Newgrass Pioneer John Duffey-Part 1


This post continues the focus on some of the musicians who shaped a more modern bluegrass sound and paved the way for the innovations of the later bluegrass generation that came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s. One of the most influential of the “newgrass pioneers” was mandolinist and singer John Duffey. Like Bill Monroe, Duffey was a physically imposing man with a powerful and instantly identifiable tenor voice and a distinctive and innovative mandolin style. Duffey was a founding member of two of the most important bluegrass bands of his era, the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene. Both bands were steeped in traditional bluegrass vocal and instrumental technique but both pushed the music in a new direction. As summarized by Tom Gray, bass player in both bands, they “created the Washington sound, a newer, more cosmopolitan approach to a genre that had been invented by rural southern and Appalachian musicians in the 1940s.” (This quote is from an excellent and highly recommended oral history of Duffey’s life published in 2019 by Moore and Keplinger, John Duffey’s Bluegrass Life.) If anything, Gray’s assessment is too modest—the Gentlemen and the Scene dramatically expanded the bluegrass fanbase nationwide.

John Duffey’s background was neither rural nor Appalachian. He was born in 1934 in Washington DC and grew up there and in the nearby Maryland suburbs. His father was musical and had been a noted opera singer with the Metropolitan Opera and others in the years before John’s birth. From childhood Duffey loved to sing, and his father told him to “do it right”–sing from the diaphragm and breathe properly. As a teen, Duffey heard bluegrass on the radio and began singing and playing it, at first with his schoolmates. He taught himself to play guitar and then mandolin, the latter from listening to Bill Monroe records. He must have had a quick ear.

In the years after the second world war the Washington/Baltimore area was a hotbed of what was then called “hillbilly music.” Bluegrass and country music were all part of the mix, popular on radio shows and live performances catering primarily to the many Appalachian migrants who had moved to the area during the Depression and the war seeking better lives. There were many public venues where John and his friends could perform their music for receptive audiences.

During the 1950s John met and honed his craft with other area musicians who would later have a large role in his music, including banjoist Bill Emerson and bassist Tom Gray. In these years, he added the resonator guitar to his instrumental repertoire. In 1957, Emerson, then playing banjo with Buzz Busby and the Bayou Boys, asked John to fill in with him and Bayou Boys singer Charlie Waller on some shows after Busby and several other Bayou Boys were seriously injured in a car crash. Duffey’s piercing tenor blended beautifully with Waller’s smooth leads, and the three decided to start a new band, the Country Gentlemen.

With his background in singing, Duffey was expert at arranging vocal harmony parts, and he was an admirer of the sophisticated vocal arrangements that bands like the Osborne Brothers and Red Allen were performing in the late 1950s. The Country Gentlemen soon became well known for their polished vocal harmony on songs like “High Lonesome,” and for their energetic picking and singing on tunes like “The Hills and Home,” featuring innovative banjo work by Eddie Adcock, who had by then replaced Bill Emerson.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Country Gentlemen recorded for Starday and did several albums for Folkways, both independent labels, and each association brought the band a certain credibility in the music business. Starday had important country acts like George Jones, and Folkways gave the band cachet with folk revival audiences. Duffey did not want the band simply to cover bluegrass standards—he spent hours at the Library of Congress folksong archive looking for new repertoire. And he believed that the band should be entertaining beyond just the music-in his view, they were in show business and should work at “selling it.” Although as frontman his MC banter wasn’t always to everyone’s taste, he had his own style here too and it quickly caught on, especially with younger audiences. The Country Gentlemen became very popular with college audiences and folk music fans.

The two studio albums that the Gents recorded for Folkways were among the first bluegrass albums to be recorded as albums. Up to that point, most of the (few) bluegrass albums available were collections of previously recorded single releases. And the Folkways albums were very influential-many of us first heard “Roving Gambler,” “Poor Ellen Smith,” “The Long Black Veil,” “Red Rocking Chair,” “Handsome Molly,” and “Behind These Prison Walls of Love” from these records.

In addition to his skill at vocal arranging, with his powerful tenor, high lead or high baritone usually at the top of the stack, Duffey began stretching out on mandolin. He developed a style that veered sharply away from “bluegrass mandolin 101.” A showpiece for Duffey’s mandolin style was “Sunrise,” loosely based on the Les Paul and Mary Ford hit, “The World Is Waiting For The Sunrise,” in which Duffey’s mandolin breaks never venture too close to the melody.

Another aspect of Duffey’s mandolin style that attracted notice from audiences and fellow musicians was his ability forcefully to start a tune. Mandolin virtuoso and Dawg music originator David Grisman once said that Duffey was “an expert at setting tunes in motion with his mandolin.” Duffey’s kick-offs “are melodic and inventive, and they convey the total personality of the tune at hand.” His speedy kick-off to the Gents’ recording of “Red Rocking Chair” (Duffey singing lead here) is a good illustration.

Although The Country Gentlemen were very popular with college and folk revival audiences, they were less highly regarded by the “folk music intelligentsia,” who thought the band too slick and commercial. This criticism rankled Duffey, perhaps because it aimed at the entertainment value he was trying to add to the band’s performances. After a 1961 Sing Out magazine folk music show at Carnegie Hall in which the Country Gentlemen took part, Duffey wrote to Neil Rosenberg (quotes are from Rosenberg’s Bluegrass A History) that “we sold well to the people but not to the critics,” who “still want this music in the raw. From the looks of the other performers (Pete Seeger included), we made a big mistake in dressing and shaving.”

Despite their apparent lack of appeal to folk revival tastemakers, the Country Gentlemen became one of the leading folk revival bluegrass bands during the first half of the 1960s, and their repertoire reflected this popularity. The band recorded songs by Bob Dylan, including “Blowing In The Wind,” “Girl From The North Country,” and “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” and a song that Duffey co-wrote in the folk style of the day, “Cold Wind A Blowing.” That song, and another that Duffey co-wrote, “Christmas Time Back Home,” which has become a seasonal favorite in the decades since its release, illustrate yet another facet of John Duffey’s deep musical creativity.

John Duffey is too big a subject for just one post-the story continues next time.

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