Many years ago, for several summers running, I attended a bluegrass festival in central New York where I would jam with a particular banjo player. Two things about him linger in my memory. The first was that he was a professor of astronomy, in my experience an unusual day job for a bluegrass musician. The second was that he owned Rudy Lyle’s banjo.
When the great banjo players of bluegrass are listed, Lyle’s name is not often near the top, but in his time with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys he contributed iconic banjo parts to some of Bill’s best known early 1950s recordings. Lyle followed banjo greats Earl Scruggs and Don Reno in the Blue Grass Boys, at a time when the style that we know as bluegrass banjo was in its infancy. Scruggs had put down the basics in his recordings with Monroe and Reno had elaborated on the style but these records were then pretty much the only models available to an aspiring banjo picker. When it came to fashioning solos and backup parts for Monroe’s new recordings, Lyle was largely on his own.
It’s safe to say he rose to challenge. A new book on Rudy Lyle’s life and work gives Lyle the credit he deserves as an early bluegrass banjo innovator and should make him better known among today’s pickers and fans. The book is “Rudy Lyle: The Unsung Hero of the Five-String Banjo,” by Max Wareham, who plays banjo in the band of former Blue Grass Boy Peter Rowan.
The book includes a short summary of Lyle’s life and career as well as interviews with noted banjoists Bill Emerson, Sonny Osborne, Butch Robins, and Alan Munde, who explain the importance of Lyle’s playing to the development of the banjo in bluegrass and how Lyle’s playing influenced their styles. Also interviewed are Lyle’s younger brother Bobby, Joe Drumright, Jr., whose father was a Blue Grass Boy with Rudy Lyle, and Doug Hutchins, himself a bluegrass musician, whose 1985 Bluegrass Unlimited magazine interview with Rudy Lyle was apparently the only account of Lyle’s career to see print during his life. This book reprints Hutchins’ Bluegrass Unlimited interview in full.
The course of Lyle’s life is described in narrative fashion near the front of the book and in piecemeal fashion in some of the interviews. In sum, Lyle was born in 1930 to a musical family and by his late teens was playing banjo professionally. Monroe heard him and offered him a job. That’s revealing by itself, because it shows that Lyle had taught himself to play bluegrass banjo at a high level very early on. In any case, Lyle recorded with Monroe between 1950 and 1954. His tenure with Monroe was interrupted by his service in the Army in Korea, where he saw combat. Several of the interviews suggest that his war experience damaged his hearing and also adversely affected him in other ways. After he left Monroe, Lyle was active in music for several years but eventually stopped performing professionally. He appears to have been on the verge of a comeback attempt when he died in 1985.
Max Wareham has made a deep dive into Rudy Lyle’s banjo playing. The heart of the book consists of Wareham’s careful analysis of Rudy Lyle’s banjo style, including detailed transcriptions (in banjo tablature) of every banjo break and some of the backup that Lyle played on Monroe’s recordings, along with some early pre-Monroe material, and some Monroe outtakes and live Monroe recordings. These transcriptions and Wareham’s explanations are of great value to banjo players who want to play these tunes just like the recordings and to those who want to study the early evolution of bluegrass banjo styles.
But the book is also of interest to general readers who want to learn about the early days of bluegrass and the evolution of the “high lonesome sound” in particular. Several of the interviewees explain that Bill’s music became more hard edged and mournful beginning around 1950. The core of the band at that time in addition to Monroe consisted of Jimmy Martin on guitar and vocals, Lyle on banjo, and Vassar Clements on fiddle. All three were around 20 and were not music veterans when they started with Bill, in contrast to earlier band members like Lester Flatt, who had his own smooth vocal sound when he came to work for Monroe. Martin in particular had an edge to his voice that set him apart from Flatt and also blended well with Monroe’s voice in the new songs Bill was then featuring. Bill was able to instill in these young musicians the sorrowful sound he wanted. At that time, many of Bill’s songs, including “I’m On My Way Back To The Old Home,” “Letter From My Darling,” and “I’m Blue, I’m Lonesome,” focused on lost love, death, and similar sad subjects. These and similar songs formed the core of the high lonesome sound repertoire.
But it wasn’t all death and dismay with Bill’s music during these years. Most critics cite Lyle’s banjo solo on Monroe’s mandolin tour de force “Rawhide” as Lyle’s shining moment. The tune is for mandolin players what “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” is for banjo players, a flashy workout at 162 beats per minute. If you can play it right you’ve arrived as a bluegrass picker. “Rawhide” is in C, not necessarily the friendliest key for banjo pickers, and it has an unusual and jazzy sounding circle of fifths E-A-D-G chord progression on the bridge. Lyle’s solo deserves its reputation; creative, hard driving, clear and clean, and necessarily very fast, it has been copied by generations of banjoists on this and similar tunes in the seventy years since it was recorded. Lyle played similarly blazing solos on Monroe’s recording of “White House Blues,” all six of which Wareham has carefully transcribed.
One word that is consistently used by the other banjoists to describe Lyle’s playing is “powerful.” Indeed, Monroe himself is quoted as using this term to describe Lyle, and as saying that Rudy Lyle was his favorite banjo player. Given the competition, including Earl Scruggs himself, that is quite an accolade. Although Lyle was working in the Scruggs idiom, three finger style bluegrass banjo, and used a lot of Earl’s licks, Wareham makes a strong case that Lyle successfully carved out his own sound. Alan Munde describes Lyle’s sound as “live wire” and a “bare, hot lead.” Sonny Osborne described Lyle as a “genius” and Bill Emerson said that he had studied all Lyle’s breaks with Monroe and ranked him second only to Scruggs as an influence. The video links included with this column put the music to what these pickers were describing in words. Rudy Lyle brought originality, spark, and fire to Bill Monroe’s music, setting the bar high for the many great banjo players who followed him in the Blue Grass Boys.
By the way, it turns out that my banjo playing friend from years ago wasn’t entirely correct about owning Rudy Lyle’s banjo. At the end of the book, Wareham describes how he tracked my friend down by way of clearing up what had become of the banjo after Lyle parted with it. It turns out that my friend’s banjo had the neck from Lyle’s banjo, but the pot of Lyle’s banjo (basically, everything that isn’t the neck) was lost. Apparently Lyle had become disenchanted with the sound of that banjo and had modified the pot to the extent that it was unusable and had to be discarded. So it appears that my friend does own all that remains of Rudy Lyle’s banjo.