by Andy Bing
For fans of the traditional, hard driving, take no prisoners, blood and guts bluegrass singing, it’s hard to improve on Red Allen. Red was an incredibly powerful bluegrass singer and guitarist whose heartfelt and highly personal vocal style made him one of the top bluegrass lead and tenor singers of his time. Red first came to prominence in the mid 1950s with his groundbreaking recordings with the Osborne Brothers. Later, with his longtime musical partner mandolinist Frank Wakefield, he recorded a classic bluegrass album, “Red Allen Frank Wakefield and the Kentuckians: bluegrass,” Folkways FA 2408. Red also made important records during the 1960s with J.D. Crowe and the Kentucky Mountain Boys and on his own as a band leader with distinguished sidemen including mandolin virtuoso David Grisman. Previous columns in this series have touched on Red’s work with the Osbornes and Frank Wakefield and on his role in the southwestern Ohio and Baltimore bluegrass scenes, but, at the risk of a little repetition, Red merits a column of his own.
Harley “Red” Allen was born in 1930 at Pigeon Roost in eastern Kentucky near the border with southwestern Virginia and West Virginia. As noted in last month’s column on Jim and Jesse McReynolds, this region was a hotbed of old time music and was home to many great traditional musicians. Red’s mother was an old time fiddler and ballad singer, and must have inspired Red’s interest in music. But it doesn’t appear that her music had a lot of time to rub off on him–Red had to make his own way from an early age. As a boy of nine or ten, Red was also inspired by the recordings of the Monroe Brothers and by Bill Monroe’s Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts. By 18 Red was playing guitar and singing and he soon relocated to Dayton in southwestern Ohio, where he became part of the region’s fertile post-war bluegrass scene documented recently in the book “Industrial Strength Bluegrass.” It was in Dayton that he met the Osborne Brothers, also from Kentucky, and Frank Wakefield from Tennessee. In the early 1950s, Red and Frank honed their music with banjoist Noah Crase as the Blue Ridge Mountain Boys, picking and singing in the rough and tumble Dayton bars, where Red’s passionate, hard-edged singing cut through the smoke and the noise.
Red broke into the big time (for bluegrass, at least) when he partnered with the Osborne Brothers as their guitarist and lead singer. Red had name billing in the band, known as “The Osborne Brothers and Red Allen,” an honor that the Osbornes never extended to any of the many talented guitarists/singers who followed Red in the band. This band recorded 16 sides for MGM between 1956 and 1958. These recordings were extremely influential. Red sang powerful leads on “Teardrops In My Eyes,” which rapidly became a bluegrass standard, and “My Aching Heart.” The latter song featured a mandolin break played in Bobby’s innovative style, illustrating one of the early departures from the Monroe mandolin style then dominant. And, according to bluegrass historian Neil Rosenberg, Bobby Osborne said that the band’s use of dobro and drums at their 1957 session was the first time these instruments “were used together on a Nashville bluegrass session.”
Even more important in the long term were the band’s vocal innovations. At the 1957 session, the band recorded “Once More,” a slow vocal trio that for the first time featured Bobby Osborne’s “high lead” vocal, in which the melody was at the top of the vocal stack with the two harmony parts sung below it. This song made the Billboard charts and inspired many other bluegrass musicians, most famously the Country Gentlemen, who emulated the band’s vocal finesse and elaborate harmony endings. The high lead trio enabled Bobby Osborne to sing more lead parts, diminishing the vocal prominence of the band’s guitarist, and its increasing use in the group perhaps accounted for Red’s decision to leave the band later in 1958.
Red then rejoined Frank Wakefield, first back in Dayton and later in Washington, D.C. By the early 1960s Red and Frank were playing together, first with Dayton banjoist Red Spurlock as the Red Heads, and later with a variety of talented sidemen in the band called Red Allen, Frank Wakefield and the Kentuckians. The Red Heads recorded “You’ll Always Be Untrue” for Dayton label BMC. The song is a rarely heard tour de force–Frank kicks off the tune with a blazing cross-picked mandolin solo in the style of Jesse McReynolds, and Red’s vocal blows out the windows. This recording shows that by 1960 Red had the real stuff and as the decade wore on he just got better.
In an interview in Peter Wernick’s Bluegrass Songbook, Red explained how he selected material to perform: “I just hear a song and if I like it, it sticks in my mind. I’ll go home and it will ring in my head and I won’t be able to go to sleep. I just feel that it’s a grass song.” He added, “I love sad songs. I’ve lived all my life sad.” This intense feeling for the songs he sang became one of the defining characteristics of Red’s style.
Red did most of his best work during the early and mid 1960s. Fortunately, he was extensively recorded during this time and many of his studio recordings from that era were reissued on three CD compilations: “Red Allen The Folkways Years 1964-1983” (Folkways), “Red Allen Keep On Going The Rebel and Melodeon Recordings” (County), and “Red Allen Lonesome and Blue The Complete County Recordings” (County). In addition, David Grisman issued “Red Allen and Frank Wakefield The Kitchen Tapes” (Acoustic Disc), 25 songs and tunes that Grisman and Peter Siegel had taped in Red’s kitchen in April 1963. Finally, Red and Frank were also recorded in 1963 by Pete Kuykendall for broadcast on radio station WDON in Wheaton Maryland. Twenty-three of these recordings, also featuring Kuykendall on banjo and Tom Morgan on bass, were released on a Patuxent CD called “Red Allen Frank Wakefield The WDON Recordings 1963.” These five compilations capture Red at the peak of his career and are essential listening for any Red Allen fan.
In 1964, Red and Frank recorded “Red Allen Frank Wakefield and the Kentuckians: bluegrass” for Folkways. Red’s versions of “I’m Just Here To Get My Baby Out Of Jail,” Little Maggie,” and “Are You Washed In The Blood,” are rightly considered classics. You can hear the dying mother’s plaintive wail beseeching the warden to release her son from prison as Red sings the first of these.
Red also recorded the County, Rebel, and Melodeon sides featured on the two County compilations during the mid 1960s. These included many gems, such as “Don’t Lie To Me,” “Hello City Limits,” “Keep On Going,” “Are You Waiting Just For Me,” “Whose Shoulder Will You Cry On,” and “There Must Be Another Way To Live.” That last song, written by country singer and songwriter Mel Tillis, is one of Red’s most searing and passionate vocals. Red liked grassing up country numbers; “Are You Waiting,” was written by Ernest Tubb and “Whose Shoulder” by Kitty Wells, both established country stars. Red adapted these country tunes for bluegrass and made them standards. “Don’t Laugh,” from the WDON session, is a Frank vocal lead that showcases Red’s powerful tenor harmony vocals. He and Frank had a wonderful duet blend.
Red was supported on the 1960s recordings by many bluegrass A-listers, such as Chubby Wise and Scotty Stoneman on fiddle, Bill Keith, Bill Emerson, and Porter Church on banjo, David Grisman and Wayne Yates on mandolin (in addition to Red’s partner Wakefield). They shine in supporting roles without diverting attention from Red’s voice.
Red and Frank parted company later in 1964, and in the late 1960s Red played with J.D. Crowe in the Kentucky Mountain Boys (later the New South) and briefly filled in for Lester Flatt with the Foggy Mountain Boys during Lester’s illness. Red’s stint with Crowe produced one stellar recording, “Bluegrass Holiday,” that also featured Doyle Lawson on mandolin in his first recordings. Red again sang with power and deep feeling, as “Down Where The River Bends” and “Will You Be Satisfied That Way” amply demonstrate.
Red Allen continued to perform and record through the 1970s and 1980s, although he never quite sustained a similar string of outstanding recordings. He performed and recorded with his sons, one of whom, Harley Allen, later formed his own popular band in southwestern Ohio during the 1980s and then moved to Nashville where he became a top country songwriter. Red died in 1993. A few years before his death he participated in David Grisman’s wonderful tribute to traditional bluegrass, “Home Is Where The Heart Is.” Grisman had been a Kentuckian for about a year in the mid 1960s and credited the experience with teaching him a lot about bluegrass. He retained a great affection for his mentor and asked Red to reprise “Sad and Lonesome Day,” which Red had originally recorded in the 1960s, for Grisman’s new project. Even then, Red could still make you feel the pain in that lyric.