In spite of what you might think — especially given the fact that this blog is mostly for and about geezers — the title of this piece does not refer to a pathetic old guy who is feeling a little unappreciated. It is instead about a short-lived 1970s bluegrass band of that name led by Jerry Garcia, who is now mostly remembered as the heart and soul of the Grateful Dead.
When Garcia died a couple of decades back, he not only left behind a lot of forlorn Deadheads, but also a legacy of musical adventures into other disciplines. Although the Grateful Dead was pretty much a constant for him during its three decades of life, Garcia loved a lot of different types of music and often cobbled together other groups to explore it.
In 1973 he decided to form a band that would specialize in bluegrass, and he recruited David Grisman, Vassar Clements, Peter Rowan, and John Kahn to join him. All were experienced pros with a solid footing in a variety of styles that included bluegrass, and it wasn’t long before Old & In The Way was making music. Although it was only around for a year or two, the group was a popular attraction in live shows in San Francisco, and recordings from some of those appearances were made into an album a couple of years later.
That initial album became a favorite for many fans, and after Garcia’s death in 1995 some of the same bunch of original recordings found their way onto a couple of albums of expanded collections. At about the same time, some of the original members of the group put together a new band for live shows (see video below) and a few years later issued a new album.
Old & In The Way – “Hobo Song”
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”