PETER V. KUYKENDALL

PVK-AT-DESKPETER V. KUYKENDALL
(January 15, 1938—August 24, 2017)
By Richard Spottswood 

Following a lengthy illness, one of the most remarkable and productive lives in the history of our special music came to an end when Peter Van Kuykendall (January 15, 1938—August 24, 2017) died in his sleep of natural causes at the Amerisist Assisted Living in Warrenton, Va. It’s no exaggeration to say that without him, today’s thriving bluegrass scene would look and sound a lot different. There are few aspects of the music, including its history, culture, business, broad reach, and its beauty, that Pete hasn’t played a decisive role in shaping, and he dedicated his long, productive life to seeing it grow and thrive. Over time, his influence has extended to the way bluegrass sounds and to how we hear it.

He was one of a remarkable set of music people from the greater Washington, D.C. metropolitan area that were involved with tradition-based country music in the early to mid-’50s. The list includes the Stoneman Family, Sally and Tom Gray, Peggy and Mike Seeger, Buck Ryan, Bill Offenbacher, Lamar, Frances and David Grier, Hazel Dickens, Jeremy Foster, Curly Smith, Eddie Adcock, John Kaparakis, Bill Harrell, Buzz and Wayne Busby, Jerry Gray, Francis Tinsman, Lucky Saylor, John Fahey, Don Mulkey, John Hall, Tom Morgan, Ed Ferris, Johnny Whisnant, Roy Clark, Al Sellers, Dave Swann, Jack Tottle, Bill Blackburn, Smiley Hobbs, Smitty Irvin, Porter Church, Tom Knowles, Gary Henderson, Tom Paley, Don and Kevin Owens, Sonny Johnson, Buddy Davis, Vance Trull, Don Stover, Alice Gerrard, Red Shipley, John Duffey, Bill Poffinberger, Ernest Ferguson, Joan Shagan, Garland Alderman, Don Bryant, Lola and Bill Emerson, Mike Kelley, Roy Self, Charlie Waller, Wayne and Bill Yates, Pete Pike, Joe Bussard, Paul Champion, John and Bill Garay, Dave and Mike Auldridge, Ben Eldridge, Charlie Smith, Benny and Vallie Cain, Carl Nelson, Russ Hooper, Tom “Tomcat” Reeder, Lucky Chapman, and more names I’ll no doubt remember after this goes to press. If you liked old-time country music sixty-plus years ago, the Washington area was a good place to be.

Even Hollywood’s Warren Beatty belongs on the list. He and Pete were classmates at Washington and Lee High School in Arlington, Va., where Pete would join informal after-school jams in an empty classroom. Beatty was a football star and class president who liked to stop by and listen when the music sounded good. Pete refused to take any credit for it, but when Beatty produced the movie Bonnie & Clyde in 1967, Flatt & Scruggs’ “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” was the leitmotif that underscored the getaway scenes. To his credit, Beatty astutely chose to use the original supercharged 1949 version instead of the 1965 stereo remake others would have picked. Pete would have made that choice, too.

Pete grew up in Arlington. His mother taught music and (against her wishes) Pete learned to play blues and boogie woogie credibly on the piano. He played the clarinet in school bands while learning to love the tradition-based country music that was yet to be called bluegrass. You could hear it on local radio with hosts like Cactus Matt, Don Owens, Connie B. Gay and Mike Hunnicutt, on WGAY (Silver Spring, Md.), WARL (Arlington, Va.) or WEAM (also Arlington). In 1954-’55, Buzz Busby, Pete Pike, John Hall, and Don Stover even starred on a live daytime show on WRC-TV. At night, there were clear-channel AM stations WWVA (Wheeling), WRVA (Richmond), and WCKY (Cincinnati). WSM was more remote, but sometimes favorable weather conditions would let us hear the Grand Ole Opry or the early morning Flatt & Scruggs show through the static, as the signal faded in and out.

Before Pete and I met in 1954, I too was drawn to the raw energy of those first Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, and Stanley Brothers records. In junior high school, I’d already learned to love 1920s jazz, current R&B, old-time blues, and traditional country music, and had begun collecting it on old records. Mike Seeger introduced me to Pete, knowing we were the same age and shared similar tastes. Pete was a collector, too, and he owned a healthy bunch of backwoods and bluegrass 78 rpm discs I’d never heard of, by unknown hillbillies from Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Ohio. Listening to Pete’s records and his passionate assessments of them taught me that the best music wasn’t always the most professional. I learned to love performances by local nobodies on local labels that only Pete seemed to know about.

Pete possessed an unerring ear and appreciated fine singing at least as much as instrumental virtuosity. His enthusiasm for the music bordered on the evangelical, and he cheerfully played his favorites for anyone who’d listen. As he learned the banjo, and he made acquaintance with older area musicians who knew when and where you could enjoy bluegrass in little clubs, rural roadhouses, and outdoor music parks that featured first-rate country and bluegrass bands that played the music we heard on radio, where the country playlists included just enough bluegrass to keep us listening. Pete’s banjo sounded good enough to be featured with the Country Gentlemen, Benny & Vallie Cain, and Red Allen and Frank Wakefield at various times, but he was increasingly drawn to work behind the scenes as he evolved from performer to producer. After graduating from high school in 1956, he studied broadcast and recording technology at the Capitol Radio Engineering Institute and took a job with Nat Allbright, a veteran broadcaster who recreated Brooklyn Dodgers games from an indoor studio at WINX in downtown D.C., where he narrated them from wire copy, used crowd noises and other sound effects to simulate real games and create the illusion of a live broadcast. On one special evening, Pete picked me up (I wasn’t driving yet) and took me to the studio, where WINX was planning to scuttle a large group of R&B, blues, and gospel music 78 and 45 rpm records they no longer needed. We helped ourselves and left with big smiles on our faces. The car was a lot heavier on the trip home.

An early morning DJ shift at WKIK in Leonardtown, Md., sixty-five miles from his Arlington home, lasted until a crash destroyed his car. He worked later in the Recording Laboratory at the Library of Congress, making preservation copies of aging disc and tape recordings in the Archive of Folk Song, and he was a sales rep for most of the 1960s at Electronic Wholesalers on Sherman Avenue in northwest Washington, D.C.

All were jobs that gave Pete time for his work. The Country Gentlemen, began as an informal aggregation assembled by Bill Emerson in 1957. John Duffey, Charlie Waller, and Larry Leahy were recruited at the last minute to help Bill fill an engagement after the Buzz Busby band was injured in another auto accident. The quartet decided to remain together, and they soon developed a loyal following. Their first records were made by producer Ben Adelman, whose Empire Studio recordings were not high quality. Bill left the band in 1958, and Pete took his place for a year before yielding the banjo slot to Eddie Adcock, whose singular skills added new dimensions to bluegrass banjo during his 11 years with them. Though not on stage with them, Pete stayed close to The Gentlemen. For a while, he and Mike Seeger produced their Starday records at Capitol Transcriptions in downtown D.C., and created the first of several Folkways LPs that would introduce the Country Gentlemen to northern folk audiences. Their successful blend of current and old music was due in no small part to Pete’s exceptional knowledge of traditional songs and his ability to select both old and new ones that best fit their superior musicianship and edgy urbane style, plus John Duffey’s skill at harnessing the contemporary sounds of folk and pop music and turning them into bluegrass.

In 1962, Pete began to record The Gentlemen himself, purchasing the best equipment he could afford from Electronic Wholesalers and installing a modest studio in the basement of his Falls Church, Va., home. As the band’s premier bassist, Tom Gray recalls, “Pete always had the best interests of the Country Gentlemen at heart, even when he was no longer a member.” Eddie Adcock adds, “I always thought of Pete as the fifth Gentleman.” The studio quickly outgrew the basement and moved to the second floor of a retail store in downtown Falls Church, where it lasted until 1965, when Pete joined the engineering staff at WETA-TV in Arlington.

With custom recording activities came the need for song publishing to protect ownership of copyrightable material, starting with The Gentlemen, whose original songs until then had been logged at Starday. Pete created Wynwoood Music BMI for the purpose, a move that would serve him well in years to come. He contributed a few memorable songs to the catalog himself, including “I Am Weary, Let Me Rest,” “Journey’s End,” “No Blind Ones There,” “Down Where The Still Waters Flow,” and “Remembrance Of You.”

Early in 1963, Pete played me a song I’d never heard by Mississippi John Hurt, whose music we both loved. It was “Avalon Blues” taped from a 1928 disc that had belonged to the late Australian collector John Edwards. It was (and is) a great performance that opened with the line, Avalon’s my home town, it’s always on my mind, sending me straight to an atlas, where I spotted a tiny town called Avalon, a few miles north of Greenwood, Mississippi. A friend, Tom Hoskins, was planning to drive to New Orleans for Mardi Gras, and I persuaded him to make a detour to Avalon to learn if John Hurt still lived there. He did, and Hurt was pleasantly astonished to learn that people still listened to his old records. During the summer that followed, he made appearances at northern folk music venues and was invited to the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, where his appearance launched a belated new career that lasted until his death in 1966. Pete recorded Mississippi John on several occasions and placed his songs with Wynwood Music. John became a major influence on a gifted young guitarist named Merle Watson, whose father Doc named him after Merle Travis, but was just as happy to see him inspired by John Hurt.

Ironically, and despite his popularity at the height of the folk revival, none of Hurt’s songs became hits. Instead, they came from two more veteran 1920s bluesmen that Pete recorded. Nehemiah “Skip” James (1902-1969) from Bentonia, Miss., was a moody, volatile man, whose brilliant, idiosyncratic guitar, high-pitched singing, and mournful songs were emotionally compelling, deeply down-home, and everything a serious blues fan could ask for. Eric Clapton created a rock version of Skip’s guitar tour de force “I’m So Glad” and included it on his group Cream’s 1966 Fresh Cream collection. The royalties were a major help when an earlier cancer that Skip thought had been cured reappeared in a more virulent form and took his life in 1969. Royalties were augmented by a live version of “I’m So Glad” on Cream’s final LP in 1969, and it helped with the bills during the months leading up to Skip’s death on October 3.

Next was a biblical narrative, adapted to an older blues melody by the Memphis pastor and guitarist Robert Wilkins (1896-1987), who once made music alongside Furry Lewis, Will Shade, and other Beale Street blues legends. He recorded a few haunting blues in 1928-’29, before joining the Church of God in Christ. Perhaps the best was his mournful “That’s No Way To Get Along,” that Wilkins transformed into “The Prodigal Son,” coupling the old tune with Christ’s tale of salvation from the Gospel of Luke. As Stephen Wade notes, “Its musical elements reflect black and white guitar music, from Hobart Smith and his renderings of the variously titled ‘KC Whistle,’ ‘KC Blues,’ or ‘KC Moan’ to blues-inflected renewals of the ‘Spanish Fandango’ that Mississippi John himself played.”

The Rolling Stones put “Prodigal Son” on their best-selling Beggar’s Banquet album in 1968, and the royalties further expanded Wynwood Music’s coffers, providing the capital for Marion and Pete Kuykendall to assume control of Bluegrass Unlimited and keep it running. Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton undoubtedly know that their efforts contributed to the stature that Skip James and Rev. Wilkins enjoy today, but they might be surprised to learn that their blues and gospel songs underwrote the survival of a struggling bluegrass fan magazine at a critical moment. Longtime readers know of BU’s 1966 origins in the Wheaton, Md., home of Vince and Dianne Sims, where the mimeographed monthly magazine was produced on a shoestring for four years until the Kuykendalls were ready to take it to the next level by improving its appearance, creating new sources of revenue, and operating it full-time. Up to then, I’d been BU’s unpaid editor, but other demands (including medical problems and the need to earn a livelihood) kept me from giving it the time and expertise it needed to reach a professional level.

Pete’s skills, imagination, and ambitious plans made him the best CEO the magazine could have, and Marion’s discipline and business acumen made her the Managing Editor and his best ally. They incorporated BU as a for-profit organization and learned the routine chores of preparing and assembling new monthly issues that had to be edited, printed, addressed, bundled, and shipped on a regular basis. Its attractive format eventually included feature articles on working bands, histories, Murphy Henry’s “General Store,” Walt Saunders’ “Notes & Queries,” record and book reviews, instrument features, concert and festival dates, performer appearances and contacts, classified ads, and more. When the makeover was complete, Bluegrass Unlimited was transformed from a quaint fan magazine to a professionally produced journal of record that appeared in thousands of mailboxes at the end of every month and always had something of interest to say.

With its future assured, Pete sought new fields to conquer. Bluegrass Unlimited produced 17 successful bluegrass festivals from 1972 through 1980 at a campground a few miles west of Hagerstown, Md. After Marion’s premature death, Pete and Kitsy Kuykendall were married in 1986. Lucky Pete! Her energetic style and many achievements soon rivaled his own. Both were founding members of the International Bluegrass Music Association and stayed committed to it from then to now. Kitsy became known affectionately, deservedly, and far and wide as the Queen of Bluegrass, and IBMA became a voice of authority and a public reference point for the music. Artists, instrument makers, and other stakeholders joined thousands of fans who loved the music to lend support to the new organization. All came to annual conferences and World of Bluegrass events, just to be where the music was and participate with others who loved it too. Pete received IBMA’s Distinguished Achievement Award in 1988, he was Print Media Person Of The Year in 1991, and he was inducted into the Bluegrass Hall Of Fame in 1996.

In 2001, there were two more hit songs from the Wynwood Music catalog heard in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the film and multi-million selling soundtrack record. Pete’s own “I Am Weary, Let Me Rest” was one, and Skip James’ chilling “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues” from 1931 was the other, and his second post-career successful song.

IBMA, its sister organization IBMM (International Bluegrass Music Museum), and bluegrass itself have flourished in recent years, usually with the help, advice and contributions of Pete Kuykendall. Fortunately, the outlook is bright for them, and Pete deserves a considerable portion of the credit for that. Though he was a creative and complex person, he rarely sought recognition for his vast knowledge, inspiration, and many good works. He struggled through much of his life with a bi-polar condition that he fought to control, coping with mood swings that could bring on either severe depression or wild optimism. Fortunately, the situation wasn’t all negative, as some of Pete’s best ideas emerged from moments of euphoria, and his conviction that he could do anything worth doing if he tried hard enough and smart enough. He understood music well, especially at the intuitive and emotional levels where great art dwells. He understood the role of records in preserving today’s music for tomorrow’s generations and how to capture music that presented artists at their best. He made friends easily and most will always feel strong personal loyalties toward him. His death deeply saddens us, but his life will always be with us.