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”