all refused to join the Musicians Union
  • B. They were all Blue Grass Boys
  • C. They all recorded lead guitar breaks before lead guitar became widespread in bluegrass
  • D. They were all known as “flat pick guitar” wizards
  • E. They were all veterans of the armed services, and Freemasons

Additional Useful Bowden Comments

As Lynn posted, the correct answer is C. All recorded guitar breaks BEFORE it became almost “de rigeur” to include a Tony Rice style flat pick guitar break in EVERY SONG (Grrrrrrrr…) Not even Tony Rice took breaks on everything in his early days.

Probably the bluegrass band that used the most guitar was the Stanley Bros, using Gene Meadows (Travis style), Bill Napier (mandolin style), George Shuffler (mandolin and cross pick style) and even Curley Lambert (Billy Byrd country style).

Doc Watson, Everett Alan Lilly (Everett Lilly’s son) and Clarence White were the lead guitar men of the 1960s. Doc of course wasn’t really in a bluegrass band other than one record he made then with studio musicians. Everett Alan and Clarence weren’t know to take breaks on “every” song. Then about 1969 Big Dan Crary exploded onto the scene with the Bluegrass Alliance and began to show guitar breaks on almost everything they did.

Tony Rice followed Big Dan in the Alliance and basically did Big Dan’s material. Tony joined JD Crowe and recorded a few breaks in his great way. (In fact JD played a 3 finger guitar break on Rounder 0044.) As audience response to Tony’playing grew, and after he studied jazz guitar while with David Grisman’s band, he formed his own Tony Rice Unit without a banjo, and included guitar breaks in EVERY SONG. This caught on in bluegrass in a big way, and now it’s just about an expectation that the guitar player in a “new” style bluegrass band is gonna take a guitar break on everything, in Tony Rice style.

The closest any other band ever came to “lead guitar all the time” prior to the 21st century would have been Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mt. Boys.

This Contest is Closed
The winner is Randy Carboni!!

June 12, 2020 Trivia Question
Who first played 5 string banjo as a regular member of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys?

  • A. Snuffy Jenkins 1939
  • B. Earl Scruggs 1945
  • C. Wade Mainer 1941
  • D. Stringbean – Dave Akeman 1943
  • E. Don Reno — 1943

Additional Useful Bowden Comments

The correct answer is D: Stringbean – Dave Akeman 1943

  1. One reason String became a Blue Grass Boy was because he was a FINE baseball player, and Monroe was using the BGBs as the heart of his own baseball team in those days. Monroe wanted a really good ball player, and he got that in String. Mac Wiseman has commented that in HIS days as a BGB (1949), Monroe’s team won about 85% of their games — playing the local town teams wherever they had a show booked. Monroe was VERY competitive!

    And it sold more show tickets… String left the band in 1945 to form a duo with “Doctor” Lew Childre, a nearly forgotten Opry member who strummed a little Hawaiian Martin guitar hanging off his neck like a Dobro, and he sang little humorous ditties and danced! Lester Flatt liked String as a friend (they used to rabbit hunt together), but he didn’t like String’s banjo style, which Flatt called “loping”. String played both clawhammer and 2-finger style as a BGB.

  2. All the potential answers represent banjo players who were “in the mix” in the late 1930s and early 1940s.

    Snuffy Jenkins is widely credited as the first 3-finger banjo player on the radio in the Carolinas and ALSO the first to perform on the radio wearing picks! Monroe knew him and his style very well, having competed against various bands Snuffy was in when the Monroe Brothers were booking all through the Carolinas and playing Carolinas radio stations in the 1930s. Don Reno and Earl Scruggs both played what Monroe called “Snuffy Jenkins style”, having heard Snuffy on radio. Snuffy performed into the 1970s at least, often as a comic, baggy-pants character. His real-life job as at a car dealership. Snuffy was a VERY GOOD banjo player indeed.

  3. Answer C, Wade Mainer, was probably the most popular and widely recorded hillbilly banjo player of the late 1930s and early 1940s but he was never a Blue Grass Boy. He played and sang in Mainers Mountaineers, a North Carolina radio and recording group. Their big hit was “Maple on the Hill”. Wade played the prevalent 2-finger style (and some clawhammer), not the 3-finger “Snuffy Jenkins” bluegrass style. He rarely took breaks or lead parts on instrumentals — his banjo was more an old time “support” to the fiddle lead. Wade performed until he was over 100 years old!! Mainers Mountaineers has been described by some as “the other” original bluegrass band. Monroe would certainly disagree! They were selected by LIFE magazine for a huge photo essay on hillbilly music that also included photos of the Carter Family and Uncle Dave Macon, which would have been published Dec. 8 1941. The article got pushed aside for bigger news.

  4. I thought more folks would “bite” on Earl Scruggs as the answer. He of course has garnered all the plaudits as “originating” the Blue Grass banjo sound, which of course he did. But he wasn’t Monroe’s first banjo man. In fact, for a brief while between String and Earl, Monroe had a tenor banjo player in some band photos! Earl auditioned in Dec. 1945 at the Opry and was hired immediately, playing a SMOOTH fully developed Snuffy Jenkins style. Earl was 21 years old at the time — just imagine. Flatt, who had been happy to see String’s “loping” banjo style leave the band, told Monroe about Earl “hire him whatever it costs”. Earl picked and sang on the 28 records Monroe made in 1946-47 and set the classic standard for Blue Grass and bluegrass banjo until Bill Keith came along in the 1960s. But he wasn’t Monroe’s first banjo picker.

  5. E. Don Reno. Very interesting history. Don AUDITIONED for Monroe in 1943 playing in the Carolinas with a well known local band, The Morris Brothers (Earl Scruggs was in their band too). Don and Earl knew each other, being only a year different in age, and living quite near each other on the North Carolina/South Carolina border (the radio station they both listened to in order to hear Snuffy Jenkins was in Spartanburg SC). Monroe told Reno he could be a Blue Grass Boy (what Monroe intended to do with Stringbean remains unknown) but almost immediately Don got drafted into the Army. Don served with Merrill’s Marauders in the Indo-China theater. He fully expected to join the BGBs when he got home in 1946, but as he has said “I turned on the Opry and what did I hear but the golden tones of Earl Scruggs!”

    Since Don and Earl both played basically the same style at the time, Don evenutally decided to ditch the banjo, cause who needed another Earl Scruggs? (Imagine…) After a very brief (few weeks/months) stint in the BGBs as Earl’s replacement in 1948, he switched to electric guitar for several years. One of his students/followers was Hank Garland who went on to immense fame as a Nashville electric guitar man (he wrote Sugarfoot Rag). By the 1950s as “bluegrass music” started to spread in popularity, Don got invited into bands to play “bluegrass” banjo, where he met Red Smiley, and they soon formed their own group. Don’s electric guitar background manifested itself in a new banjo style, which everyone calls “Reno style”. Reno & Smiley are counted as one of the foundational bands in bluegrass music.

    Interestingly, Don played guitar with Monroe in some appearances (particularly if they were doing gospel quartets), and he played guitar leads on quite a number of Reno & Smiley records. He was among the very first lead guitar players in bluegrass music, and made a guitar record late in his life with Tony Rice!

    Finally, Don Reno was the most “joyous” and expressive of all the bluegrass banjo players. He was full of life and fun and hijinks. He and Red Smiley routinely appeared in hillbilly costume skits on stage and tv. Don’s “other profession” was as a barber. One time at a bluegrass festival in the 1970s, a stoned hippie fell asleep in a lawn chair between the buses of Don Reno and the Osborne Brothers. With Sonny Osborne looking on, Don got out his barber kit and gave the unconscious hippie a fine military haircut! The dude was mystified when he woke up! That was Don Reno.

    Except for the draft, Don “would have been” the first 3-finger banjo Blue Grass Boy, and Earl Scruggs career might have been quite different.

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.