Happy New Year, Y'all! Welcome to my column! I'm thrilled to start 2014 as a part of the Bluegrass Situation. I'll be writing about whatever's on my mind, which is a dangerous prospect sometimes. Favorite music, artists, stories, opinions - there'll be a little of everything. Thanks for joining me and I hope you enjoy - and maybe learn something too!
As a 12-year-old boy, I began taking banjo lessons at Morrell Music in Kingsport, TN. My teacher was James Alan Shelton (currently entering his 20th year as lead guitarist with Dr. Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys). James and I have been fast friends ever since. We've shared a lot of music, meals, and laughs together. But one thing in particular that James shared with me has influenced my life and career to a huge degree.
I grew up surrounded by my dad's music, both what he had on vinyl, and the music he made after supper each night with his guitar and mandolin in the living room. Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Reno & Smiley, the Osborne Brothers, as well as Bob Wills, Ray Price, Buck Owens, Merle Haggard, and Willie Nelson. The Classics. Good Music 101. Almost entirely first generation stuff. And I loved it! Still do. I'm sure I was the only student at Colonial Heights Middle School who knew who Hank Thompson and Mac Wiseman were. But that was where it stopped. There was so much great music out there that I wasn't hip to. I remember going to a lesson with James Alan one day and he was talking about how great the new project by the Bluegrass Album Band was. I just sat there with a blank stare. The Album Band was already to Volume 2 and I had yet to even hear of Tony Rice!
James started asking me if I had this record or that record. When it became apparent that I was missing most 2nd and 3rd generation stuff, he took it upon himself to bring me up to speed. A lot of you aren't old enough to remember these days, but I left my lesson that morning and went straight to K-Mart, where I proceeded to buy every 3-pack of blank cassette tapes they had. It probably cost me all of $10 - I always bought the cheap ones. The next week, I took them to James and he said he would fill 'em up. I can't remember if it was the following lesson or when, but pretty soon, James came in carrying a garbage bag full of cassettes. Included with each tape was a complete song list, as well as dates, a listing of all the musicians, and notes pointing out things to pay particular attention to. There was music by Larry Sparks, The Country Gentlemen, Seldom Scene, Tony Rice, J.D. Crowe & the New South, and Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, just to name a few. I don't know how long it took James to do this for me, but I absolutely wore those tapes out for the next untold number of years. I still have the tapes and the notes to this day.
At that age, I was obsessed with bluegrass. At the rate I was going, I probably would have stumbled onto all that great music by myself - eventually. But because James took the time to do that for me, my rate of progression as a musician skyrocketed. I had so much great stuff right there at my fingertips. It helped build a foundation that made me the musician I am today. And I can't thank him enough for that. I guess that's why I'm so passionate about sharing my favorites with others. On the bus or in a van, I'm always commandeering the iPod and playing DJ. I'm sure it gets annoying sometimes, but I can't help myself!
And I plan on doing a lot of that here. The age we live in has made buying, storing, and listening to music so much easier than ever before, but unfortunately, a lot of great stuff has gotten left behind because it isn't popular or profitable enough to be made available in any form other than the original vinyl LP's, so many of which are out of print. I'm glad to see vinyl making a comeback - at least good equipment is still available to listen to our old albums on. But taking it with you or sharing it is another story. So I'll do my best to put some stuff in front of you that you might not be aware of.
With that said, let's dive right in. A while ago, brother Jon Weisberger chose a Country Gentlemen album for his Necessary Listening column. They were featured heavily on the tapes that James made for me, and they really had a profound impact. Charlie Waller's voice was SO good! Rich, deep tone and great pitch. Such a stylist. And though often overlooked, he was one of the best rhythm guitar players in bluegrass. This was the next version of the band. Bill Emerson had departed for the U.S. Navy and James Bailey had taken over the banjo spot. This particular track features mandolinist Doyle Lawson on finger-style guitar, as well as frequent guest Mike Auldridge on dobro. When I first heard them, I thought it was such a crisp, modern sound, which appealed to me as a goofy teenager who was always made fun of in school for listening to bluegrass. But it was still authentic and rooted in tradition.