I love bluegrass music and especially enjoy the sound of a mandolin, an instrument that has come to be closely identified with it. In fact, guys like Bill Monroe, Ricky Skaggs, and Jethro Burns (of Homer & Jethro) have turned the instrument into a familiar part of all kinds of country music, but one of the less-remembered masters of the mandolin helped transplant bluegrass to California. That would be Vern Williams, now considered the father of West Coast bluegrass.
Arkansas-born and raised, Delbert Lavern Williams grew up surrounded by music. His parents, his aunts and uncles, and his six brothers and sisters were all musically inclined, and young Delbert also heard lots of good music on the radio — including Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. He soon became a good guitarist and by the time he was in his late teens was also playing mandolin, on an instrument he’d ordered from the Sears Roebuck catalog.
In the early 1950s Williams spent some time in the Marines and then moved to California, where he worked a regular job for a few years, but a chance meeting with another Arkansas native – fiddler Ray Park – led him back to music. The twosome began performing as Vern & Ray, later adding Clyde Williamson on guitar and Luther Riley on banjo, and became so popular in the 1960s that they scored a Nashville recording contact. Unfortunately their California bluegrass sound didn’t thrill the Nashville establishment, and by the early 1970s Vern & Ray were kaput.
But Williams wasn’t finished with music. He soon cobbled together a new outfit he called the Vern Williams Band, and it included his son Delbert on fiddle along with banjo wiz Keith Little. It proved to be a good move, and the group went on to spend a decade as one of the best bluegrass bands around, sometimes backing up bluegrass star Rose Maddox and occasionally even venturing into historical music. By the time the band eventually dissolved in the late 1980s, Williams’ reputation as the father of West Coast bluegrass was secure. He continued performing in later years, although less frequently, almost up until his death in 2006.
Vern Williams Band – “You’d Better Get Right”
As you might have read, banjo wizard Earl Scruggs died recently at age 88. Although he is often remembered as part of the Grammy-winning duo Flatt & Scruggs, his career flourished for over four decades after the twosome split in 1969. Along the way he became one of the most admired and influential musicians in the history of American music.
Earl Eugene Scruggs grew up in Depression-era North Carolina, and picked up his first banjo – his late father’s – while still a child. By the time he’d grown up and was working professionally he had taught himself to make magic, not only by his mastery of the instrument but also by perfecting the three-finger style that would become his trademark.
Scruggs first rose to fame in the mid-1940s as part of Bill Monroe’s seminal group, the Blue Grass Boys. Within a few years, he and singer/guitarist Lester Flatt left to form their own act, a move that would cause the feisty Monroe to shun them for many years. But the twosome and their group, the Foggy Mountain Boys, did well for two decades, turning out hits like “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” and Grammy winner “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” (which would win another Grammy for Scruggs many years later, when he re-recorded it).
Flatt was a traditionalist and Scruggs was more progressive, and that difference in musical philosophy eventually led to the partners’ breakup. But over the last four decades of his life, Scruggs found success by exploring many different avenues for his music, often working with his sons in The Earl Scruggs Revue and also collaborating with a number of the biggest stars around. Among them were Johnny Cash, Tom T. Hall, Doc Watson, John Fogerty, Elton John, Sting, and actor/musician Steve Martin.
He was awarded countless honors through the years, and is universally recognized as a true pioneer of American music. He will be missed but his legacy is secure.
Earl Scruggs – “In The Gloryland”
Not every country music performer hails from the rural heartland. Joe Val spent many years as one of the most respected country artists around, and he was an Italian/American (real name: Joseph Valiante) who was born and raised in the Boston area. But New England has always had a strong tradition in country music, including the kind Joe loved — bluegrass — so maybe it’s not that surprising.
Growing up during the Great Depression in the blue-collar Boston suburb of Everett, young Joe Valiante thrived on the music of radio stars like Bill Monroe. He began learning guitar while still in his teens, and eventually added banjo and mandolin. By the time he’d reached adulthood, he was finding work performing with area groups like the Radio Rangers and the Berkshire Mountain Boys. He also spent some time appearing with Tex Logan, whose difficulty pronouncing Joe’s last name led to his new stage name, Joe Val.
For many years, Joe’s music — as important as it was to him — had to sometimes take a back seat to his earning a living, mostly as a typewriter repairman. But by the late 1960s, after forming the New England Bluegrass Boys with Herb Applin, Bob French, and Bob Tidwell, he was able to concentrate on performing and he soon became a fan favorite.
Although he might not have cut a dashing figure on stage — he was short and thin, with a brush mustache and thick glasses — Joe Val was popular with fans and friends alike. He and his group were able to build a following through records and on tour, and were at the height of their popularity when Joe was stricken by Lymphoma in 1984. He died the following year at age 58, and is still remembered fondly in the Boston area. The 27th annual festival bearing his name will occur in February.
Joe Val & New England Bluegrass Boys – “Goodbye Old Pal”