Mountain Fever Records

If the name Deer Creek Boys sounds familiar, it’s because they’ve been around before—sort of. The band was originally formed in 1999 when brothers Justin and Jason Tomlin (guitar and bass, respectively) joined up with Carson Ogden on mandolin and played around their hometown of Amherst, Va. The group members eventually went in other directions, gathering experience with many top bands in bluegrass before coming back together. They added North Carolina banjo picker Andy Lowe and they were off releasing their first album, What Goes Up.

While taking individual turns with traditional sounding groups such as Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice, the Bluegrass Brothers, and Nothin’ Fancy, the Deer Creek Boys have added their own touch, which might be described as contemporary. It wouldn’t be a stretch for a couple of the tunes to crossover into country.

The first single, “How A Cowgirl Says Goodbye,” represents the band’s overall touch and sound. While the entire debut effort is solid, there are others that stand out. “So Good To Be Gone” is the lead-off track and lets a listener know the album is bluegrass via the showcasing of Lowe’s banjo work. Those who enjoy storyteller tunes won’t be disappointed with “Grey Ghost.” Justin “Tater” Tomlin penned “Some Kind Of Beautiful,” another song not to be overlooked.

The band has become popular on the festival circuit and signed on with Mountain Fever Records, which has accumulated quite a stable of bluegrass artists in the past few years. Label founder Mark Hodges summed up Deer Creek Boys this way: “I’m anxious for everyone to hear the music they are creating. I think it is traditionally based, but fresh and different.” (



New Side Record
No Number

One glance at the title of this album should tell you these are the songs most requested when the Mill Run Bluegrass Band plays out. Given that there are twenty songs, the band must spend a large part of their shows fending off or fulfilling requests.

Listening to the recorded results, it’s easy to see why they’re requested. Begin with the song choices. They’re excellent tunes, reflecting good writing, sing-along melodies, and strong emotion. Perhaps as many as 14 of them have classic or semi-classic bluegrass or country status—“Roses In The Snow,” “Good Woman’s Love,” “Rose Colored Glasses,” “There Goes My Everything,” “Loving Her Was Easier,” Merle Haggard’s “Fugitive.” Songs don’t get much better.

The other half of the equation is that Mill Run can really put the song across, instrumentally and vocally. Bob Goff, Jr., is an excellent lead singer—very powerful and with a sharp, cutting edge to his voice. His leads on Neal Allen’s “Singer,” “Rose Colored Glasses,” and “Loving Her Was Easier” are not to be missed. His wife, Billie Sue, is also an impressive singer. She’s added a slight rasp, more power, and a throatier, Southern gospel feel to her voice. She really hits it on “L.A. International Airport,” the brilliantly-written “Brown To Blue,” “There Goes My Everything,” and the achingly beautiful “If My Heart Had Windows.” Also worth mentioning is “Only Miles,” written and sung by the Goffs’ daughter, Cori Larson.

Ultimately, Mill Run doesn’t really alter much of the better-known song arrangements. They don’t really need to. Playing and singing them so well, however, lets the quality of the song shine through unhindered and makes   this album a pleasure to hear. (


University of Illinois Press 9780252081590. Paperback, 304 pages, b&w photos, chapter notes, index, song index, $22.95. (University of Illinois Press, Chicago Distribution Ctr., 11030 S. Langley Ave., Chicago, IL 60628,

When it comes to books, it is the best of times for bluegrass. Biographies, autobiographies, and annotated discographies are beginning to tell us the rest of the bluegrass story. Foggy Mountain Troubadour: The Life And Music Of Curly Seckler by music journalist Penny Parsons is a welcome addition to the canon. Penny has done a thorough job of documenting the history of Curly’s long life (96 years) and musical career (77 years) with detailed research and countless interviews. She skillfully gives us as much bluegrass history as we need to know, while constantly weaving in Curly’s own colorful memories of those times. Of Charlie Monroe, he said, “He’d fight a circle saw if you messed with him!”

Curly’s early forays into music included playing with his brothers in China Grove, N.C. He would also work with Charlie Monroe, Tommy Scott, and Mac Wiseman. Finally, in 1949, Flatt & Scruggs came calling. He would remain with them almost continuously until 1962, lending his powerful tenor voice to songs like “Some Old Day,” “Why Did You Wander,” and “Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” Because of Curly’s long tenure with the Foggy Mountain Boys, this book also provides an amazing amount of information about that band. Many of those delicious details come from Paul Warren’s date book, which now belongs to his widow Eloise. She would marry Curly in 1998. Friends called their courtship the “Foggy Mountain romance.”

Curly’s dismissal from the Foggy Mountain Boys in 1962 came as a surprise. He thought, “Good Lord a-mercy, what am I gonna do? Me with four hungry mouths to feed and not even a job.” Resourceful as always, Curly bought a truck and began long-distance hauling. But he never gave up his music. Over the next ten years, he appeared at many of the burgeoning bluegrass festivals and released the album Curly Seckler Sings Again. Then, in 1973, Lester Flatt came calling again, asking “Seck” to join the Nashville Grass. Curly stayed until Lester’s death in 1979 and then assumed leadership of the band, which continued on for another 15 years. For his many contributions to bluegrass music, Curly was inducted into the IBMA Hall Of Fame in 2004.

Penny Parsons doesn’t shy away from the sorrow in Curly’s life—he had to put his young sons in an orphanage and he, himself, had a nervous breakdown—but these incidents don’t define his life. They are part of the fabric. I highly recommend this well-written, highly readable book about a long life well-lived.MHH


Harvard University Press 9780674047846.
(Triliteral LLC, 100 Maple Ridge Rd., Cumberland, RI 02864,

So you think you know the banjo? Really? Are you aware of the African roots and Muslim influence on this instrument? Do you see it as one of the emblematic symbols of bluegrass music? What about as a symbol of the African-American experience in America? Brought over as an idea, it was first played by slaves. When it was usurped by white minstrels, it became a form of mainstream entertainment. As the industrial revolution kicked in, the banjo grew from a homemade instrument that went “plunk plunk” to the shiny more metallic “ring, ring de banjo” of later years.

Dubois unearthed the roots of this instrument using extensive research and backs up this research with detailed reporting of sources. He uncovers the European ethnocentric disparagement of the banjo from early on, in derogatory accounts of heathens playing a crude instrument with a discordant sound. For some folks, that attitude has never changed.

As Dubois traces the banjo through time, we see it in several manifestations. We meet the first significant builders and their attempts to make the instrument more acceptable to the upper classes. We read the words of many observers, in the process learning a multitude of names for the instrument. Dubois digs deep into its history to bring forth the essence of the banjo, shedding new light and revealing new depths of understanding about what this instrument signifies in the collective American psyche.

Later chapters talk about banjoists, but it’s really not about the players of the banjo so much as it’s about what the banjo represents in their hands. The author is quite taken by Pete Seeger and sees Seeger as emblematic to the role of the banjo today. Bluegrass is discussed and so is Earl Scruggs as part of Monroe’s band, but this book is really about the banjo.RCB

Josh Williams, Chasin’ The Feeling

Josh-cover-singleJosh Williams
Chasin’ The Feeling
By Larry Nager

It’s been more than five years, but people still ask Josh Williams about “The Bird.” In May 2011, the Josh Williams Band was playing Doyle Lawson’s festival in Denton, N.C., when a baby bird, just out of the nest, fluttered from the stage rafters to land on his Kendrick guitar. Williams stopped playing so as not to disturb it, but kept singing, the bird staring up at him for the rest of the song. The old saying came to life: “He could charm the birds out of the trees.” Video cameras rolled, and the YouTube clip went viral, more than 2.5 million views to date.

“I do think it was a blessing from God,” Williams says. “I don’t necessarily know yet what it meant, but I’ve seen too many things to believe in coincidences.” Most of us didn’t know at the time, but what gave it special meaning for him was that blessing came almost a year to the day after he completed rehab for the methamphetamine addiction that had wasted the robust 6’4” singer/guitarist down to a 140-pound skeleton.

“I was headed for death,” he says simply. He took a detour just in time, signing into a rehabilitation facility in Dickson, Tenn., near his home. “When I finally checked myself into treatment, I looked awful.” he says. He’s not lying. Look closely at Williams’ 2010 Rounder debut, Down Home, and you can see the sharp edges of his skull cutting into his skin. “And that was at least six to nine months before (rehab), six to nine months without really eating anything, just sucking on a (meth) pipe and drinking enough to keep myself from being dehydrated.”

Today, he’s remained clean and sober for six years and counting. Josh Williams’ story is not unique in bluegrass, of course. But what is unique is that, in a genre that remains in denial regarding drug and alcohol abuse, Williams has gone public. He tells his story with unflinching honesty on Modern Day Man, his new Rounder album. It’s the best, most mature and fully-realized music of his 25-year career.

“I’ve seen Hell in a few different forms,” he says. “I wanted this album to be a journey. Here’s where I was, and here’s where I am now.”

Williams mapped his journey in 12 songs from some of the finest writers in bluegrass and country, among them Tom T. Hall, Chris Stapleton, Harley Allen, Ronnie Bowman, and Jerry Douglas, played by an all-star cast including Sam Bush, Aubrey Haynie, Sierra Hull, Rob Ickes, Scott Vestal, Aaron McDaris, and pedal steel legend Doug Jernigan.

Album production began in November 2011, derailed several times, he says, when “life got in the way.” A painful divorce, a near-fatal blood infection suffered by his father, Tony, and other personal crises all slowed recording. It started as a Josh Williams Band project, but evolved into a solo album, arrangements of some songs expanding into a bluegrass/country hybrid in homage to one of his earliest idols, the late Keith Whitley, the bluegrass singer-turned-country star who, unlike Williams, was unable to conquer his demons, dying of alcohol poisoning in 1989. His other idol is another J.D. Crowe alumnus, bluegrass’ premier flatpicker Tony Rice, who has also dealt with substance abuse issues.

Crowe produced Modern Day Man and also produced Whitley’s early bluegrass/country efforts, including two songs Williams covers on the new album, “Girl From The Canyon” and “Another Town.” Crowe has high praise for Williams. “Josh is not only a bluegrass artist. He can sing what I call good country music,” Crowe said. “He’s very versatile. No matter what kind of music it is, get him the right material, and he can do any of it. And not just sing any song, but play any instrument and sing every part.”

The Kid From Benton

   Williams is a rare talent, even in bluegrass, which has more than its share of superstar prodigies. He grew up in a musical family in Benton, Ky., near Paducah. His dad Tony played guitar, and his paternal grandmother, Mary Neale Williams, performed on guitar and mandolin as a young woman. When Williams knew her, she was just playing ukulele. “Granny taught me to play,” he says. “I can remember sitting at her house and her playing a baritone uke.” She lived next door, so one day, when Williams was about five, he cut across the yard with his parents’ little soprano uke. “And she said, ‘Well, are you gonna play with me?’ And I think I surprised her when I really wanted to learn.” He was soon playing with her. “To this day I can still sing one of the songs she would sing, ‘Go Along Mule.’”

After the uke, Williams learned guitar from his dad. Then he saw his future on the family’s TV. “I was seven or eight, and me and Dad were at the house by ourselves. I used to constantly watch reruns of Hee Haw! There was a skit on there where Roni Stoneman and Mike Snider were doing a banjo duet. I don’t remember what it was, but they were trading back and forth, and I hollered for Dad and he came running out and he found me in front of the TV, just mesmerized. And I said, ‘That’s what I want to play.’ And he kind of laughed and said, ‘Really?’ And I said, ‘That’s it!’”

His father arranged lessons with a neighbor, banjo player and teacher Scottie Henson, who loaned him a banjo. “The first lesson was just holding it,” he says. “But, by the time I left that lesson, I was already doing rolls.” By ten, he’d recorded his first album, the cassette-only Tall Pickin’, produced (and titled) by his dad. “If he thought I played good, he would say, ‘Son, that was some tall pickin’!”

By 12, he was playing locally with his own band, Josh Williams & High Gear. About that time, his dad took him to his first IBMA in Owensboro. He met all his banjo idols and, because Henson’s personal banjo was a Deering, Williams hung around the Deering booth, where he met John Hartford, who was impressed enough to approach Greg and Jan Deering about giving Williams a banjo.

In 1993, then IBMA president Peter Wernick organized the IBMA Bluegrass Youth All-Stars. Williams played banjo, along with Chris Thile on mandolin, Cody Kilby on guitar, Michael Cleveland on fiddle, and Brady Stogdill on bass. He already knew fellow Kentuckian Kilby. “Cody and I would compete with each other at contests,” Williams recalls. “Cody was playing guitar, banjo, mandolin.”

That was Williams’ apprenticeship, high school years spent learning all the bluegrass instruments, some borrowed from his dad’s instrument-collecting brother, Reggie, who lived in Memphis. “Every time he came to visit, he’d bring an instrument, anything I wanted—fiddle, guitar, mandolin, Dobro.” Williams wasn’t just passing time, he was planning his career. “I realized if I wanted to play music and do it full-time, the more instruments I knew how to play, the better chance I’d have of finding a job.”

Kilby, now famed for his long tenure in Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder, was both nemesis and inspiration. “I’d won state championships on all the instruments, and so did Cody. I won a couple and then a couple times, I’d lose it to Cody. That helped me be better. I would show up and I’d have my things learned a certain way and Cody would come out and just rip something that would knock your socks off. I’d say, ‘Ok, now I know where the bar is set at, and I’m not there yet.’ So I’d go back and rehearse.” He became almost obsessive. “I started at thirty minutes a day, but it wasn’t long that it changed from, ‘You need to go in and practice’ to ‘Take that thing in the other room. I’ve heard it enough.’”

Williams and Thile became close friends in the All-Stars, especially after the Thile family moved to Murray, Ky. Williams remembers one session that became too much even for his bluegrass-loving dad. The three were driving from Kentucky to Nashville in the Williams’ van, with Thile and Williams in the back with their instruments. “We were sitting in these captain’s chairs, facing each other, and we played ‘Bury Me Beneath The Willow’ in every key, up a half-step each time, all the way up the neck and back (without a capo). And then we did it in every minor key the same way. And we were trying to figure out some other way to do it, when my dad said, ‘If I hear that song one more time…’ To this day, he’s not a big fan of that song anymore.”

Williams occasionally played banjo with Thile’s band Nickel Creek, but he credits their friendship with helping him transition to guitar. He learned vocal harmony on Sundays, when his family attended the Church of Christ, which doesn’t allow instruments at services. “It was all a cappella,” he said. “I guess that helped me hear parts pretty easily.”

Going Pro

   In high school, he got his first and just about only non-music job. “I went to work at a fast food place and hated it. But I stayed there a year and, like most musicians, I guess I got a little lure to play some music and not have to do that crap anymore.” He started playing weekends at the Kentucky Opry in Draffenville. “I didn’t make a lot of money, but I made just as much as I did at the fast food place.”

Senior year at Marshall High School, he joined his first national band, Chicago’s Special Consensus, playing mandolin and fiddle. “I met him, he must’ve been like nine or ten,” recalls Special C leader Greg Cahill. “His dad was such a great supporter, he’d take him to festivals and to shows and introduce him to other banjo players. I didn’t even know he was playing all these other instruments.” When the job came open, Andrea Roberts, Cahill’s bassist at the time, gave him a recording with Williams on mandolin. “She said, ‘You got to listen to this. He’s a great mandolin player.’ So we called him up and he and his dad came up to Chicago for the audition and we sat in the living room and played some songs and he was great.”

It was January and they arranged for Williams to play one weekend a month with Special C until graduation, then go full-time. During the audition, Roberts got a call from her mom, who was so ill that Roberts had to miss that night’s gig. Since Williams played everything else, Cahill popped the question. “You wouldn’t play bass, would you?” Of course he did, so Williams and his dad drove to Indiana for his first Special C gig. “He played impeccably,” recalls Cahill. “He knew all the Special C material and he was great. To me, that was remarkable. I knew him as the kid who played the banjo and I had just hired him to play mandolin in the band and then he played bass for the first gig. And it all happened in one day.”

Williams was still a kid, too young to legally drink a beer. He says Cahill took his bandleader responsibilities seriously. “I was on the road for three years with Greg Cahill before I was of legal drinking age and there was no drinking for me,” Williams says. “He said, ‘If I see you doing it, I will tell your parents.’”

Williams didn’t like the taste of alcohol, yet. Pot was a different story. He’d started in senior year. At 18, he began smoking cigarettes, which, in tobacco-producing Kentucky, is almost mandatory. “You turn 18, you buy a pack of cigarettes and a lottery ticket. The lottery ticket didn’t win nothing, but the cigarettes, I’m still struggling with that.”

Marijuana generally acts as a depressant, but playing bluegrass was so integral to Williams’ life. He says, “I was able to incorporate smoking pot with the music, and when you first kind of get that going, you think, ‘Holy crap! The creativity that I have is something completely different than what I’m used to.’ And you start exploring that. But in reality, who knows if that’s true or not?”

For Williams, “grass” and bluegrass was a potent combination. “I found that when I did do it, I could completely focus and completely lose myself in the instrument.” That’s an experience musicians of all genres talk about. Sober, high or drunk, they seek those rare moments of connecting to the music so completely, locking in so tightly with other musicians, that you lose all sense of self, as though you disappear into the music.

Pot was a shortcut, but it led to a dead end, he now realizes. Today, though sober, Williams still seeks those moments of being completely at one with the music. In that, music itself can be a drug, he says. “It’s not something you can try to do, it’s something that happens, and sometimes it happens, sometimes it don’t. Once I found that feelin’ of like ‘Aaahhhh,’ you start chasing that. It’s like any other addiction, you find that one feeling, and you spend the rest of your life chasin’ that.”

Taking The Lead

   Williams was still functioning, showing up on time and performing at a very high level, no pun intended. He even took more musical responsibility, transitioning from harmony to lead singing. “I sang a little bit of lead, here and there, growing up. When I was in Special C, I was singing a couple songs. Tom Riggs from Pinecastle heard me sing and wanted to sign me as a solo artist. And he just asked Greg one time, ‘How come you don’t have this guy singing lead?’” When guitarist Chris Walz left, Williams took over lead vocals.

That’s the paradox of Josh Williams. Even as his personal life spun out of control, his bluegrass career soared. The resulting anxiety may have caused even more self-medication, according to Dr. John Hipple, a therapist and drug counselor who has spent many years working with musicians, helming wellness sessions at the IBMA World Of Bluegrass as well as the SXSW conference in Austin. Hipple is based at the University of North Texas, a college specializing in music. He’s been with UNT’s Counseling Center since 1977. He says musicians, especially young musicians, are particularly at risk.

“The music business is so weird and so unique and a lot of kids, especially, don’t have a sense of that,” Hipple says. “It takes them a while to find their own niche, so that gets them into ‘experiment, experiment, experiment.’ And that gets into substance abuse and addiction. There’s that creative mind, which is so unique, there’s the profession which is so unique, so not normal, not the typical 8-to-5 type person. You have to have a family that understands the weirdness of your profession. Then there’s the boredom and the need for the rush. Especially if you’re fronting the band, there’s all that rush performing. But then what do you do after the show? What do you do on the bus? It’s looking for excitement and a rush and a unique experience. Or you’re looking for something that will settle you down.”

That describes Williams pretty well. “If I was on the road and I didn’t have anything to numb whatever was going on, hell, I’d go find a girl or something. Whatever it was I could do to change what I was feeling at that moment is what I would do.” He thought he had it figured out, but now realizes the mess he was in. “It becomes a problem long before you think it’s a problem,” he says. “When you’re in the middle of that addiction, you’re the last person to find out that it’s a big thing. When I was playing with Greg, he was probably thinking, ‘What the hell’s going on?’”

That was just Williams’ drug-induced paranoia. “I was not nearly as aware of it as I probably should have been,” Cahill says. “I knew they might have drunk a beer. I like to have a beer myself. But I was pretty clueless about the extent of that stuff.” After Williams’ addiction became known, his father confronted Cahill. “Tony came to me and said, ‘I trusted you!’ I felt like I let him down, but I really didn’t know.”

That was much later. Williams’ drug problems didn’t cause trouble in Special C, and didn’t prevent him being hired by one of the most successful bands in bluegrass, Rhonda Vincent & The Rage.

High and Lonesome

   Vincent knew Williams from Special C as a fiddler and mandolinist. She’d even hired him to fill in on fiddle in the early Rage. “I didn’t know he even played guitar,” Vincent says. In 2003, when she was looking for a guitarist, someone suggested Williams. “So I called him and he came in and blew us all away—everybody, Kenny Ingram, Hunter Berry. Josh came in and it was, ‘Wow! He’s amazing.’”

The 23-year-old, who’d been living with his parents, moved to Middle Tennessee and suddenly had more freedom and money than he knew what to do with. He bought a new diesel pickup, got himself a bachelor pad duplex in Pegram, outside Nashville, and could afford any toy, pharmaceutical or otherwise, that he wanted.

In the funhouse mirror from which he viewed his life, Williams convinced himself drugs were a necessary tool, expanding creativity.

“I think when somebody is gifted musically, they make it in their mind where they will explore any avenue of making their music a journey. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I do know for me, music was like my only way of being really, truly myself and not worrying about what somebody else thought. And when I didn’t have that, I was uncomfortable. So if the guys that I was hanging out with wanted to do this or wanted to do that, I would lean to, ‘Well, whatever.’”

To keep his job with Vincent, who had zero tolerance for drugs in the band or on the Martha White Bus, he lived a double life. “When I started working with Rhonda, I couldn’t travel with (drugs) because of her sponsorships. If I was out three or four days, I might just load up to the point where I had to be careful to not overdose. Then I’d go get on the bus and by day two, I’m just a complete jerk, because I’m coming off of that.”

By 2007, it had become an impossible situation. In the fall, a week before IBMA’s World of Bluegrass, Vincent let Williams go.

“He had nine lives,” she says. “It had been over and over and over. It just escalated. Every day was another issue and another issue, to where it was just, ‘We can’t do this anymore.’ Whether it’s being late or whatever, it was just violations. One person that has a problem like that, it affects the entire band. It’s like a poison and it was just infiltrating into everything. We loved him and we loved his talent, but he made it where it wasn’t a difficult decision.”

Looking back, Williams realizes she treated him very well. “The people that I saw let go while I was working for her, I definitely got the best treatment. I think it was because she believed in me, but she just couldn’t stand it anymore, she couldn’t sit there and watch me kill myself.”

He hadn’t hit bottom, so Williams, despite losing the best job he ever had, wasn’t ready to face facts. “She let me go at the beginning of IBMA week so, for me, my IBMA was just an absolute party. I’m sure I probably badmouthed her openly to whoever was listening. At that point, I was basically loaded up on drinking, cocaine, pot, whatever pills I could get my hands on, and a lot of arrogance.”

Awards and Addiction

   Once the haze of IBMA 2007 cleared, he began making plans. He formed the Josh Williams Band and started booking shows. At 27, he tried to change his rough and rowdy ways, quitting drugs and cutting back on his drinking and marrying his girlfriend, Jenny Harper.

Things were looking up. The Josh Williams Band was getting gigs and, in the spring of 2008, Tony Rice called him to play mandolin in the Tony Rice Unit. That earned him new respect from fellow musicians, he says. That fall, he won his first of three consecutive IBMA Guitar Player Of The Year honors. He’s again nominated in that category for the 2016 IBMA awards.

Looking back, Williams says the contrast in his appearances at the 2008 and 2009 IBMA awards was frightening. “IBMA 2008 was about a month before I started (using meth). I wore a tuxedo, I was married, my hair was fixed nice. And then the next year, I had glasses that were super-tinted, I wore jeans and a shirt that wasn’t even tucked and some kind of jacket. I was a lot thinner. That was the year that it all got really, really bad. I was just barely alive.”

He began using meth almost by accident, he says. “I was just jamming with these guys and they’d mentioned something about liking to party a little bit, and it had been a long time since I’d done it, so why not? I thought we were gonna do a few lines of cocaine, but they were smoking it, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ve done that before. No big deal.’ So I never asked, and when it came my turn, I grabbed it and as soon as I hit it, it was just, ‘What is this?’ It tasted different than anything I ever had. And the guy just nonchalantly said, ‘It’s just a little crystal methamphetamine.’ And I said, ‘O.K.’ And in my mind I’m thinking, ‘Oh my god! What have I done?’”

Longer-lasting than coke, and without the accompanying anxiety, meth quickly became a habit, as Williams juggled the roles of husband, bandleader, star musician, and drug addict. Nonetheless, he won 2009’s IBMA guitar award, just before the death spiral that shrunk him to 140 pounds.

Onstage, singing and playing, he was still a master. When Pinecastle Records folded before releasing his third solo project, Down Home was picked up by Rounder Records. Ken Irwin at Rounder had been aware of Williams’ talents since his IBMA Youth All-Star days, following him through Special C and his years with Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, a Rounder act at the time.

“He has all the attributes that you really look for,” Irwin says. “He’s a wonderful singer, has a good sense of taste in songs, striking appearance, commanding stage presence, great musician on various instruments, good visibility between his playing with Rhonda and Tony Rice. It seemed like all of the pieces were in place for success.”

He was thrilled to be on the same label as idols Rice, Crowe, Whitley, and Alison Krauss. But as Rounder was releasing Down Home, Williams was checking into rehab. He struggled through his month-long stay, knowing the alternative was death, finding solace in the guitar he had brought, performing for other patients. A favorite there was “Let It Go,” by Jerry Douglas and Ronnie Bowman, about freeing yourself from the poisons in your life. “I remember looking around and everybody was just bawling. And I had like two or three different guys come up to me at the end of their stay and say, ‘If you hadn’t of done that song, there was no way I would have stayed here.’” (The song is on Modern Day Man.)

His time in rehab showed him addiction knows no social boundaries. “I remember four guys there. One was an optometrist; the guy right beside him was facing kingpin charges for manufacturing and distributing methamphetamine; the other guy was a deputy sheriff; and the guy next to him was a lawyer. And the four of them were sitting at the same table, being friendly. They shared that journey together.”

Halfway through his thirty-day rehab, he received another important reason to live. His wife Jenny told him she was pregnant with their first child, Weldon (now 5). Out of treatment, Williams began rebuilding his life, even volunteering at the center to work with addicts. In 2013, the couple had a daughter, Whitley Neale, named for Keith Whitley and Williams’ uke-playing grandma. While his marriage survived addiction, the damage was done, and they separated soon after.

Today, a single dad, he struggles to balance life on the road with family responsibilities he takes very seriously. “My kids have never seen me drinking, and they will never see me on any kind of drugs,” he says. As he worked on his solo career, leading the Josh Williams Band (and winning the 2010 IBMA Emerging Artist Award, along with his third guitar honor), he realized he wasn’t cut out for the unique demands that bluegrass places on bandleaders. Other genres provide an infrastructure of managers, road managers, guitar techs, soundmen, accountants; in bluegrass, those roles default to the bandleader.

Irwin remembers discussing that in one of Hipple’s IBMA workshops. “At one of the wellness sessions, this guy said something that had never occurred to me. At age 17, 18, 19, 20, if you could play guitar and sing, you became a bandleader. And the counselor asked me to talk a little bit about Rounder. We have accounts payable and we have accounts receivable and PR people and an HR person. And (Hipple) said, ‘You know, when that 18 or 19-year-old kid starts a band, he has the skills that he can sing and play, but he also has to take care of lodging, has to take care of booking. He has to do all the things you just mentioned: accounts receivable, accounts payable, he has to do all the hiring and firing. That’s an amazing amount of pressure, and not to have the requisite skills and experience to deal with all those jobs and the resultant pressure and all the competition, it’s a wonder that they’re all not substance abusers. And that probably fits Josh very well.”

Those IBMA wellness sessions were short-lived. The bluegrass community largely refuses to face its substance abuse issues. “Nobody’s going to own up to that, because that’s admitting you have a problem,” says Vincent. But denial is no solution, she knows from experience. “Everything is in bluegrass. It (addiction) is part of life, and to say it’s not in bluegrass, that’s hilarious.”

Some of our greatest artists, Carter Stanley, Red Allen, Scotty Stoneman, Jimmy Arnold, Keith Whitley, Harley Allen, and most recently, James King, to name a handful, all had substance abuse problems that shortened their lives, even as it brought that lonesome sound into the music. Moonshine and old-time music are inseparable, and much of the first generation of bluegrass was able to drive all night to the next show thanks to those “little white pills” Dave Dudley sang about. “Just because you’re a bluegrass musician doesn’t make you immune to all these other things,” says Hipple. “But how do we help people believe that it’s O.K. to ask for help?”

Home in the Rage

   Pre-rehab, Williams dealt with those pressures by escaping with drugs. The older, wiser Williams realized he needed to get rid of the pressure. He’d stayed friends with Vincent’s daughters, Sally and Tensel, throughout his recovery. “My girls knew that I was looking for a guitar player. And they said, ‘You should call Josh.’ And I said, ‘I can’t even imagine that.’ And they said, ‘He’s completely changed. He’s a different person. Mom, you really need to talk to him. Just call him.’”

Vincent did and arranged a meeting. “He knew this is a one-time offer. If he gets fired this time, it’s the last time.” She’s confident Williams knows what’s at stake. “He basically lost everything. And that is something that keeps you in check. ‘I like my life now and I don’t want to go back to that.’”

For Williams, returning to Vincent’s band in 2013 was a homecoming and a healing. “You go from traveling on a bus to not traveling at all, to traveling in a van or driving yourself, and to come back to that bus, boy, it’s good to be home. It takes all the worry off you. You can just be one of the other guys and not have to worry about having that stress—is the check going to come through? How am I going to pay these guys? I don’t have to worry about hotels, any of that.”

On her part, Vincent has been thrilled to have him back. But as Williams continues to grow and mature as an artist, as he shows so brilliantly on Modern Day Man, she has mixed feelings about his remaining in The Rage. “When Josh rejoined us—and I’ve never told him this—but we sat there in my studio and we were rehearsing, and I just started crying. This is a guy who should have his own band. He’s one of the most talented guys that I know, but yet, he’s not cut out for that. Bluegrass is in his DNA, but the other aspects of it are not. He said he was so grateful, that he was looking forward to not having that responsibility. But I started crying because I’m thinking, ‘This guy should not be in my band, but I am so grateful that he is.’ He should be on the road on his own, but I don’t think he’s cut out for that.”

He’s still just 35, so that doesn’t mean he’ll never be ready to run his own band. For now, he’s happy riding The Rage bus, focusing on his growing family when he’s off the road (he and singer/songwriter Dani Flowers had a son in June), and concentrating on the world he understands best and where he’s most at ease—music. Clean and sober, he’s still chasing that feeling, but his exclusive drug of choice is bluegrass. “My recovery is my responsibility, and I learned when I went through it that anything that I put ahead of that, that’s what I will lose,” Williams says. “If I put a relationship, if I put my kids, if I put anybody or anything in front of that, that is what I will lose.”

Now, this is where the typical article closes with a happy ending, the wide-eyed newbie excitedly heading to a bright future of big festivals and CD sales; the veteran finally getting his or her due with a new album or career-capping honor. But this isn’t one of those stories. Josh Williams doesn’t have his happy ending yet. He’s still writing his story, one day at a time. And how it turns out is completely up to him. “It ain’t over,” Williams says. “And that’s the best part.”

Eddie & Martha Adcock with Tom Gray

adcocks-pageEddie & Martha Adcock with Tom Gray
Many A Mile Still To Go
By Penny Parsons

Personal relationships that last a lifetime are wonderful and rare these days. It’s even more extraordinary for a musical partnership to endure in this way, particularly between two people who are married to each other. But that’s exactly the kind of relationship Eddie and Martha Adcock have. After more than four decades together, they’re still in love and still happily making music together.

Long-lasting friendships—the kind in which two individuals can repeatedly veer off in separate directions but always return to pick up right where they left off—are also few and far between. And, going back over half a century, that’s the type of relationship that exists between Eddie Adcock and his former Country Gentlemen bandmate Tom Gray.

Eddie and Martha have continually refreshed their music by playing what they enjoy, adding elements of folk, country, blues, gospel, rock, and jazz to their bluegrass. Their personnel configurations from II Generation to David Allan Coe have ranged from a duo to a seven-piece group. They had been performing exclusively as a duo when, in 2005, they invited Tom to join them on some shows. They found the connection was still there, both for audiences and for themselves, and they began to perform together on a semi-regular basis as a trio.

Each contributes an essential ingredient: Martha’s expressive singing and powerful rhythm guitar playing; Eddie’s dazzling instrumental solos and smooth vocals; and Tom’s dynamic bass playing. With roots in many genres, these three bring a wealth of influences, skills, and experience to the table. Their broad repertoire has positioned them at the forefront of the expansive modern bluegrass movement.

Eddie Adcock was born on June 21, 1938 in Scottsville, Va., a tiny town about twenty miles south of Charlottesville. His rural family of ten survived by doing farm work. During World War II, they had no record player and only a worn battery for their old radio, so Eddie’s early love for music grew mostly from the live musicians he heard playing at the local theater, Victory Hall. By age seven or eight, he began to try his hand at playing instruments that were at home, church, and school, including accordion, pump organ, piano, harmonica, guitar, fiddle, and mandolin.

Fortunately, his sixth grade teacher, who was a professional singer, recognized Eddie’s love of music and his budding talent. She made a special effort to expose him to recordings of music he might otherwise not have heard. Eddie recalls, “I never heard a musical instrument that I didn’t like something about it.”

By the time he was ten or eleven, Eddie was playing mandolin in a band called the James River Playboys. At age 16, he left school and began his journey as a nomadic musician. “I heard that a band that I listened to on WSVS in Crewe [Va.] needed a five-string banjo player for their Saturday night dances,” he said. “Two weeks later, I had bought a banjo and was saying, ‘I’m a five-string banjo player.’” The bandleader, Smokey Graves, wasn’t fooled, but saw that Eddie had potential and gave him time to learn and expand beyond his single-string, flatpick-style.

From the beginning, Eddie blazed his own creative trails. He was one of the first (along with Don Reno) to play single-string solos on the banjo in bluegrass. He also incorporated sounds from other instruments into his playing. “I play pedal steel [licks] on the banjo and on the guitar,” he says. “And I play Travis-style on the banjo.”

Though he didn’t necessarily set out to be an innovator, Martha explains, “He didn’t know what he wasn’t supposed to do. Eddie’s style has always defied both categorization and emulation, because he’s not limited to playing recognizable riffs and rolls. He’s always just played music. He wasn’t limited to one instrument or even one style. It’s far more challenging to be a free bird musically, and yet make a lot of real statements, as Eddie has done over the years. It doesn’t fit into the box.” Eddie adds, “I don’t do anything any harder than anybody else. Just, what I do is so unique, it scares people. I’ve always been a very restless sort of musician.”

A look at his career timeline reveals he has repeatedly straddled the line between bluegrass and more progressive music styles. In the 1950s, his stints with bluegrassers Mac Wiseman, Bill Harrell, Buzz Busby, the Stoneman Family, and Bill Monroe were interrupted by a job on television in Norfolk, playing rock’n’roll. “I did a four and a half hour TV show on Saturday nights,” he recalls. “Elvis had just hit, and the station was jumping on it. I was playing electric and acoustic guitar.” An ad in the Winchester Evening Star for a music event at Watermelon Park in Berryville in August 1957 touted Eddie as “Norfolk, Virginia’s New and Great Rock-N-Roll Singer and TV Star.”

Eddie was also playing some rock’n’roll with Bill Harrell & the Rocky Mountain Boys and with the Stonemans, although he was doing it on a banjo. “Scott Stoneman and myself were playing plain, unadulterated rock’n’roll with bluegrass [instruments],” Eddie says. “He would introduce me as ‘the only rock’n’roll banjo player alive.’”

In the spring of 1959, 21-year-old Eddie joined the fledgling Country Gentlemen, which had formed in July 1957. He spent the next 12 years with The Gentlemen, helping to create their trademark sound, along with founders Charlie Waller on guitar and John Duffey on mandolin.

In 1960, 19-year-old bass player Tom Gray joined the band. While in high school, Tom had started a group called the Rocky Ridge Ramblers, and had gone on to perform briefly in bands with Bill Clifton and Buzz Busby. He was a fan of the Country Gentlemen, and regularly attended their four-night-a-week performances at the Crossroads Restaurant in Bailey’s Crossroads, Va. He sometimes filled in for bass player Jim Cox who had health issues, so when Cox left the band, it was an easy transition for Tom to take over.

Waller, Duffey, Adcock, and Gray, who have become known as the Classic Country Gentlemen, revolutionized bluegrass. They incorporated material from other genres such as jazz, folk, and rock, and embraced instrumental improvisation. They made bluegrass palatable to the urban audiences of Washington, D.C., and the Northeast, not only with their choice of material, but with sophisticated stage banter and outrageous antics. In so doing, they became one of bluegrass music’s most revered and influential groups.

“Musically, they were such individuals,” Martha says. “When you put those particular guys together, it was more than the sum of its parts. They were at the top of what they did, vocally and instrumentally. The material was grounded in traditional bluegrass, but with a twist. It just made a tremendous impact. It was immediately more desirable to more people than bluegrass had ever been before.”

Tom adds, “I think we were the most aggressive players in bluegrass at the time, and we were young and full of energy. Bluegrass had always been by—and for—country people from the South. We were playing in a city, for urban audiences. So, at that time, already seeking a new identity—being Gentlemen, rather than country boys.”

Eddie contends it was the band’s collective boundary-pushing, spurred by the individuals’ wide-ranging musical interests, which naturally led them to seek an audience beyond traditional bluegrass listeners. “We all knew our identity was something other than ‘Mountain-River-Valley-Boys,’” he states.

Although the band was turning heads and gaining a strong following, making a living in bluegrass music was challenging. Tom Gray left the band in 1964 for financial reasons. After getting married in 1963, he and his wife Sally were starting a family, and he felt the need to return to the stability of his day job at the National Geographic Society. Tired of “saving up to go on tour,” as he put it, Duffey left in early 1969, and was replaced by Rhode Island native Jimmy Gaudreau. Adcock was feeling increasingly restless, and a year later, he departed the band.

“My frustration to play more towards rock’n’roll was showing,” he recalls. In need of a change, Eddie moved to California, dusted off his electric guitar and played country rock under the name Clinton Codack. But after about a year, he found he missed bluegrass. He headed East to Bill Monroe’s festival in Bean Blossom, Ind. There, he encountered Gaudreau, and the two decided to form a band.

That new group, II Generation (pronounced Second Generation), pioneered a new movement in bluegrass that, appropriately, came to be known as “newgrass.” It allowed Eddie to live his dream of playing “rock’n’roll bluegrass” and opened the door for the next generation of musicians—young people who had grown up listening to both bluegrass and rock—to enter the playing field. As one of the most exciting and virtuosic groups of its time, II Generation’s impact is still palpable today.

For several years prior to joining forces with Eddie, South Carolina-born Martha Hearon had been immersing herself in bluegrass. She came from a musical family and began studying classical piano at age five. She soon took up the ukulele and then guitar. As a young teenager, she began performing as a folk singer, but after attending bluegrass festivals in the late 1960s, she was hooked. In 1973, she moved to Nashville to work with luthier Randy Wood, doing pearl cutting, inlay, and instrument repair work at the Old Time Pickin’ Parlor. It was there that she first met Eddie, and the two felt an immediate and deep connection. Martha joined II Generation as sound engineer and soon became its rhythm guitarist. In 1976, she and Eddie were married.

Although things have changed radically in recent years, in the 1970s there were very few women performing in featured roles in bluegrass bands. Martha recalls, “At bluegrass festivals, there might as well have been a sign on the door that said ‘No women allowed.’” But Martha wasn’t intimidated. Her musical heroes on vocals and rhythm guitar were Charlie Waller, Jimmy Martin, Mac Wiseman, and Bill Harrell, and she set out to walk alongside them, with full support from Eddie.

After six groundbreaking albums on the Rome, Rebel, and CMH labels, II Generation disbanded in 1980. Eddie and Martha had begun performing and recording as a duo, still with one foot in bluegrass and the other in more progressive music forms. They even spent a little more than a year in 1984-1985 touring and recording plugged in with outlaw country star David Allan Coe. As Coe’s bandleader, Eddie played the Gitbo, his double-neck electric banjo and guitar invention. After their stint with Coe, the Adcocks returned to an acoustic format, touring as a trio or quartet, first under the name Talk Of The Town and later as the Eddie Adcock Band.

In 1989, Eddie reunited with his former bandmates Charlie Waller, John Duffey, and Tom Gray to make their first recording in 25 years, Classic Country Gents Reunion, for Sugar Hill Records. The foursome had been appearing together on stage occasionally since the early ’70s, when Duffey and Gray had begun performing at festivals with the newly organized Seldom Scene. Martha recalls that Carlton Haney originally came up with the reunion idea, and soon other promoters followed suit. “Nobody wanted to give up the Country Gentlemen—what they had done and what they had been,” she says. “Everybody had been so impacted by it that they never wanted it to go away.”

The Sugar Hill album captured that classic sound, but with fresh new material. “I think it’s a wonderful landmark album,” Martha states. “I’m so glad they were able to do it when they were all still of great ability and interest in what they were doing.” The project was named IBMA Recorded Event Of The Year in 1990.

In 1996, the Classic Country Gentlemen were inducted into the IBMA Hall Of Fame. “We were the first entire band to be inducted,” Tom notes. “Up until that point, it had always been individuals or pairs, but this was the first time an entire band was inducted, so I was very honored and pleased that that happened.” Sadly, just a few months after the induction, John Duffey passed away unexpectedly, ending any chance of additional reunion performances. Charlie Waller, who had eventually taken over leadership of the Country Gentlemen, died in 2004.

By that time, Eddie and Martha had returned to performing as a duo. Tom had exited the Seldom Scene in 1987 and was performing with other groups. Then, in 2005, the Adcock and Gray stars aligned. “We were all okay with not working together all the time,” Martha says. “There was a lot of freedom, and yet there was that sense of being able to depend on somebody when you really wanted to. Our duet is the primary focus, but everybody loves Tom’s bass playing, and we just thought we could make a heck of a trio.”

Eddie enjoys playing with Tom. “He’s a pro. We knew that when he got on stage, he’d give a hundred and ten percent.” Martha adds, “He’s a marvelously easygoing fellow and one of the true jewels to work with. One thing we value highly about Tom is that he’s willing to tackle anything. Eddie can bring up the most outrageous tune, and Tom’s right there. Eddie’s always surprising him on stage. He’ll look at him as if to say, ‘Take a break on this,’ and it could be something Tom never thought he would be asked to take a break on. But he’ll jump right in.”

Tom says, “We have a lot of history together. I get a warm feeling playing with my old friends and getting a chance to play in ways that I can’t do with other people. When Eddie gets into his stride of Travis picking on the banjo, I can play a bouncy walking bass line in a way that I really can’t with other players. And, fortunately, Eddie is giving me a long leash.” Martha confirms, “Everybody gets to stretch out as much as they’d like to, and folks really seem to like that. And there’s a lot of the old Country Gentlemen cachet that goes along with that.”

In 2007, an unexpected opportunity for another Country Gentlemen reunion presented itself. Charlie Waller’s son Randy, whose voice sounds remarkably like his father’s, had taken over leadership of the band after Charlie’s death. He invited Jimmy Gaudreau to join him on a festival performance. Pleased with the result, Gaudreau suggested they add Adcock to the mix. Eddie called Tom, and the Country Gentlemen Reunion Band was complete. Soon, they were in the studio and Eddie was booking shows. Produced by Eddie and Martha Adcock on their own Radio Therapy Records, a 13-song CD was released in the spring of 2008. That year, the group played at concert halls and festivals from Ohio to Florida.

That same year, Eddie took time out to undergo Deep Brain Stimulation surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville to treat the debilitating hand tremors that had plagued him for several years. This was groundbreaking surgery, even more so because Eddie was awake and playing the banjo during the procedure so the surgeons could fine-tune the electrode they had placed in his brain. The procedure received worldwide attention, including segments on ABC’s Good Morning America, CNN’s Headline News, and countless other media outlets. The implant was successful, restoring Eddie’s dexterity and precision of movement, although several adjustments have been required in the years since.

In 2009, Tom joined the newly formed Darren Beachley & Legends Of The Potomac. Jimmy and Randy pursued other commitments, and Eddie and Martha returned to performing strictly as a duo. As they began to think about their next recording project, they decided, as Martha says, “It would be nice to do some of the old Country Gentlemen songs, because nobody else was doing them. I personally felt that the things they had done were far too good to just let them sit as a piece of recorded evidence. Those songs are so wonderful, they needed to have a chance to live again.”

The songs they chose to record are some of the most popular from Eddie’s tenure with The Gentlemen, including “Bringing Mary Home,” “Matterhorn,” “This Morning At Nine,” “Two Little Boys,” “Down Where The Still Waters Flow,” “Helen,” “He Was A Friend Of Mine,” and “New Freedom Bell.” One of the things that makes this collection unique, fresh, and enjoyable is that Martha did much of the lead singing. In some cases, that required a change of key, but with others, Martha found that she was able to sing in the same key as Charlie Waller’s original lead vocal, but an octave higher.

“I found out that a lot of those songs were more challenging than I had imagined,” she attests. There’s no limited vocal range in any of those songs. Some of them go really low and really high, for instance, ‘New Freedom Bell.’” Tom Gray notes, “That’s a song where John Duffey claimed to have sung higher than any other male.” In the Adcocks’ version, the verses are in the key of B-flat and the first chorus is in E-flat, but the second chorus is sung a full step higher in F. “Martha arranged that and I thought it was better than the original,” Eddie says. Martha adds, “It just felt like the song is so strong that it needs to increase here. And it adds even a little more impact.”

“Matterhorn” was comfortable for Martha to sing an octave higher than the Country Gentlemen version, while still retaining the powerful impact of Eddie’s distinctive banjo playing in its original range. “His introduction and his break on that—it’s played in a D chord, but capoed up at the seventh position on the banjo was, to me, essential for the sound and the feel of that song,” Martha stresses. “It happened that singing it an octave higher suited me just fine. That enabled Eddie to be able to play that intro that still knocks people over.”

The Adcocks had enlisted mandolinist Gene Johnson (a II Generation alum who went on to perform with Diamond Rio) and bass player Missy Raines (who performed with them from 1985-1993) to help with the project, which was recorded at SunFall Studio, their 24-track basement studio. About that time, the Legends Of The Potomac disbanded. Tom called Eddie saying, “I would love to do some shows with you guys again.” Pleased to have him back, the Adcocks arranged for Tom to replace Missy’s bass parts (with her approval) on about half of the songs. He also added baritone vocal harmony to eight songs.

Many A Mile by Eddie & Martha Adcock with Tom Gray and Friends was released in 2011 on Patuxent Music to enthusiastic reviews. Banjo Newsletter declared, “This CD belongs in your collection.” Dave Freeman of County Sales called it, “a really nice CD. The selection of 14 songs on this disc is exceptional.” Bluegrass Unlimited’s Robert Buckingham praised the vocal harmonies, adding, “Martha Adcock is a fine singer. She brings a depth of feeling and her special something to each lyric.” David Morris of Bluegrass Today stated, “All of the hallmarks of The Gents in their prime can be heard here: Eddie’s clear-as-a-bell banjo, a folky sound, and Tom’s signature walking bass lines.” Of Martha’s vocals, he asserted, “Her interpretations are stellar.”

Eddie feels that Martha has been underappreciated as a guitar player. “In my opinion, there’s never been a rhythm player as good as Martha,” he says. “She’s a human metronome.” He stresses that, as a lead player, he relies on Martha to provide the foundation that allows him to soar creatively. “I don’t play a lot of runs,” Martha explains, “because I want him to have space to do whatever he wants to do, and I don’t want to clash with that. If he goes out on these limbs, I’m going to be there when he gets back. That’s my job.”

In 2014, Eddie was awarded the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. Martin had created the award in 2010, and Eddie was its fifth recipient. For Eddie, the $50,000 prize could not have come at a better time. In recent years, various health issues, including emphysema, heart surgery in 2004, and a series of brain surgeries had put a strain on the Adcocks’ finances. If that wasn’t enough, in February of 2015, they were involved in a serious auto accident when a truck pulled out in front of them on a busy street near their home in Lebanon, Tenn. Eddie and Martha were both hospitalized with multiple injuries, and their car was a total loss.

Through all of this, the Adcocks soldiered on, but the Martin prize has helped them rebound and given them a new lease on life and music. “It enabled us to do some things that we really needed to do, such as get another car,” Martha says. “Eddie was able to purchase a portable oxygen concentrator so he can now play shows in relative ease. When good things happen like that, your whole outlook changes and your creativity increases, so it’s been a godsend for us.”

Eddie, Martha, and Tom have plenty of creative energy left in the tank. They are planning their next trio recording and possibly another Country Gentlemen Reunion Band project. Eddie is working on a banjo album, a guitar album, and an instruction video, in addition to teaching at banjo workshops. Martha plans to record a collection of her original songs. She’s also nearing completion of a full-length biography of Eddie, which has been over a dozen years in the making.

The Adcocks hope these projects will remind bluegrass audiences and promoters that some of the best music is still being played by those who pioneered the way for the up-and-coming bands of today. Martha says, “We see ourselves as continually viable in the marketplace, despite the fact that the emphasis is so great on youth now. It’s been our enjoyment for the last few years not to be the crazy people of bluegrass, which we certainly seem to have been at one point in our lives, playing things faster than anybody else could and going further out on limbs than everybody else. I think we’re as hard to categorize as we ever were. I think our music has become more palatable to more people. We’re into the sweeter side of things.”

Tom Gray

Tom Gray might never have had a career in bluegrass music had it not been for the babysitter. Tom was born in Chicago and spent his first seven years there. He recalls, “Mattie Bowers, who was from Tennessee, liked to babysit at the Gray family home because we had a strong radio that could pick up the Grand Ole Opry [on WSM in Nashville]. Mattie liked to sit with me on her lap and listen to the Opry. I was born in 1941, so I’d have been four years old when the original bluegrass band [Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise, Howard Watts] played.”

In 1948, Tom’s family moved to Washington, D.C. At age nine, he became interested in playing an instrument, beginning with accordion, then adding piano and ukulele. Around 1955, he discovered Arlington, Va., station WARL, which programmed the same kind of music he’d heard on the Grand Ole Opry. He felt an immediate connection. “As soon as I discovered hillbilly music, I bought a guitar,” he says. “About a year later, I got a mandolin.”

Announcer Connie B. Gay of WARL was also a concert promoter and, in 1956 or 1957, he brought Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys to perform at an amusement park in Glen Echo, Md. Tom found a spot right in front of the stage, and there he encountered a classmate, Monte Monteith, who was also a bluegrass fan. The two boys soon formed a band, the Rocky Ridge Ramblers, along with banjo player Bob Lindter and fiddler Ron Roswell. Tom was playing mandolin, but he was developing an interest in the bass fiddle. “I was always attracted to the bottom line of any kind of music I heard,” Tom says. “I really did want to be a bass player, as opposed to some pickers who wind up playing bass because it’s the only way they can get a gig.”

While browsing for records at Arlington Music, Tom met mandolin player Jerry Stuart, who had come to D.C. from North Carolina to study electrical engineering. He invited Jerry to jam with the band. “When I realized how good he was,” Tom recalls, “I said, ‘Jerry, why don’t you join our band and I’ll move over and play bass.’ So I thank Jerry for making me become a bass player.”

The Rocky Ridge Ramblers stayed together for about two years, during which time they played locally at band contests, taverns, and fairs. They also frequented music parks, including Sunset Park, New River Ranch, Watermelon Park, and Oak Leaf Park, where bluegrass headliners such as Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Reno & Smiley, and the Stanley Brothers performed. “My hero was George Shuffler,” Tom says. “I loved the way he played walking bass in those early Stanley Brothers Mercury records, and I wanted to play like George. But then I started hearing some jazz, and my jazz bass playing hero was Keeter Betts, who played locally in D.C. with the Charlie Byrd Trio.”

In 1957, Tom began to follow the newly formed Country Gentlemen. He saw them at WARL’s Saturday afternoon lawn parties and at their regular gig at the Crossroads Restaurant in Bailey’s Crossroads. Soon, he began to sit in with them and, in 1960, he joined the band, which at that time included Charlie Waller, John Duffey, and Eddie Adcock. He was with them when they played at Carnegie Hall in 1961. “That was a thrill,” he says. “We’d heard so much about the acoustics being so perfect at Carnegie Hall. After the sound check, Eddie said, ‘Tom, take this guitar pick and when I tell you, drop it on the floor. I’m going up to the highest balcony to see if I can hear it.’ And, sure enough, he heard it loud and clear.”

Tom left the band in 1964, after an argument with John Duffey during a recording session. He relates, “‘A Cold Wind A-Blowin’ was a folkie protest song about conditions in America, and I said, ‘We should not be running down our country singing this song.’ John said, ‘This is the most commercial kind of thing we can do, and you’re either going to have to play this song or get out of the band.’ I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to leave.’ After that conversation, I went out to my car and cried. I knew that for financial reasons, I was going to have to leave soon anyway. I had made that statement and I had to stick by it, and on that recording of that song, John Duffey overdubbed the bass himself.”

Though he returned to a day job at National Geographic, Tom also continued to play music on the side, working in the late 1960s with Benny & Vallie Cain, Buzz Busby, Bill Emerson & Cliff Waldron, and others. In 1971, Tom reunited with John Duffey to form another groundbreaking progressive band—the Seldom Scene. Evolving from a weekly jam session in banjo player Ben Eldridge’s basement, which also included guitarist John Starling and resonator guitarist Mike Auldridge, the Scene soon became one of the most popular and successful groups of the contemporary bluegrass movement. They went on to make a string of highly acclaimed recordings on the Rebel and Sugar Hill labels, toured internationally, and even played The White House.

After 16 years, Tom left the Seldom Scene in 1987 when the group sought to modernize by incorporating an electric bass. He performed with a number of acts over the next twenty years, including Paul Adkins & Borderline, the Gary Ferguson Band, Hazel Dickens, John Starling & Carolina Star (sometimes backing Emmylou Harris), and the Federal Jazz Commission (a Dixieland jazz band). Now, in addition to performing with Eddie and Martha Adcock, Tom tours with Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike.

Tom purchased his primary bass fiddle at Weaver’s Violin Shop in Washington, D.C., in 1973. He named it “Bessie,” after Bessie Lee Mauldin, who played bass with Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys during the 1950s and ’60s. The bass was made about 1955, by the Meisel Company in Mittenwald, Germany, a famous violin-making center. “It’s the only hand-carved bass I’ve ever had,” Tom says. “I can be a far better player when I’m playing Bessie than I can on almost any other bass.” When traveling by airplane, Tom often takes his “skinny bass,” an Eminence hollow-body electric instrument. “The pickup is on the surface of the hollow acoustic body,” he explains. “So it gets its sound from the vibration of the wood, not from the strings themselves. So it has a sound like an acoustic instrument.”

Tom is a two-time IBMA Hall Of Fame member, having been inducted in 1996 with the Classic Country Gentlemen and in 2014 with the Original Seldom Scene. In addition to those honors, his list of career highlights includes performing at Carnegie Hall with the Country Gentlemen, touring Europe with the Seldom Scene in 1987, participating in The Scene’s 15th anniversary concert at the Kennedy Center, and performing with Emmylou Harris in 2006-2007.



No Label, 316

   Jeff White has always been the quiet bluegrass star. Going back to his landmark work with Alison Krauss & Union Station on Two Highways, his two solo CDs for Rounder, his long-time role as backup vocalist and guitarist for Vince Gill, Tim O’Brien, The Chieftains, Patty Loveless, Lyle Lovett, and others, White’s understated brilliance has been a rare beacon of humble, honest musicianship in an era when overplaying and excess has too often been the rule. Today, he tours with Jerry Douglas’ band, the Earls of Leicester. There he fills the mandolin role and sings harmonies to perfection.

White has just released his first CD under his own name in decades. And it’s everything you’d expect it to be, filled with masterful original tunes (“Blue Trail Of Sorrow”) and populated by the best of the best A-list musicians—Tim O’Brien, Ronnie McCoury, Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski, Michael Cleveland, Vince Gill, Jerry Douglas, Barry Bales, Shawn Camp, and more. It’s a testament to White’s talent that he’s never overmatched or outshone here. His plaintive, haunting voice leaves an unmistakable impression on the listener across the dozen tunes here. Maybe the highlight vocal is Bill Monroe’s “Travelin’ This Lonesome Road,” where Del McCoury joins on high tenor to create a truly ancient tone.

White’s always been one of the most tasteful and economical flatpickers in bluegrass. Unlike so many modern players, White always seems to believe in playing one perfect note, rather than exhibiting a flashy display of guitar pyrotechnics. Listen to his lovely intro to “Another Road” and his solo on “Wise County Jail” for a lesson in world-class tone and timing on bluegrass guitar. When he does break out, it’s on a classic Buck White tune, “Buck’s Run,” where melody and tone dominate his solos. An eloquent songwriter, White brings five originals to this project, while his choice of cover material also reflects his wise judgment and taste, including tunes from Doc Boggs, David “Stringbean” Akeman, A.P. Carter, and Tim O’Brien.

There’s strong buzz around Right Beside You as Album Of The Year at IBMA, to which I’d add hopes to see White nominated as Male Vocalist Of The Year and Guitar Player Of The Year. He certainly deserve it, not just for this project, but for a lifetime spent quietly making other musicians sound better with his supporting work. Thank goodness he’s stepped out of the shadows to give us this heartfelt, gorgeous album. It should be one of the favorite bluegrass albums in years for many, many people. Most highly recommended. (



No Label
No Number

This a different sort of pairing, one both interesting and welcome. The principal musicians involved, the husband and wife team of Doni Zasloff and Eric Lindberg, aim to color old-time and bluegrass with Jewish elements, what they call “Jewish spirit.” This does not mean, necessarily, that they are mixing Jewish melodies or instrumental performance, though one would have to assume that some of that does find its way in. The Jewish spirit of which they speak is 1.) using the Hebrew language, sometimes alternately to English within a song as in “Esa Enai,” taken from the 121 Psalm and sometimes for a full song as in the Jewish prayer “Mi Chamoca” and 2.) using Jewish and Old Testament themes for subjects, such as in “River Song” in which the Garden of Eden, Noah, and Moses are the focus.

Does it work? Most definitely yes. The songs are often poetic, lyrically and spiritually engrossing, and always above reproach in both singing and instrumentation. Sometimes they are playful, as when they rework “Banjo Pickin’ Girl” into “Jewish Singin’ Girl.” Other times, they are intensely emotional, as in the gentle, prayer-like “Adonai Love Me” or declarative in their call for human unity, as on “Brothers And Sisters (Hine Ma Tov).”

Doni Zasloff is the principal lead singer. She generally uses a soft, smooth delivery and is particularly effective on the slower, more relaxed tunes. She can and does, however, let loose to good effect. Eric Lindberg also sings his share of the leads, but is most striking as a guitarist and banjoist. This is most noticeable on the three instrumentals, “Xander The Highlander,” “Suszno,” and “Millie’s Waltz.”

Backing the couple are Sam Bush, Scott Vestal, Rob Ickes, Mark Schatz, and fiddler Gary Oleyar. Nefesh Mountain means “straying from the norm.” This enjoyable, well-played recording does that to great effect. (



Dick Kimmel Music

Mandolinist Dick Kimmel’s latest release presents a gathering of predominantly instrumental tracks. Of its 18 tunes, Kimmel wrote nine. Five are traditional, running from the familiar “Mississippi Sawyer” and “Ragtime Annie”/“Texas Gals” to the lesser-known “Old French”/“Here And There Hornpipe” and “Sweet Ellen.” Three are covers.

Kimmel shifts often from old-time to bluegrass to Celtic, and from guitar and mandolin duets to twin mandolins with his son on “Really Reel,” and to the trio of Alan Munde, guitarist Adam Granger, and himself on his jaunty original “Sand Lake Rag,” and to full band configurations for the bluegrass-oriented tunes. Kimmel has beautiful mandolin tone and technique. His sound often has the stately, ringing tone of a hammered dulcimer. This is particularly true on his “Kakabeka Falls Waltz” and on the medley of “Old French”/“Here And There Hornpipe.” The “Old French” portion of the latter is particularly elegant. Those stand nicely beside the bright, clear renditions of “Sweet Ellen” and the title tune and also beside the propulsive and bouncy medley of “Smash The Window”/“Yarmouth Reel.”

Of the full band numbers, Kimmel’s original “Gray Grouse” stands out and makes good use of stops and hesitations and some slight modernistic touches. His “Caledonia Jake” also stands out, as does his upbeat “Wild Turkey Rag,” the most bluegrass tune on the CD.

Interspersed are three vocals covers. Of those, his slow, thoughtful rendition of “Love Of The Mountains,” performed in a duet with his son, has the best impact. Slowing the arrangement, as he has, brings out the song’s sense of longing. “Across The Great Divide,” given an interesting intro and interlude, is also good, adding to an overall fine recording. (Dick Kimmel, P.O. Box 101, New Ulm, MN 56073,



No Label
No Number

Rick Bartley has combined five originals with three bluegrass standards and several additional new songs from relatively lesser-known sources to produce what appears to be his first release (the liner notes here are the soul of brevity). The result is a well-performed, pleasant offering of 12 cuts featuring Bartley on guitar and lead and bass vocals, Doug Bartlett on fiddle, mandolin and vocals, Rod Smith on banjo, Albon Clevenger on fiddle, Jayd Raines on bass and vocals, and Randy Graham on vocals.

Among the stronger cuts are Rick Allred’s “Riverboat Fantasy,” Carter Stanley’s “Lonesome Night,” Dallas Frazier’s “Hickory Hollow’s Tramp,” “If You Don’t Have The Heart” from Larry McPeak, and two of Bartley’s own compositions “Ghost Of A Miner” and a very nice “Church By The Side Of The Road.” Bartley has a warm, solid vocal delivery which seems to shine especially on the slower numbers. The harmony work is quite good, and the instrumental support is solid throughout.

A quibble or two: this release would have benefitted from stronger and more varied material (almost two-thirds of the songs have a theme of heartbreak, lonesomeness, and/or lost love), and possibly more attention to mixing and production (there are some places where the lead vocal drops away and is almost inaudible, and there are some curiously long pauses—25 seconds—between cuts). But overall, this is a nice release that fans and friends of the performers, and perhaps a wider audience enjoying the traditional side of bluegrass, should find attractive. (Rick Bartley, 2963 Hwy. 882, Ezel, KY 41425.)AW



Mountain Fever
MFR 160429

This recording marks a slight departure for the Spinney Brothers. It’s still the same band, Rick and Allen, Gary Dalrymple on mandolin, and Terry Poirier on bass. The guests are Rob Ickes and Ron Stewart. Gentle nostalgia still dominates. Their sound has a more modern cast to it. In the past, they’ve worked that ’50s and ’60s-era sound that blended country and traditional bluegrass so well. Here, they mix in musical ideas that are more in keeping with ’80s and ’90s bluegrass. Sometimes, as on the lilting and chugging title-tune opener or on “Pocket Knife,” they’ll use a contemporary melodic line or interject a chord alteration into the progression, giving it a modern feel. Randall Hylton’s “Digging In The Ground” has a bit of that as well. “Bitter Wind,” by contrast, uses the modal-style setting that is so popular when a song needs to be ominous or edgy, as this tune is supposed to be. Another example is “Home,” a generally nostalgic tune with a generally traditional feel except for the slightly funky, rock-style mandolin chop.

That is not to say that the Spinneys have abandoned what has worked so well for them in the past. There is still plenty of traditional, older style bluegrass to be found here, even on those that sound more modern. The slow, soft “When You And I Were Young,” the “Lonely, Lonely Bed,” and the gentle nostalgia of “Going Home To Tennessee” fit that category. Added to that is their cover of Earl Taylor’s classic “The Children Are Crying.” They don’t quite capture the angst that Taylor did, opting (perhaps intentionally) for a more pensive sound, but they give it a heartfelt and entertaining reading. “Heartfelt and entertaining” can be found on the sum of this recording. (Mountain Fever Records, 1177 Alum Ridge Rd., Willis, VA 24380,



McCoury Music
No Number

   Opening unsolicited CD mailers can prove better than Christmas when the package contains something on the order of Del And Woody, the latest from the Del McCoury Band. Del McCoury selected and arranged the never recorded Guthrie lyrics, and the band made them their own songs. Woody Guthrie’s daughter Nora developed the inspired idea after hearing Del perform her father’s “So Long Been Good to Know Yuh” in his hometown of Okemah, Oklahoma in 2011. Credit the Del McCoury Band for their stunning execution of the concept.

In Bluegrass Unlimited, we can stipulate the greatness of the Del McCoury Band and move on to the triumph of Del And Woody. Refusing to mess with Woody’s songwriting, Del successfully went through page after page of lyrics to find a dozen songs that sound as if Guthrie wrote them for him. Someone ignorant of the songs’ source could easily think that the Del McCoury Band is just crushing it on yet another terrific album, since that is exactly what they did.

While these songs lack enduring classics like “This Land if Your Land” or “Pastures Of Plenty,” they contain good, often hilarious (see “Wimmen’s Hats”) lyrics made into great bluegrass songs. Broke-down cars, flour sack underwear, left in this world all alone, family reunions, working in coal mining and lumbering—these are classic bluegrass topics. The Del McCoury Band makes them fresh, powerful, hard bluegrass music. Thus, they connect to Woody’s roots in bands self-described as hillbilly as late as his 1939 California radio shows.

A few tracks deserve individual attention. Del made “White House Blues” an early signature song. The lyrics (From Baltimore to Frisco Bay) suggest Woody, an inveterate melody borrower, had that tune in mind when writing “Dirty Overhauls,” one of the few social commentary pieces here. “Californy Gold” fascinates me, since it might be a reference to his first marriage, giving up his successful radio shows, a commentary on consumerism, or just a funny song—maybe all of the above. “Government Road” serves as a worthy and funny new addition to the genre of Great Depression era WPA songs. On Del And Woody, the Del McCoury Band has poured delicious old wine into a new wine skin with magnificent results.(