Pirate Canoe LUMINARIES- Jerry Oland

Jerry Oland has been involved in Bluegrass music for longer than most of us in the HVBA. For this reason I decided that an interview with him will serve to give the rest of our members some insight into the BG music scene for the past 40 years or so, both here in the Hudson Valley and beyond.  Jerry, as we all know, has been a central figure in our local jams, always contributing to hold it together, giving the right kick in the beginning, or a break that we all wish we had invented. However, Jerry’s real gift to us all is his infectious enjoyment of BG music. So, here in the following is a random walk with Jerry along his BG journey.

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“Sail Away Ladies”

Jerry, tell us a little about yourself.
I was born in the Bronx, NY, but moved with my parents to Putnam Valley in 1950. My parents built a house on the shores of Lake Peekskill, here in Putnam Valley.

Were there any musicians in your family that influenced your interest in music?

On my Father’s side nearly everyone was a musician, except for my Dad. My Grandfather was a cellist, and his five brothers were violinists. One of my Dad’s first cousins became an outstanding cellist, attending the Curtis Institute and becoming first cello with the Philadelphia Orchestra. My grandfather wanted my sister and me to play music, so my sister took piano lessons and I chose the accordion at age 8. My lessons didn’t last very long. As soon as my teacher figured out I was playing by ear, he said he couldn’t teach me unless I learned to read music. Music went through my ears, my heart and my hands, but not through my eyes, and I refused to learn the discipline. I always loved music and it wasn’t until I was away from my family’s scrutiny in college that I had the nerve to pick up the banjo. Somehow, my grandfather heard about this, and he gave me a tenor banjo he had stored in his closet. The tenor banjo is tuned identically to a cello, and when he was young he would play both tenor banjo and cello. It took me a while to figure out that I needed a different kind of banjo, and so the year before he died my grandfather took me to 48th Street in Manhattan where we traded that tenor banjo for my first five string banjo.

When did you first hear BG music, and who were your early influences on the banjo?
I first heard bluegrass in high school, although I was already a fan of Pete Seeger and the Weavers during the 1950’s. The earliest records I had were a collection of folk music that included Doc Watson, the Dillards and Flatt & Scruggs. Earl Scruggs and Doug Dillard were my main influences when I was starting out on the banjo. Later on Bill Keith was very influential.

After discovering BG in high school, what was your BG experience in college?

I attended SUNY New Paltz. During my junior year a freshman from Troy, NY, named Dean Lewis, arrived at school. Dean, aka Bucky Lewis, was already very good on both banjo and guitar, and he had performed professionally with John Herald, Frank Wakefield and the Greenbriar Boys. Dean didn’t have a banjo, at least not at school, so I let him use my banjo, and I bought a guitar and learned to play rhythm backing him up. I remember our first paid gig, playing at a Church supper in Philmont, NY.  I learned a lot of banjo from Dean.

While at New Paltz a bluegrass group consisting of students from Bard College showed up one day and performed on the quad. I took one lesson from the banjo player in that band, Dick Rudin. There was also a family bluegrass band performing at Barnaby’s, a pub that I believe still exists in New Paltz. This was Art Sutton and his Bluegrass Gentlemen. Art Sutton played banjo, his son Warren, guitar, his son Ronnie, dobro, Arnold Russell, fiddle, and Richie Steenburg, bass fiddle. They were a good group in the Flatt and Scruggs mold. Bob Milliken, who often comes to the Pirate Canoe Club jams, played in an earlier rendition of that band. Some years later, Ronnie Sutton and I formed the group, Wildcat Creek.  I’ve released a live CD of that band’s music recorded in 1979.

After college where did you work, and how did your involvement in BG grow?
Upon graduation from college, I took a job as an institutional teacher at Mattawan State Hospital For The Criminally Insane, in Beacon, NY. Coming home from work, I played the banjo for about an hour and a half every night. When I left that job the following spring, I found all that practicing had propelled my playing, especially my right hand, to another level. Sometime in 1970 I started working with stained and leaded glass. While at a craft show in a Poughkeepsie park, selling some stained glass items I’d made, I was playing my banjo when 2 young men walked by, heard me playing, and asked me to join their band. They were guitarist Dan DelSanto and fiddler Evan Stover. The band was the Arm Bros.
My wife, Faith, and I were married September 1st, 1969, which was also the first day of my job at Mattawan. However, since it was Labor Day, I had the day off with pay. I like to tell people the day after I got married I was fingerprinted, photographed and went to jail…….. all true. Faith was still in college when we married, and as a reward for her graduation the following year and for my having survived a year teaching in the prison system, we bought a VW camper and drove cross country. I planned the trip, and so we headed to Indiana in early June for Bill Monroe’s festival at Bean Blossom, Indiana. This was not a weekend or 3 or 4 day festival. This was 7 full days, with no showers and no flush toilets. Every night Bill Monroe appeared on stage in a white suit, seeming more and more G-d-like as the week progressed. It was an amazing experience, and I made the pilgrimage to Bean Blossom for the next 3 years as well.

In 1971 I drove out to Bean Blossom with Paul Gerry, who owned Revonah Records, a bluegrass label, located in Liberty, NY, and in 1972 I traveled there with Dan DelSanto and Evan Stover, my fellow Arm Brothers. It was at Bean Blossom in 1972 that we met two great young musicians from California, Timmy Duran, mandolin, and Robert Pool, bass fiddle. They were both 18 years old, and Dan, Evan and I asked them to come back to Poughkeepsie with us to play in our band. They said they had to go back to California first and ask their parents, so it was about a month later that Faith and I picked them up at Kennedy airport. The Arm Bros. lasted until around 1974. Evan was the first to leave, and then Timmy moved on as well. Dan subsequently moved to Austin, TX. Robert and I stayed together, along with Fred Gumaer, Fooch Fischetti and George Langston, in a band called Wheelhoss. After another year, Robert left too. He and Timmy met up in Indiana and played a year with bluegrass legend Larry Sparks. They helped Larry record an album of Christmas songs. Later, Robert joined the Louisville, KY band, the Bluegrass Alliance. I have a letter from Robert telling me about their new lead singer/guitarist. Robert wrote he has a real sweet voice and I think he might be famous some day. It was Vince Gill.

Tell us more about some of your early memories of BG Festivals. Did you ever attend the Union Grove or other early BG Festivals?
John Cohen of the New Lost City Ramblers moved to Putnam Valley in 1968. Lora Porter, the Town librarian, let me know, and helped arrange for me to meet him. John told me there were bluegrass festivals starting up around the country, and showed me an ad in Sing Out Magazine for a festival near Winchester, VA over Labor Day weekend. So, I borrowed a tent and drove to Watermelon Park that weekend in 1968. It was an amazing revelation to me. Carlton Haney was the early promoter of bluegrass festivals, and at his festivals on Saturday afternoons Carlton had what he called the Bill Monroe Story. Bill Monroe stood up on stage for about 4 hours, and everyone at the festival who had ever performed with the Blue Grass Boys got up and performed songs with him. The only bluegrass bands of consequence NOT there were Flatt & Scruggs and the Osborne Bros. I saw Mac Wiseman sing classic songs with Bill Monroe, Hylo Brown, Don Reno, Ralph Stanley, Bill Keith, Jim Rooney and on and on. I had never heard of most of these people before, nor was I really aware of Bill Monroe and his central significance to the music before that weekend. I was also camped next to a fellow New Yorker, Ray Alden, who became a good friend to this day.

The next festival I attended was Union Grove, in the spring of 1970. We didn’t know it, but over the winter the founder of the Union Grove festival had passed away, and his two sons couldn’t agree on how to hold the next festival. So, they each held their own festival, the same weekend, calling them both Union Grove. No one knew about this ahead of time, but if you drove from the north you came to one site first, or to the other when arriving from the south. After one night at the northern festival we went to the much larger festival a little further south.

In 1988 I went to Peaceful Valley BG festival, and watched the band Kentucky Roots – Steve Lutke, Bob Harris and Travis Whetsel. I went up to Bob Harris and told him I’d enjoyed their set, at which he stuck out his hand and introduced himself. I then told him my name. He said, “You’re Jerry Oland? I learned to play guitar playing along with your record.” Bob Harris is a great guitar player, who played with Vassar Clements for the last 15 years of his life.

There was a NYC scene that I was aware of, but wasn’t really involved in. It wasn’t until I went to Bean Blossom that I had a sense of what was happening throughout the country. The best amateur and professional bluegrass players from all over the United States and Canada congregated at Bean Blossom during those early years. There was even a band from Japan, Bluegrass 45.

Can you continue to tell us about bands you have worked in and the challenge of balancing music with the responsibilities of adult life?
In 1976 I played banjo with a bluegrass band in New Jersey, based near Princeton, called the Millstone Valley Boys. The following year I released an album on the Revonah label, Jerry Oland-Banjo And Friends, which I now have re-released on CD. In 1977 I formed the band Wildcat Creek, with Skip Arthur, Ronnie Sutton and Arlin Greene. When that band broke up in 1979, Faith and I already had 2 young daughters and I needed to pursue something a little more lucrative to support my family. We moved to Putnam Valley and I commuted to NYC for the next 25 years, where I managed an office building in midtown Manhattan. During the 1980’s I hardly played any music, filling in occasionally with Out To Lunch. Then in the early ’90’s I got a call from Bear Acker, who fronted a bluegrass band in Amherst, MA. I picked the 5 for Bear for several years, and in 1997 I worked my first full season with Buddy Merriam and Back Roads. In 1998 I played with Stan Tyminski and Rustic Blue. In 2002 I did some recording with Blue Plate Special and then went on tour with them to Germany and France. In 2004 I re-joined Buddy Merriam’s band, with whom I continue to perform.

Would you comment on BG today in general in our country, and worldwide, and the role of IBMA?
There are more bluegrass bands today in the Czech Republic than anyplace else in the world, as a percentage of the overall population. That says something right there. The IBMA is a clearing house for all the diverse people involved in bluegrass.

What kind of banjo do you play? How do you characterize the sound of your banjo?

My #1 banjo today is a Huber, Roanoke model, with a radius fingerboard. It has amazing tone and volume, together with a very playable neck.

Do you have any recommendations on how to go about learning banjo?
Start out studying everything Earl Scruggs ever did.

Where would you like to see the HVBA put it’s efforts in the coming years?
I would like to help bring more professional bluegrass to the Hudson Valley, like the James King concert we held last March. Many beginners to bluegrass approach it as an instrumental music. The core of the music is in the vocals, and I would like to see more of our members learning to sing bluegrass harmony.

How has the interest in BG music waxed and waned over the years in the Hudson Valley?

Because of the strong presence of IBM, Poughkeepsie has been a particularly good place for bluegrass music. IBM brought people to the Hudson Valley from all over the United States, including many with a familiarity with bluegrass and country music.

Jerry has a YouTube page where you can see video’s of several bands mentioned in the article, plus early “vintage” footage of Peaceful Valley.  Click here: www.youtube.com/user/PVFlash

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