Seeing Bluegrass History in Person, Chapter 1

Dick Bowden and His Father, 1954 – Bucksport, Maine
I consider myself MIGHTY fortunate for the amount of bluegrass history I’ve witnessed first-hand in my life. I’m heading into my eighth decade soon, so I’ve seen some history, before it was history!

Dad (Paul Bowden) and his dog Pal, playing his 1946 Gibson. Penobscot Maine. About 1950.
As a little kid, I was exposed to old fashioned country music by my mom and dad and their relatives and friends. My first musical memory is from around age 4 or so in 1957, sitting on the couch beside my dad picking and singing on his big old Gibson guitar – I had my left ear pressed right up against the big end of the guitar as I sat beside him. “Wildwood Flower”, “Free Little Bird”, “Wreck on the Highway” and those kind of old songs. Mom and Dad used to host and participate in other folks’ “picking parties”. Mostly all guitars – my uncle played electric steel guitar and occasionally one of my mother’s cousins would show up with an electric guitar that everybody hated because he turned it up too loud!

(I learned only in adult-hood that my dad and uncles had had a local acoustic country band before I was born.)

I remember my dad was considered the singer of the bunch, plus he knew the words to a lot of songs. Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Carter Family, and the like. He had a pretty good duet with a young fellow from town, who subsequently killed some guy who was, I think, roughing up his mother, and went to prison! Now, this was NOT a rough crowd that my mom and dad were friends with. This young man really surprised everyone and shamed himself badly. No sympathy for him.

We didn’t own a record player in that time. My mom and dad were doing songs they learned in the late 1930s, 1940s, and very early 1950s, before they got married and started spending every nickel building a house for themselves and my brother and me. They might hear something on the radio and try to learn it. I remember “Once More” was one they learned from either Roy Acuff or the Osborne Brothers from the radio. We got a pretty good diet of country music on local Maine radio stations.

At age 8 I absolutely HAD to get a guitar and learn to play so I could join the music-making. My mom’s younger brother had a Silvertone type Sears “cheapo-lickmaster” guitar he lent me to learn on. By age 10 I had saved up my odd jobs money and bought an entry level Gibson guitar. I was quite stunned that I was NOT invited to the big “picking parties”! Too young!!!

When I was around 7 or 8 a young friend of my folks asked to leave his Vega 5-string banjo and his small record collection at our house while he was away in the Navy. He gave Dad an actual Jimmy Martin LP. He said “I can’t stand all the yipping!” It was one of Jimmy’s classics, his very first LP, and I have it right by my side here in my music room. These records inspired Mom and Dad to plunk down the dough for a NICE stereo (the kind in a big wooden cabinet). And they started buying records. But in the late 1950s and early 1960s there weren’t any more new LPs by Roy Acuff, etc. Everything was The Nashville Sound, which they didn’t like. So they bought bluegrass instead, because it was the kind of stuff they could learn to sing. They really liked Mac Wiseman, who was putting out new LPs of REALLY old songs and ballads. The Louvin Brothers were great favorites. Based on “Once More” they bought the Osborne Brothers first LP with the nice cover photo of all the horses out in a field of bluegrass. I’m so thankful they bought Flatt & Scruggs first LP, and the follow-up which was all gospel called “Songs of Glory”. They bought LP reissues of the Carter Family, and the Bill Clifton LP of Carter Family songs done in bluegrass style. This led to some Stanley Brothers LPs, and basically, we were off to the races.

In those years, the word “bluegrass” was VERY new. Most of these LPs did their advertising by putting the words “featuring 5-string banjo!” on the cover. (The first LP featuring the word “bluegrass” on the cover was put out in 1957). The 5-string banjo had developed some marketing strength based on the early folk boom performers, especially the Kingston Trio. Dad bought exactly ONE “folk” LP featuring 5-string banjos, and it was a horrible disappointment after a few years diet of bluegrass! I also remember every Saturday around noon there was a syndicated 15 minute folk music radio show hosted by Oscar Brand. Very occasionally he’d have someone picking a banjo – but never really bluegrass. But we listened because we were hungry for bluegrass.

Up to 1964 my view of bluegrass history was based on the records we heard and bought, with a little bit of radio and TV exposure. The folk “hootenanny” movement hit network TV in the early 1960s. We checked out all of these shows every week on the 3 networks, and OCCASIONALLY we’d be rewarded with a bluegrass band like Flatt & Scruggs. And of course the jackpot on TV was The Beverly Hillbillies which hit the air in fall 1962. I remember being at my grandparents’ house in August of 1962 when I saw and heard the first CBS advertisement for the Hillbillies. It was the familiar opening footage of the show in black & white, with Jed “shooting at some food, when up through the ground came a bubbling crude”. However, Flatt & Scruggs had not yet recorded the theme song. Instead CBS used the Columbia (subsidiary of CBS) record by Flatt & Scruggs “Sally Ann”, which we had in our LP collection! (Now there’s a Trivia question!) By winter 1962-63, Flatt & Scruggs even APPEARED on the show and picked and sang a bit. What a thrill! Also about this time the Andy Griffith Show featured The Kentucky Colonels and then the Dillards playing bluegrass. For some reason we weren’t watching that show in those years, so I didn’t see these episodes until they were in reruns. But it was a heady time! Finally, in 1963 Flatt & Scruggs released an LP of them performing live at Carnegie Hall, and we got to hear Lester emceeing, and naming the band members. We had never heard any of the Flatt & Scruggs radio or TV shows out of Nashville, which was just too far from Maine for us to receive.

In 1964 things really changed in our family when my dad bought the first new car he’d ever purchased. A Ford Falcon. Also lots of bluegrass LPs. Also a Gibson RB-100 5 string banjo that he wanted to learn to play!! By then we had discovered there was bluegrass on WWVA radio from Wheeling West Virginia, which usually came in pretty good where we lived in Maine. We had missed a lot of the bluegrass “glory days” on WWVA, but after 1964 we were hearing a band called The Country Gentlemen. Even better, AFTER the Jamboree concluded around 11 PM, they would switch to a live bluegrass band broadcasting from Oxford Pennsylvania, Alex and Ola Belle and the New River Gang. This was hard charging, super traditional, mountain style bluegrass, played by a bunch of transplants from North Carolina to southeastern PA. In addition, Alex and Ola Belle were the house band at a nearby country venue called Sunset Park. One night in the summer of 1964, they announced that Flatt & Scruggs would be appearing on Aug. 30. My 10 year-old guitar playing self was STUNNED when Dad told us we were going, IN PERSON!!!!

By 1964 I had decided I wanted to learn to play Dobro like on the records we had. I retuned my little Gibson guitar to work like a Dobro and my steel playing uncle gave me a bar (I still have it). I was wearing those Flatt & Scruggs records out trying to learn to be Buck Graves! And now, I was going to get to see him in person!

NON-BLUEGRASS SIDEBAR: The uncle who lent me a guitar to learn on also exposed me to a new kind of music on his car radio, one spring night while we went out smelting. (If you don’t know, don’t ask.) It was a hit record by a British rock ‘n’ roll group called The Beatles. My uncle said they were going to be the next big thing. I wasn’t impressed.

NEXT: VIEWING BLUEGRASS HISTORY AS IT HAPPENED

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden recently retired after a 45 year career in the paper industry, and moved from Connecticut to Big Indian NY (Ulster County) where he ekes out a precarious existence as a groundskeeper. Dick has been performing bluegrass music on banjo and guitar since 1966 in his home state of Maine, throughout New England, and internationally with The Case Brothers - Martin & Gibson. He has performed for HVBA with the Old Time Bluegrass Singers, and also sent in a squadron of Dick Bowden's Flying Circus. Most recently Dick has played Dobro (tm) with the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. Dick has written many articles for Bluegrass Unlimited, Bluegrass Today, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass magazine) and HVBA.

One Response

  • Thanks Dick for taking on the history column this summer. It’s great to read about your family and how you got started in bluegrass, all the way up in Maine.

    I am already looking forward to your next installment.

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