“Del liked it when you would throw something in that was your stuff. He’d say, ‘Play it like that. Nobody else plays it that way.’”
Well, if you’ve heard any recordings from the 1970s by Bluegrass Hall of Famer Del McCoury – classic hard-driving bluegrass hits such as High On A Mountain, Rain Please Go Away, and I’ve Endured – you’ve already been introduced to the banjo playing of Bill Runkle. As a member of McCoury’s “Dixie Pals”, Bill toured and recorded with Del for the better part of a decade. Only Del’s son Robbie has held down the banjo player spot for a longer time.
Born in 1939, Bill still lives in the tiny community of Brogue, Pennsylvania, just about a mile from his family’s home place. Bill’s grandfather played the 5-string banjo – not in the clawhammer or 3-finger style, but by using a flat pick “the way you’d pick a guitar,” Bill says.
Bill’s introduction to bluegrass banjo couldn’t have come from a better source. Listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio in his dad’s ’46 Ford, Bill was captivated by the sound of Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys featuring a twenty-something Earl Scruggs on the banjo. “I’d listen to the Opry til I’d run the battery dead on the old man’s car.”
Bill credits another (and future) Blue Grass Boy, Bobby Diamond, with showing him a lot about how the instrument was to be played when Bill took up the banjo in 1959. In just a short while, he was playing full-time in a group called “The Country Four”, working square dances three nights a week. This led to a six-year stint in a band led by Pennsylvania’s popular radio personality Al Shade.
As the 1960s came to a close, Bill found himself subbing from time to time with Del McCoury’s Dixie Pals. When banjo player John Farmer left the band, Bill began a tenure that lasted nearly eight years. During that period he played banjo on several McCoury albums, including 1973’s “High On A Mountain”. On subsequent records, Bill sang lead on the duets when Del would move to the high tenor vocal.
Bill describes the band’s sound – “Bill Monroe sang to the fiddle. Del McCoury sang to the banjo. He wanted that driving roll on the banjo when he was singing.” Del recorded several of Bill’s compositions during that time, including I’m Lonely Tonight, the title track of this disc.
Eventually, Bill and the other members of the Dixie Pals left Del and formed a new group, Square Deal, with Dee Gunter on guitar, playing throughout the mid-Atlantic region and recording the album “Country Boy Rock N Roll” in 1985. Square Deal was followed by Dixie Dukes and eventually, Bill spent several years away from the music.
Back on the 5-string and leading the band Bill Runkle & Smith Hollow, this disc features Bill’s banjo work front and center with four original instrumentals plus the original vocal title track “Lonely Tonight”. Altogether the album has 10 instrumentals and three vocal numbers, including a guest appearance by Danny Paisley.
Among the highlights of this album are Bill’s instrumental take on the Flatt & Scruggs song Someone Took My Place With You and Bill’s own Marching Through Glenville, which is also featured on the 2014 release The Patuxent Banjo Project. Banjophiles are sure to dig the tracks in C-Tuning, Caracas and Cheaters In The Soup and D-Tuning, Black Mountain Hop and the Ralph Stanley classic Hard Times.
Fine work from Smith Hollow’s Judy Winters on bass and Larry Conner on guitar and vocals along with Jeff Kidd on mandolin and fiddler Patrick McAvinue provides just the right setting to showcase Bill’s driving banjo style.
At 75, Bill tells me, “I don’t know what my life would have been without bluegrass music.” Well, Bill, just keep on laying the thumb to it!
- Tom Adams, May 2015