Spotlight on Fred Robbins

Archivist, Videographer FRED ROBBINS – photo by Tyler Campbell”

The Hudson Valley bluegrass Association has a membership rich in talent. As one would expect in a musical organization, there is a healthy selection of individual musicians, member bands and engaged acoustic music aficionados. As far as uniqueness however one member’s contributions truly stand out – Fred Robbins has been active as a music archivist, with a particular emphasis on bluegrass, since the mid-1960s. Fred has produced as well as collected a fantastic selection of photos, videos, and audio documenting the acoustic music activities as they happened, particularly in the tri-state and Hudson Valley areas.

Fred’s early biography contains a wealth of bluegrass material, and sets the tone for a lifetime of musical documentation and archival activity that continues today. An early exposure to lessons on the accordion set Fred on his musical journey. Joining the momentum of the early 60’s folk music craze, he tinkered with a buddy’s Kay 5 string banjo, as well as a standard classical style nylon string guitar. In 1962, Fred entered Stetson University in Florida to study engineering. He also updated his musical instrument collection with a Gibson long neck banjo. The Gibson long neck was an iconic banjo that was very popular with many musicians at the time such as Dave Guard, John Stewart and Pete Seeger.

After completing a pre-engineering program at Stetson, Fred transferred to Clemson University in South Carolina, and this is where his bluegrass education and participation really took off. Fred met fellow Clemson student, the late Bob Isenhour, who was an established banjo player in a bluegrass band. They became good friends and roommates for a summer session, with Bob acting as a bluegrass mentor to Fred. Fred and Bob played and practiced nightly with Fred eventually joining Bob’s band as the rhythm guitar player. Bob also added to Fred’s appreciation of the current prominent bluegrass musicians actively playing on the scene.

Their band attended Carlton Haney’s 1966 Fincastle/Roanoke Festival, (only the 2nd multi-day bluegrass festival ever) at which they met Bill Monroe, the Osbornes, Don and Ronnie Reno, Mike Seeger, John Duffey, and others. At the Fincastle festival, Fred was fortunate enough to have his picture taken with Bill Monroe.

AT CARLTON/HANEY’S 1966 FINCASTLE/ROANOKE FESTIVAL

Standing (L to R): Frank Wing, Al McCanless, John Shoaf, ?, Tom
Isenhour, Chuck Wagner (sitting on the Silver Streak) Kneeling (L to
R): ?, Bob Isenhour, Mike Nicolay, Fred Robbins, Tom Sprott
Bill Monroe (L) with Fred Robbins in 1966

They also attended the Union Grove Fiddlers Convention Annual Contest twice. During this time Fred purchased a Gibson SJN Country/Western guitar from mentor Bob for $65, which unfortunately met an untimely demise at the hands of Eastern Airlines (some things never change!) Only due to a friend who was an Eastern Airlines VP was Fred able to purchase a classic bluegrass guitar – a Martin D-28. Fred graduated from Clemson in 1968, and spent the summer back in the Hudson Valley working for IBM in Poughkeepsie.

L to R: Fred Robbins with the ill-fated Gibson SJN, Tom Isenhour, Bob Isenhour, Fiddlin’ Al McCanless, Tom Sprott

 

China; Edna Poplin at Union Grove

After successfully completing his college education as a Reserve Officer in Training, the fall of 1968 brought Fred’s enlistment in the US Army. Fred encountered his next bluegrass adventure, one that would carry him through to current times, while stationed at Fort Polk in Leesville, Louisiana – he met renowned fiddler Byron Berline.

Byron Berline playing at the Old South Jamboree in Walker Louisiana, May 24, 1969

During a hot afternoon with air conditioning a rarity in 1969 automobiles, Fred was driving past a local movie theater parking lot with the car windows down when his keen ears picked up the strains of a bluegrass band. Screeching into the parking lot and sending GI’s scattering, he was treated to an impromptu performance by Byron Berline and the Cumberlands. After the show Fred talked to Byron and discovered that they were both GI’s at Fort Polk. This event spawned a friendship that resulted in frequent get-togethers and some exciting early additions to Fred’s audio and slide portfolio.

Eddie Shelton, Mitchell Land, and Lonnie Craft playing with Byron Berline at the Old South Jamboree in Walker Louisiana, May 24, 1969

Early in the day on May 24th 1969, Fred was at Capitol Hill Sound Studios in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for a recording date with Byron and a host of other bluegrass musicians (Luke Thompson, Allen Shelton, Travis Stewart, and The Stone Mountain Boys consisting of Mitch Land, Eddie Shelton, Lonnie Craft, & Tootie Williams). Fred’s collection contains music from this date. For example, here is a link to the song “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight.” More music from this session can be found on Fred’s Archive Page of the date.

Fred served in Vietnam then returned back to the USA in 1970, where he promptly headed directly to LA to visit Byron. Fred rode to Las Vegas with Byron and bassist Roger Bush, where the two musicians were to play with Doug Dillard and the Expedition. Fred’s collection has some great pictures from that period:

Eddie Shelton, Mitchell Land, and Lonnie Craft playing with Byron Berline at the Old South Jamboree in Walker Louisiana, May 24, 1969

 


Front stage at the Fremont in Las Vegas! L to R: Doug Dillard, Byron Berline, Roger Bush, Billy Ray Lathum

Fred settled back in the Hudson Valley’s Poughkeepsie NY and while working at IBM, spent his music time practicing tunes, and teaming up with other locals for jam sessions. He began a friendship with the Arm Brothers band who regularly played at the Phoenicia Hotel. With the help of some of the Arm Brothers band members Jerry Oland (Banjo), Tim Duran (mandolin), Robert Pool (bass) and Evan Stover (fiddle) Fred built a page of photos from that period. Besides capturing the Arm Brothers and Hudson Valley bluegrass scene of the 1970’s, the collection has added relevance as the Phoenicia Hotel burned in 2007 and was subsequently razed in 2008.

Arm Brothers Band early in the 1970s: L to R – Randy Pool, Bob Gilson, Robert Pool, Jerry Oland, Pete Lowry from Trix Records, Grits Stover (behind broom), Evan Stover, Tina Duran and Dan Del Santo

This picture ties fortuitously into present day circumstances. After several decades, Fred found and reconnected with banjo player, Jerry Oland, who encouraged Fred to join the thriving Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association. Fred did, and not only participates as a player at the jam sessions, but lends his video production skills to the HVBA as their primary videographer. Almost all of the 10 pages of videos available on the HVBA website have been provided by Fred.

From the early 70’s forward to the present, Fred continued to actively document bluegrass music activity in the Northeast, and occasionally in other regions of the US as he traveled. The magazine Bluegrass Unlimited published four articles written by Fred. Fred also became authorized as an official Media Volunteer for both the Grey Fox Festival and the Rhythm and Roots Festival, and has published hundreds of high quality videos from these festivals. Fred houses his Media Archive on his website, which he has built up organically over time. Browsing through the collection resembles visiting a large ramshackle house filled with treasures in every room. The best thing to do is to set aside some time, get a nice beverage, sit back and click through the material. For those a little shorter on time, what follows is an attempt at a tour through the collection, but be aware that this is a mere drop in the bucket compared to visiting the collection itself.

The material can be broadly grouped into three categories: Audio recordings from 1946 to 2003; Video recordings from 2003 to the present; and Photography collections from the mid-1960’s to the present. Much of the material was recorded by Fred, but a good portion of it also came from key members of the music community that Fred met along the way.

Following are some specific highlights from the vast collection.

Audio Highlights

Video Highlights

Photography Slide Show Highlights


Comments


Rick: Outstanding article. We are very lucky to have Fred in our bluegrass community.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.