The winners are Andy Bing, Steve Margulis, and Vinny Nugent
Additional Bowden Comments
Well done to Andy, Steve and Vinny. Let’s see if any of you have bragging rights in two weeks — the new one is intended to be HARD.
Regarding long-serving Blue Grass Boys:
A Bessie Lee. Bessie and Bill had a long-standing “thing”. She was riding in the band car (The Blue Grass Special) at least since the days when Lester & Earl were in the car. Earl was quoted in a book as saying they were petrified her husband, a Tennessee Highway Patrolman, would stop them someday and shoot the whole bunch. It’s no secret Bessie and Bill were parents of the “Little Georgia Rose”. She started playing bass fiddle with the band in the early 1950s and doing featured solo numbers to open the show, billed as “The Carolina Songbird”. As the 1950s went along Bessie played bass on MANY of Monroe’s recording sessions. Her bass playing can be, uh, “challenging” to figure out. She played bass right up to the 1963 Del McCoury/Bill Keith era, and then she left, as she and Bill had a BAD and permanent break-up. So, let’s say she played in the band 10+ years. Not the record-holder. Here’s a YouTube of one of Bill’s records accompanied by a photo of Bessie Lee with the bass fiddle (the other lady is Bill’s daughter Melissa who used to sing a bit too).
B Bobby Hicks. Bobby was a North Carolina musical wunderkind and in the early 1950s while still a teen he joined the Blue Grass Boys on bass fiddle, but rapidly moved into twin fiddling with Charlie Cline, and also played banjo when Bill was “between” full time banjo players on the road. Bobby got drafted but Bill kept in close touch with him and he returned to the band in the late 1950s when he and Kenny Baker twin-fiddled a few recordings. Bobby reportedly wrote some of the popular Bill Monroe instrumentals of that period, for instance “Big Mon”, but sidemen did not get composing credits in those days. By the early 1960s Bobby was in a country “big band” in Las Vega with a singer named Judy Lynn. Over the years he was promoted to her “musical director”. He returned to Nashville in the late 1970s and 1980s and did studio work with many bluegrassers (Doyle Lawson, etc), joined Ricky Skaggs country band on fiddle and banjo, and eventually the famous Bluegrass Album Band with Tony Rice et. al. He’s still playing a bit today, well into his 80s. Perhaps he is the oldest surviving Blue Grass Boy. Bobby cut a WIDE swath with Monroe, but his tenure was 6 of 7 years. Here’s Bobby in a film from early 1955 fiddling with Charlie Cline on “Roanoke”. Bobby is in the darker jacket.
C. Tom Ewing. He was Bill’s last guitar man from the mid 1980s on to Bill’s passing in 1996. Tom became a trusted “First Lieutenant” to Bill. 10-15 years of service. He is an authority on Monroe’s career, as he has done EXTENSIVE research to compile as nearly as possible ALL of Bill’s show dates in his career. Tom has had his ups and downs. Once playing at the Turning Point in Piermont NY Tom was badly “overserved” and during Monroe’s set he pitched face-first right off the stage into the audience tables. Thankfully Tom has put those days behind him. Here’s a TNN video with Tom on guitar and singing on Uncle Pen.
D. Kenny Baker — THE MAN! Twenty-seven years (off and on, as one of the winners correctly pointed out) from the late 1950s to the early 1980s. Kenny has often been called a Kentucky coal miner, which was correct. But one time when he left Monroe to go “back in the mines”, it was in a management position. Kenny learned his fiddling from his dad, got into swing fiddling, served in Navy in WWII, and played with country star Don Gibson before joining Monroe. Kenny said he fed endless dimes to jukeboxes listening to the Blue Grass Boys’ instrumental records like Cheyenne and Roanoke (Bobby Hicks fiddling). He and Bobby made a very nice twin fiddle LP when Bobby returned to Nashville. The longest serving Blue Grass Boy and as Bill introduced him “The Greatest Fiddler in Blue Grass!” Here’s Kenny doing a FIERCE job on “Kentucky Mandolin” with Bill, I think on Austin City Limits on PB
E. Rudy Lyle — Rudy joined the Blue Grass Boys in 1949 after Don Reno left, and played on Monroe’s final Columbia session and first Decca session. Rudy adored Earl Scruggs. I read once that Rudy and Ralph Stanley used to “chase” Flatt & Scruggs shows in their off-time just to marvel at Earl in person. Yet Rudy created his own quirky banjo style. He played with Monroe, much like Bobby Hicks, til he got drafted, and came back to the band for a short while after service. It is said he had shell shock or PTSD from Korea and sometimes would just not be able to take it, and he would disappear. )Also reported about WWII vet Don Reno…) Sadly he gave up the banjo and the rest of his music career was on electric guitar with regional Virginia country bands. Under 10 years service as a BGB. Rob McCoury plays a few of Rudy’s better licks, as does Robert Montgomery of David Davis’ Warrior River Boys. Here’s a YouTube link to Rudy’s most famous banjo break on Rawhide.
All of these musicians added creatively to the Blue Grass Boys legacy. And helped Monroe keep his band alive after Elvis “hit” and nearly destroyed country music.