My first encounter with Bill Emerson's banjo playing was in the early 1960s on the bargain Coronet label release, Bill Emerson and his Virginia Mountaineers, Banjo Pickin' N' Hot Fiddlin', Country Style.  Later I found a Volume 2 with the same title.  I purchased these albums from the record rack of a five and dime store like I assume many others did.  The recordings in String Time: The Early Recordings of Bill Emerson are taken from these 1962-1963  Coronet sessions.

In these early performances Bill Emerson demonstrates all the things one looks for in a model of superb bluegrass banjo playing.  His performance is immaculate, with surprising and creative banjo arrangements of many standards and a few originals that have become classics.  Emerson's powerhouse picking is accompanied  by a stellar group of supporting musicians.  Of special note is the atom-splitting mandolin of Frank Wakefield.  When I was an aspiring banjo player, I listened to these recordings with great attention and pleasure as I attempted to learn the tunes, arrangements, and the subtle mysteries of the bluegrass banjo roll.

As I made my way in the bluegrass music world I found others who admired these early recordings.  In the late 1960's when I joined with Sam Bush and Wayne Stewart in forming Poor Richard's Almanac, they were both aware of the Coronet releases of Emerson's music and cited them as influential recordings.  Not surprising  Sam was interested in the mandolin playing of Frank Wakefield, although we only assumed it was him at that time, as the accompanying musicians were not listed.  We also had to guess at the titles as many listed on the Coronet recordings were incorrect or fictitious.  What is listed as "String Time" on the Coronet cover is actually "Theme Time" "Honeysuckle" is "Little Maggie," and so on.|

When I lived in Los Angeles, I would get together with the glorious banjo player John Hickman to trade tunes, licks, and ideas about banjo set-up.  On many occasions he would reference Bill Emerson's playing from these recordings, and  throw in Emerson licks and variations gleaned from the Coronet sessions.  John went on to record "Sweet Dixie" on his album, and referenced Emerson's version from this early session.  What is it they say about imitation?

 At a workshop in Dallas, I had the opportunity to sit in on a class with the out-of-this-world player Jens Kruger.  In a discussion of his early attraction to the banjo, Kruger referenced Bill Emerson's rock-solid roll displayed on the Coronet sessions Jens had found in his home country of Switzerland.  Mesmerized by the insistence and rhythmically perfect pulse of Bill's playing, Jens encouraged the workshop participants to seek out these recordings for that same inspiration.

Bill Emerson went on from these early recordings to have a Hall of Fame career working and recording in turn with Buzz Busby, Red Allen, Jimmy Martin (where again he recorded his compositions "Theme Time," "Sweet Dixie," and the traditional "Little Maggie,") Cliff Waldron (where Bill brought "Fox on the Run" and "Proud Mary'" into the bluegrass world), the Country Gentlemen (which he helped form in 1957), The Navy Band - Country Current, Tony Rice, Del McCoury, and his own group the Sweet Dixie Band.  The recordings here were near the beginning of his long and influential career.  What a meaningful beginning it was.

Alan Munde

 

Bill Emerson

String Time

CD-377

Bill Emersin
String Time
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Bill Emerson
Red Allen
Frank Wakefield
Tom Morgan
Kenny Haddock
Carl Nelson
Charlie Waller
Bill Harrell
Buzz Busby

 

 


Old Joe Clark
Lonesome Road Blues
Baby Sue (Old Spinning Wheel)
String Time (Theme Time)
Weepin’ Willow (Bury Me Beneath the Willow)
Big Maggie (Aunt Dinah’s Quilting Party)
Lightnin’ Banjo (Lonesome Road Blues)
Runnin’ Wild (Cumberland Gap)
Home Sweet Home
Sweet Dixie
The Chicken Reel
Jesse James
Push and Shove (Back Up and Push)
Honeysuckle (Littie Maggie)
Banjo Harp (Little Darling Pal of Mine)
Hogwash (Hey Mr. Banjo)
Rainbow Blues (Fireball Mail)
Fingers On Fire (John Henry)
Party Time (When You and I Were Young, Maggie)
Banjo Pickin’ Time (Rainbow)