When Joel Walker Sweeney (ca. 1810-1860) first began to popularize the five-string banjo some 180 years ago, it began moving from its origins as an African-American folk instrument to a cultural symbol. By the early years of the 20th century, such masters of the banjo as Vess Ossman (1868-1923) and Fred VanEps (1879-1960) carried musical proficiency to new heights. Directly and indirectly they influenced rural pickers in the Carolinas such as Charlie Poole and then Snuffy Jenkins and Wade Mainer to move in the direction that we now call bluegrass. This three-finger picking-style was in turn perfected in its present form in the 1940s by Earl Scruggs and Don Reno to become one of the defining sounds of bluegrass music.
During and immediately after World War II, tens of thousands of rural folks relocated from the Appalachian and Piedmont regions of southwest Virginia, West Virginia, the western Carolinas, and east Tennessee to the greater Washington-Baltimore area bringing their cultural preferences and sometimes talents as well. The main attractions came from expanding employment opportunities in the building, manufacturing, and service trades. Those with musical ability could find supplemental and part-time jobs on the flourishing club scene. Country music parks such as New River Ranch and Sunset Park were not all that far away and within driving distance of not only the D. C.-Baltimore region but also greater Philadelphia. Musical prowess could also be displayed at the talent contests in Warrenton, Virginia or journey southward to the Old Dominion Barn Dance in Richmond. Local deejay Don Owens stimulated interest in bluegrass music by encouraging local musicians to visit recording studios. The most fortunate of these forged successful part-time, and for a few, full-time careers.
Numerous bands—often with shifting memberships depending on who was available for a particular show date—began to organize to work in clubs bearing such names as Famous, Admiral Grill, Cozy Inn, Pine Tavern, and Ozarks. Somewhat later these were joined by the Shamrock in Georgetown, the Red Fox Inn in Bethesda, and—by the 80s—the Birchmere in Alexandria. Similar (albeit less- legendary) dives thrived in Baltimore, such as The Cub Hill Inn, the 79 Club, Stabiles, Pete's Lounge, and the Sandpiper. These bands included those of Buzz Busby, Benny and Vallie Cain, Bill Harrell, and Earl Taylor. Others were known by collective names such as the Bluegrass Champs, Rocky Mountain Boys, Shady Valley Boys, Pike County Boys, and—perhaps best known of all from 1957 forward—the Country Gentlemen. While expert vocalists, fiddlers, mandolinists, guitarists, and bass players emerged from this cultural melting pot, this project focuses almost exclusively on the region’s banjo pickers.
From the early 1950s, a number of fine banjo pickers began to gain notice on the local bluegrass music scene. Some went on to forge significant careers; a few were even natives to the area. Pete Kuykendall recalls that one of the first banjo pickers he remembers was Richard Peters who is nearly forgotten today. Others who made some impact include Smitty Irvin who was in military service at first; Smiley Hobbs, a North Carolina native who was equally adept on mandolin and recorded several tunes on the 1957 Folkways album American Banjo, Scruggs Style; Don Bryant was also heard on that early effort (as well as this one) and had even earlier spent time with both Mac Wiseman and Flatt and Scruggs while the latter was recovering from an auto accident. The early five-string pickers with the Country Gentlemen: Bill Emerson, Pete Kuykendall, and Eddie Adcock all made considerable impact. The Bluegrass Champs had first Porter Church and then Roni Stoneman; she became the first female picker on the aforementioned Folkways project. Although more associated with country music and lead guitar, emerging superstar Roy Clark also exhibited early proficiency on bluegrass banjo.
Over in Baltimore, Sam “Porky” Hutchins played in Earl Taylor’s Stony Mountain Boys after a stint with Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys (as had Taylor). Somewhat afterward, the late Walter Hensley worked with Taylor and then led his own band. Al Jones’ Spruce Mountain Boys had such banjo players as Johnny Whisnant, another Carolina native who exhibited picking skills that went back almost to the beginning of bluegrass. Later Frank Necessary worked with Jones. Bob Baker and his Pike County Boys with young Dick Rittler on banjo also livened up the bluegrass scene in the Maryland metropolis although they recorded but sparingly.
By the seventies new—and somewhat more progressive—bands in the region also had quality five-string pickers. Bill Emerson worked with Cliff Waldron in the New Shades of Grass for a time before rejoining the Country Gentlemen briefly and then spending some two decades in the navy with Country Current. Ben Eldridge joined Waldron and then left to become part of still a third major D. C. band, the Seldom Scene, after which the late Jimmy Arnold, Tom Neal, and Billy Wheeler worked with Waldron. As that decade drew to an end, traditional sounds made a dramatic comeback with the youthful Johnson Mountain Boys whose style hearkened back to the early years of the music and successively highlighted the banjo playing of Richard Underwood and Tom Adams.
In addition to those banjoists who were either natives or migrants to the area, pickers in bands from the Shenandoah Valley and southeastern Pennsylvania regions often crossed paths and sometimes worked in bands from the D. C. area. While traditional bluegrass and chromatic wizards dominated the scene, a few still excelled in the earlier “clawhammer,” “sawmill” or “drop-thumb” techniques that had preceded bluegrass music including the late revivalist pioneer Mike Seeger who actually recorded many of the area’s pickers and occasionally did a bit of Scruggs-style himself.
This monumental project is designed by co-producers Mark Delaney and Randy Barrett—noted players in their own right—to highlight the impressive banjo work exemplified by these forty banjo pickers who took part in making the Greater Washington-Baltimore area one of the major regional concentrations of bluegrass music in America. It achieves the goal that the producers and Tom Mindte set out to accomplish. In so doing, this constitutes a major sound document in the history of a major musical genre.
Ivan M. Tribe
Emeritus Professor of History, University of Rio Grande
April 21, 2014
Note: In compiling these notes, I appreciate the recollections of Peter V. Kuykendall who not only witnessed but also participated in the development of bluegrass in the Washington, D. C.-Baltimore area. I also made use of the writings of Bob Carlin, Les McIntyre, Tom Mindte, Neil Rosenberg, and Richard Spottswood.
The Patuxent Banjo Project - 2 CD ser
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