Beginning in the 1960s and early 1970s, the Washington DC area was home to several bands that were expanding the boundaries of bluegrass repertoire. The Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene both performed songs from outside traditional bluegrass sources, including folk and rock songs, together with their own interpretations of classics by the first generation bluegrass musicians. This post focuses on Cliff Waldron, a singer and guitarist whose band, the New Shades of Grass, was at the forefront of what came to be called newgrass in the years just before and after 1970.
The New Shades of Grass actively shaped newgrass for only those few years, and today the band is not nearly as well known as the Country Gentlemen or the Seldom Scene. At its peak, however, the New Shades of Grass was very influential. Five men who were members of the band or who recorded with it, mandolinist John Duffey, banjoist Ben Eldridge, bassist Tom Gray, dobroist Mike Auldridge, and Mike’s brother Dave, who played mandolin and sang tenor with Waldron, were founding members of the Seldom Scene (although Dave left the Scene before its first recording in 1972). Not surprisingly, much of what later made the Seldom Scene so popular can be heard in the Waldron recordings.
Born in 1941, Cliff Waldron grew up on a West Virginia farm. He heard bluegrass as a boy and loved the music. As a teenager he was already playing guitar and mandolin in local bands. By the mid-60s he was in the DC area working with banjoist Bill Emerson, who, with John Duffey and Charlie Waller, had founded the Country Gentlemen in 1957. The Emerson and Waldron group got the ball rolling with an LP, New Shades of Grass, featuring Waldron on lead vocal and rhythm guitar and Emerson on banjo. On this LP and the next two that Emerson and Waldron recorded, the band is identified simply as “Emerson and Waldron.”
The first song on the record, Tim Hardin’s modern folksong “If I Were A Carpenter,” told the listener right away that this band would not simply be a bluegrass classics cover band. Cliff’s singing on this track is high and lonesome, with a depth of feeling for the material. The Emerson/Waldron arrangement, with its distinctive banjo and mandolin parts, was closely copied by the Seldom Scene when they later recorded the tune on their 1974 live album, perhaps explained by the fact that Scene mandolinist John Duffey played mandolin on this track.
The group’s next recording, Bluegrass Country, was the first of four classic Waldron albums, two with Emerson and two recorded with banjoist Ben Eldridge after Emerson left the band to rejoin the Country Gentlemen. So far as I know, this LP was Mike Auldridge’s debut recording, the beginning of a recording career spanning over 40 years.
Bluegrass Country is best known today because it contains the first recording in bluegrass music of “Fox On The Run,” a rock tune written by Tony Hazzard and popularized by Manfred Mann’s 1968 recording. (This is not the 70s song of the same name by the British band Sweet). “Fox On The Run” has become a bluegrass warhorse, right up there with “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “Dueling Banjos.” This recording started all that, although the version later recorded by the Country Gentlemen after Emerson rejoined them is better known, and the Gentlemen’s arrangement (with an extra “fox” on the chorus) is the one followed by most bands.
Another very popular rock tune opened the record: the Creedence Clearwater Revival song “Proud Mary.” And demonstrating their versatility, the band also covered two numbers by western swing band leader Bob Wills, “Faded Love,” and “Maiden’s Prayer,” the latter showcasing Mike Auldridge’s smooth dobro style. Finally, in a nod to their roots, the band recorded Carter Stanley’s “A Lonesome Night”, a song that the Stanley Brothers had recorded during the 1950s but that was not released until years later.
Next up was Emerson And Waldron Invite You To A Bluegrass Session, which seems like a mouthful, but that’s how it reads on the cover of the LP. By this time, the band was at the top of its creative and musical power, and “Bluegrass Session” features one great song after another. Here, the band roams even further, opening with Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain,” and including another CCR tune, “Lodi” (about the rocky life of a touring musician, perhaps they could relate), along with a classic Merle Haggard tune, “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” (sung by Auldridge), “Break My Mind” (a J. D. Loudermilk tune recorded by Linda Ronstadt on her 1969 debut album), Stonewall Jackson’s “The Water’s So Cold,” and, circling back to bluegrass, “Who Will Sing For Me,” another gem from the Stanley Brothers that the band here polishes until it gleams.
Before the next recording, Emerson left the band, but Ben Eldridge more than ably stepped in on banjo. Perhaps Waldron’s most powerful singing is featured on the album Right On, credited to Cliff Waldron And The New Shades Of Grass. Some of my all time favorite banjo and dobro playing is featured on this album. Ben Eldridge’s banjo here is especially fiery and (happily) well recorded. Although his playing on this recording is perhaps not quite as versatile as his later work with the Seldom Scene, Ben makes up for it with sheer knock-your-hat-into-the-creek power. The lineup here was consistent for one more record, and it is this group that performed the hot 1971 festival recordings heard on Fred Robbins’ website. In addition to Waldron, the two Auldridges, and Ben Eldridge, the band included Bill Poffinberger on fiddle and bluegrass stalwart Ed Ferris on bass.
Right On included covers of Joe South’s “Walk A Mile In My Shoes” and the Bee Gees “Gotta Get A Message To You” that sound so grassy that they (almost) could have been written by Bill Monroe himself. The band also covered two songs with titles suggestive of personal hygiene, “Wash My Hands In Muddy Water,” a hit for Elvis Presley, and “Wash My Face In The Morning Dew,” a socially conscious Tom T. Hall song. In a more traditional vein, “Right On” includes a Reno and Smiley song, “No Longer A Sweetheart Of Mine,” a great Tommy Jackson fiddle tune, “Crazy Creek,” (here for some reason called “Cross Country,” expertly fiddled by Bill Poffinberger with a fine melodic banjo break by Eldridge), and “Afraid To Love You,” an outstanding Waldron original.
The same band personnel recorded Traveling Light, the last in the quartet of (in my opinion) the truly outstanding Waldron albums. Although not quite as hot as Right On, there is a lot of great material here, including an early bluegrass version of a Dylan song, “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” a fine country-style version of folksinger Eric Anderson’s “Close The Door Lightly When You Go,” an early bluegrass version of “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” and fine songs written by Grandpa Jones, Merle Haggard, and Carter Stanley.
Cliff Waldron recorded several more good albums in the 70s before taking a long break from performing. But the recordings mentioned here were the ones that established him, along with Bill Emerson and the other members of the band, as pioneers of the newgrass music that came to prominence in the 1970s. Although his choice of material was daring by then-prevailing bluegrass standards, Waldron performed the songs in a style that was firmly rooted in the traditional bluegrass that he loved as a boy. Later bands took a more modern approach to performing songs from outside traditional bluegrass, and continue to do so. Together with the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene, Cliff Waldron paved the way by showing bluegrass musicians that their repertoire need not be limited to traditional bluegrass and country sources and by making non-traditional material familiar and acceptable to bluegrass audiences.
NOTE: I have included links to all but one the Cliff Waldron albums mentioned in this post rather than to the individual songs. There are too many songs to include separately, many of them are not available separately, and the albums are so good that it’s worth hearing all of each of them. The exception is “Bluegrass Country,” which I did not find. I have included links to three of the songs from that album.