by Dick Bowden
Let’s pause in the History review for a moment and discuss who were the “stars” of bluegrass in 1970-72. I’ll be referring to the booklet “Bluegrass Summer 71” that I mentioned in my last article. Photos from that booklet. These were the bands being hired for the big southern festivals by Carlton Haney, and Bill Monroe, etc.Well, of course Monroe was still the big dog, although as I said in the last chapter, I personally didn’t think he or his band were “all that” in those years. But by the mid 1970s he had a MUCH stronger set of Blue Grass Boys, and he was featuring a lot of new songs that were excellent. Lester Flatt & the Nashville Grass, big dogs indeed, being Opry members and famous from TV. Flatt really seemed to be enjoying the music business again, with Earl Scruggs sons and the rock flavored repertoire out of his hair. The Earl Scruggs Revue, making HUGE money playing colleges and occasionally playing “bluegrass rock ‘n’ roll” at a festival or two, and on the Opry. They soon learned they made much more money playing for the wider public, NOT the stingy bluegrass market. The Country Gentlemen, the version with Bill Emerson, Bill Yates and Jimmy Gaudreau with Charlie Waller. Muleskinner News magazine had fan popularity contests and the Gents won “Best Band” so many times that the magazine “retired” them to “Master” status. Charlie Waller was FURIOUS, saying it really cut into their bookings and the price they could charge! Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mt Boys, with Roy Lee Centers singing lead. By 1972 Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley were steady members all summer long. The traditionalists preferred Ralph over the Gents. But even then, “progressive” bluegrass was more popular nationwide. Ralph was not a member of the Opry in these years. In terms of plain old POPULARITY, The Gents and Ralph Stanley were the real leaders of bluegrass in 1971-72. Jimmy Martin & the Sunny Mt Boys were guaranteed to “wake up” any audience. A completely different kind of “woke” compared to today! The Osborne Brothers. Opry members, riding HIGH on the late 1960s success of their record “Rocky Top”. They were flirting with electrifying their instruments so they could be heard by the big crowds on the country music “package shows” they participated in. Also, they used electric bass all the time. In those days, some promoters would NOT hire a band with electric bass! Jim & Jesse & the Virginia Boys. Opry members who had had some success (like the Osbornes) with making their records sound a bit more country-western. But they were solid, smooth bluegrass on festivals. Very gentlemanly, very popular. Total pros with a popular repertoire. Also using electric bass! Mac Wiseman[/caption]Mac Wiseman was very popular on festivals. He never carried a band in those or later days. He just showed up with his guitar. If the promoter could talk some pickers into accompanying Mac, that was fine with Mac. He didn’t pay ‘em though, that was between them and the promoter. Most considered it an honor. They didn’t have to do much. Mac would kick off every song with his guitar saying “Watch me boys!” Doc Watson was fairly regular on bluegrass festivals and concerts in the early 1970s, with his son Merle. Doc would always get on stage with Bill Monroe to do some old Monroe Brothers numbers. Doc knew brother Charlie Monroe’s parts cold! He and Bill would also pick some fiddle tunes or blues numbers. Like Earl Scruggs, Doc soon learned there was more money to be made “outside” of bluegrass. The Lewis Family, the first family of bluegrass gospel. They were extremely popular with a high energy show. “Pop” Lewis brought the gravitas and deep sincerity. The sisters looked and sang good. Li’l Roy provided more dynamite than Jimmy Martin with his INCESSANT clowning and mugging. They would get a crowd so worked up that EVERY SONG resulted in an encore! Don Reno & Bill Harrell & the Tennessee Cut Ups were a hot band in these days. Don was at the peak of his banjo powers. Bill Harrell was hot dogging the guitar. Fiddlin’ Buck Ryan was an old “show” fiddler, just smoking. Don was a great emcee and seemed to LOVE being on the stage. Occasionally when Don’s old partner Red Smiley was in good enough health, Red would travel with the band as second lead vocalist and rhythm guitar player. Even though he looked like death on a cracker. James Monroe & the Midnight Ramblers. James is Bill Monroe’s only son. He had learned bluegrass playing bass fiddle and guitar as a Blue Grass Boy. He got out from under his father’s thumb and was earning band leader’s money, while constantly riding his dad’s coattails with the promoters. Not much personality… In the long run, James gave up bluegrass for some of his other interests.
Some of the second tier bluegrass acts included:Carl Story & the Rambling Mountaineers. Carl had fiddled for Monroe in the early 1940s, but after returning from WWII he started his own band with a heavy emphasis on gospel music. He billed himself as the Father of Bluegrass Gospel. Carl was a real pro and carried a good band of local friends from the Carolinas. The Shenandoah Valley Cutups[/caption]The Shenandoah Valley Cut Ups were an excellent band made up mostly of veterans of Red Smiley’s old band. Fiddling Tater Tate (later of Blue Grass Boys fame) played rhythm guitar and sang lead. The Blue Grass Alliance became a big hit about 1969-70 with a good group of pickers out of Louisville KY featuring lead guitarist “Big Dan Crary”. Dan kicked off the lead guitar flatpicking-as-part-of-every-song movement. Before Tony Rice! The band leader Lonnie Peerce was a somewhat unpleasant boss and a weak fiddler, so there was a lot of turnover in band members. Big Dan’s replacement was in fact, young Tony Rice. Sam Bush was on mandolin. Can you pick out young Tony and Sam in the band photo? The bass and banjo player in the Alliance joined Sam Bush in resigning en masse to start the Newgrass Alliance around 1973. They were threatened at gunpoint by Lonnie Peerce, but they told him to stick it (literally), and left to create a whole new type of bluegrass. The Kentucky Mountain Boys was the name of JD Crowe’s band til around 1973. Although he had had Red Allen on guitar earlier, he now had Doyle Lawson on guitar, Tony Rice’s big brother Larry Rice on mandolin, and old pal Bobby Slone on left-handed bass. Tony Rice quit the Blue Grass Alliance and joined JD Crowe’s band while playing the Camp Springs NC festival in 1971. You can see young Tony performing in both bands in the famous movie “Bluegrass Country Soul” made at Camp Springs that year. Cliff Waldron & the New Shades of Grass was previously known as Cliff Waldron, Bill Emerson & the New Shades of Grass. Emerson left Cliff to join the Gents in the late 1960s. They made the first bluegrass record of “Fox on the Run”. Cliff was an old West Virginia boy with a fine country voice. He liked converting modern pop songs to bluegrass, including songs such as “Proud Mary”, “Silver Wings”, etc. Cliff and his band lived around the Washington-Baltimore bluegrass axis and had a big following. The New Shades of Grass brought two guys into long-lasting fame in the bluegrass world; Mike Auldridge and Ben Eldridge who shortly became founding members of the Seldom Scene. You can see them in the band photo. Del McCoury & the Dixie Pals were just getting going at the beginning of the 1970s. True, Del had made an LP for a California label in the late 1960s, but that was with a borrowed band (including Bill Emerson on banjo). Del worked days as a timber logger in Pennsylvania. His band was local friends. He had excellent bass fiddle (brother Jerry McCoury), banjo (Bill Runkle and Don Eldreth), and mandolin (Dick Staber and Don Eldreth), but undistinguished local fiddlers until the early 1980s. Del and his band played what was known as “hairy-legged” bluegrass. They took no prisoners. Even then Del was so friendly and engaging that everybody loved him. The Goins Brothers, Melvin and Ray. These West Virginians had been members of the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers in the 1950s, but that band broke up by the 1960s. Melvin and Ray were great friends with both Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley and kind of followed them around on the southern festival circuit. Their band had a good “mountain” sound like Ralph Stanley. Melvin’s stage patter was something to hear! As they say in the South, “country as a stick”. The Goins Brothers were like a farm team in baseball, finding and training lots of young pickers who went on to bigger bands, e.g., Jason Carter who has fiddled with Del McCoury now for about 33 years. Fiddlin’ Chubby Wise used to appear on lots of festivals, sort of in the Mac Wiseman mold. Chubby didn’t carry a band, but he’d pick one up at the festival grounds. Many of the older acts would invite Chubby to join them on stage. Chubby was very jolly with twinkling eyes and a constant smile. He would play nice country waltzes in addition to the more showy fiddle tunes. And he loved his fans, and they loved him. The Lilly Brothers & Don Stover with Tex Logan. Tex wasn’t playing professionally much in these days as he worked in Ma Bell research in New Jersey as a VERY high level scientist/mathematician inventing and refining all kinds of electronic products. This was around the time that the Brothers were winding up their long residency in Boston. It wasn’t long before Everett moved back to West Virginia and left Bea in Boston. But they would routinely “reunite” to play festivals. As fiery as the Brothers and Stover were, things always got more fiery when Tex would fiddle! The first out and out “newgrass” band, even before Newgrass Revival, was a wild bunch called The New Deal String Band. Although they wore Stetsons, they flaunted
These are the bands featured in “Bluegrass Summer ‘71” – the kind of acts Carlton Haney and his ilk liked to feature on their big festivals around the country, with sprinklings of lesser known regional or local acts to fill out the bill.
If you’re wondering “Where’s the Seldom Scene?” or “What about Emmy Lou Harris?” or “What about Hazel & Alice?” or “I don’t see Bill Keith or Pete Rowan mentioned” or “John Hartford? Where was he?” well, their time would come soon as bluegrass exploded via the festival movement.
NEXT: Northeastern festivals go into high gear, and Dick witnesses a blur of bluegrass history over a couple of decades.