The music changes lives forever: An eyewitness account
Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles by Jack Tottle on the evolution of bluegrass music — its origins, influences and inspirations in Appalachia and beyond.
Today it doesn’t matter where you live. If you hear Appalachia’s music and like it, there are countless articles, books, and internet resources from which to learn about it, learn to play it, and readily communicate with other like-minded folk. There are bluegrass festivals and television series. If you are enrolled in the right university, you can even major in it.
It was not always thus.
By Jack Tottle
As a high school kid in Washington, D.C., during the early 1950s, I fell in love with Appalachia. I’d barely been there.
Except for summer church camp in the beautiful mountains around Linville, North Carolina, I hadn’t been south of Louisa County in central Virginia. My future home, Johnson City, Tennessee, might have been 12 hours drive from Washington during those pre-interstate highway days. You’d have had to brave smoke-belching trucks for hundreds of miles on two-lane roads all the way and creep through each town, large or small. No bypasses existed.
However, even in that primordial age, long before the internet, it was already possible to fall in love over long distances. The magic of the 78 rpm (revolutions per minute) disc — “the big record with the little hole” — and its 45 rpm counterpart — “the little record with the big hole” — did the trick. The “big hole, little hole” terminology was used by radio stations like Wheeling, West Virginia’s WWVA, which sold records by mail order. Even a kid with no money could catch a tantalizing whiff of the mountains via the records played on Northern Virginia country radio, which catered to economic migrants from farther south.
These particular recordings favored banjo, mandolin and fiddle rather than the electrified instruments more common on country hits of the day. Flatt and Scruggs, Reno and Smiley, the Stanley Brothers, Mac Wiseman, and the Osborne Brothers were among our early favorites.
If a youngster had a dollar and found the right music store, he could actually buy a record and take home with him five minutes of the real thing. He could play his precious disc over and over. And each time a song finished, he could sit quietly — almost in tears — desperately wishing that the music would go on, and on, and on … forever!
Those of us who had fallen in love with this kind of music had to be patient with the radio. We usually had to listen through long stretches of airtime featuring the more “modern” country stars of the day like Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Kitty Wells, Webb Pierce, George Jones, and the late great Hank Williams. We liked these country singers too, especially George Jones and Hank Williams. We just liked the banjo/fiddle/mandolin mountain-sounding stuff even more.
Naturally we were filled with curiosity about our newly discovered obsession. There were no books or magazine articles that even mentioned this kind of music. Our schoolteachers had never heard of it. Music studios didn’t offer lessons in it. “Hillbilly music,” of which it was a part, was looked down on by “proper” urban and suburban society. Our only source of information was an informal “bluegrass grapevine” of fellow enthusiasts, which was not always 100% reliable. Nevertheless, with painful slowness, we started learning a few facts.
The Appalachian music invasion of the nation’s capital produced important musicians and scholars who discovered bluegrass around the same time. Music by Appalachian bluegrass artists profoundly influenced the course of their lives, They, in turn, left their mark on bluegrass music.
John Duffey — Mandolin stylist, notable singer, founder of the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene.
Pete Kuykendall — Recorded on banjo with Benny and Vallie Cain, the Country Gentlemen, and with Red Allen and Frank Wakefield; founded Bluegrass Unlimited magazine; helped found the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA).
Tom Gray — Bass player with the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene.
Richard K. Spottswood — Country music collector, scholar and ethnomusicologist.
Bill Torbert — Mandolinist with Jimmy Martin.
Mike Auldridge — Dobro player with Seldom Scene and Chesapeake.
Bill Yates, Bass player with the Country Gentlemen.
Lamar Grier — Toured and recorded on banjo with Bill Monroe.
Bill Emerson — Played banjo with the Country Gentlemen, Emerson and Waldron, and Jimmy Martin.
Alice Gerrard. Late 50s transplant to DC. Recorded and performed with Hazel Dickens, Mike Seeger, and others.
Mike Seeger — Singer, multi-instrumentalist, recording artist, folklorist, author and musicologist.
The Big Bang of not-yet-bluegrass
Owing to its mighty impact on early commercial country music, author Bill Malone characterized the 1927 Bristol sessions, at which Jimmie Rodgers and the A.P. Carter Family first recorded, as “The Big Bang of Country Music.” That historic musical explosion would help set off a similar groundswell of enthusiasm for a high-lonesome sound associated with a certain mandolin player from Kentucky.
In the 1950s, Bill Monroe wasn’t known as the Father of Bluegrass. In fact, the term “bluegrass music” wouldn’t become widespread until the latter 1950s. For us, Bill Monroe was just one among a dozen or so artists on the radio who played the exciting music that so consumed us. At first, we had no reason to suspect that Monroe was any more significant than our other favorites. Eventually we learned otherwise.
Science had already informed us that when two hemispheres of refined uranium come together, they produce a really big bang. We discovered that something comparable had occurred midway through the 1940s: A little-known banjo picker named Earl Scruggs had joined Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys with a dizzyingly new, complex and elegant banjo style.
In 1945, Monroe had been a Grand Ole Opry star on Nashville’s WSM radio station since the beginning of the decade. However, Earl Scruggs’ brilliant playing not only meshed perfectly with the band, it propelled the group’s appeal to previously unimaginable heights.
A shockwave pulsed through Opry listeners. All at once a whole generation of musically inclined youths found themselves giddy with excitement. A new world had suddenly opened up for them. It was as if they had been transported to the shores of an unexplored continent which offered limitless untapped musical possibilities.
The most ambitious among them determined to emulate what they were hearing from Monroe, Scruggs, and the Blue Grass Boys each Saturday night on the Opry. With little formal education and no instructional materials or trained teachers, this first new generation of bluegrass musicians rapidly — and miraculously — taught themselves the skills required to play and sing this new music at a professional level.
Crucially they also learned to progress beyond imitation. They wrote new songs that reflected their own experiences. They created new instrumental pieces. They used the Monroe sound as a springboard to come up with additional techniques and vocal styles which helped differentiate each band from its contemporaries.
These young musicians also figured out how to present their music to general audiences and how to combine artistry with entertainment. The most successful were ready to embrace the challenging lifestyle of a road musician, which entailed financial sacrifices, exhausting long-distance travel — generally to play a single day or a one-night stand as the only headliner — and numerous related stresses. Among their rewards were contracts with established record labels: Columbia, Mercury, Decca, RCA Victor, King, Dot, Capitol and MGM.
Bluegrass grows in Appalachia
Benefitting from the powerful signal of Nashville’s WSM radio, the Grand Ole Opry and Bill Monroe reached close to half the United States. Accordingly, it would seem logical that the youngsters inspired to try their hands at learning and performing his new music would be scattered over a wide area.
But, to the contrary, virtually all the great bluegrass records we heard on the radio were from bands led by musicians from the southeast. And, even more interesting, the bandleaders had grown up in Appalachian regions of their home states — with the exception of Mac Wiseman, who grew up in Virginia just north and south of Appalachian counties. No wonder the music had a mountain flavor! One theory prevalent in the 1950s held that Appalachian mountaineers were a tough, self-reliant provincial bunch, not particularly open to change nor receptive to outsiders. However, Appalachia’s embrace of bluegrass music proves, once again, the limitations of simplistic stereotypes.
Bill Monroe (surprise!) was not from Appalachia. It had not occurred to us that Monroe was not the product of a mountain upbringing. Eventually it became clear that the man most directly responsible for this captivating sound grew up in a relatively flat region of Kentucky more than a two-hour drive from the western border of Appalachia, as defined by the Appalachian Regional Commission. Though rural areas throughout America had, and still have, much in common, at an elevation of just 429 feet, Monroe’s childhood home in Rosine, Kentucky, would hardly qualify as a mountain community.
Earl Scruggs also was a flatlander. He was technically from the easternmost county of Appalachia but grew up in a fairly flat area near the community of Boiling Springs. “I don’t know why they call our bluegrass ‘mountain music,’” Earl once remarked to me. “There weren’t any mountains where I grew up.”
In fact, just one member of this explosive mid-1940s configuration of the Bluegrass Boys, guitarist Lester Flatt, came from a mountainous part of Appalachia. The other two in addition to Monroe and Scruggs — fiddler Chubby Wise and bassist Howard Watts — were Floridians.
Thus, it turned out that Appalachia welcomed, with open arms, this new sound from non-mountaineers. It then added elements of its own mountain culture. In the fullness of time, it would share the new bluegrass music first with the Southeast, then with all America and finally with the world.
As for Washington, D.C. — along with adjacent portions of Virginia and Maryland — it came to nurture young musicians with roots elsewhere who had not yet recorded for major labels as well as an array of young locals. By the end of the 1950s, the array of excellent bands had come to include Bill Harrell and Smiley Hobbs, Benny and Vallie Cain, the Country Gentlemen, Buzz Busby and the Bayou Boys, Red Allen and Frank Wakefield, and the Stonemans. This latter group featured the exciting mandolin work of Donna Stoneman, the solid banjo playing of Roni Stoneman (later a comedienne on television’s popular “Hee Haw”) and the masterful and breathtakingly original fiddling of Scott Stoneman.
Among the notables who made their homes at times around D.C. while performing locally were: banjo players Eddie Adcock, Johnny Whisnant, Smitty Erwin, Paul Champion, Donnie Bryant, and Don Stover; fiddlers Buck Ryan, John Hall, and Carl Nelson; guitarists Charlie Waller, Pete Pike, Leon Morris, and Monte Monteith; mandolinist Jerry Stuart; and bass players Ed Ferris, Lee Cole, Jim Cox, and Roy Self. As the decade progressed Washington found itself growing into something of a bluegrass Mecca.
Festivals unite fans
In 1965 a new phenomenon emerged. Appropriately it began in Appalachia. Two decades after the Monroe/Scruggs collaboration began, the first multi-day bluegrass festival was held in the community of Fincastle, Virginia. From there bluegrass festivals spread outward across America, and finally overseas, like ripples on the proverbial pond. (Click here to see a series of maps that illustrate the spread of bluegrass festivals nationwide between 1965 and 1995. The maps are republished here courtesy of Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine.)
For the first time numerous top bands performed at a single event, providing newly-minted festivalgoers with an experience of unprecedented duration and musical intensity. There were also cases of interpersonal intensity as people from different backgrounds intermingled. Festivals attracted clean-shaven and neatly dressed rural folks, and also long-haired, unkempt urban kids in ragged blue jeans. Despite each group’s initial reservations about the other, shared respect for the music and for the bluegrass artists won out in most cases. As Bill Monroe summed it up, “Bluegrass has brought more people together and made more friends than any music in the world.”
Roan Mountain fiddler
During the 1960s, I lived and worked in several places: College in New Hampshire; the U.S. Army at Fort Jackson, South Carolina; Arlington, Virginia; Detroit, Michigan; and four years of overseas work with the CARE relief agency in Guatemala and India.
I spent most of the 1970s in Boston where I played mandolin with banjo legend Don Stover for two years and then formed the bluegrass band Tasty Licks. Members included Pat Enright, Mark Schatz and Béla Fleck. Despite the many positive aspects of Boston and New England overall, I greatly missed the music and culture of the South, which had shaped my love for bluegrass.
Whenever Tasty Licks toured in Kentucky, North Carolina, or Tennessee, the pull of the South renewed its hold. It later motivated me to think about returning there long term. During one tour in East Tennessee, I was deeply moved by an old-time Appalachian group, the Roan Mountain Hilltoppers, and their fiddler, Joe Birchfield. Joe was a plain-spoken, friendly fellow with a few lines in his face and a lovely touch on the timeless tunes he favored.
As I spoke with Joe after his festival set, he enthusiastically began playing several tunes in each of the different ways he’d heard them. “Now this is how so-and-so would do it,” he said, “but here’s the way they do it over in North Carolina,” etc., etc.
Each variation was so distinct and beautiful that my heart filled to overflowing. Tears of emotion literally ran down my face. I was too entranced to be embarrassed at all. I just wanted to stay there and forget all about going back to Boston.
Numerous fiddlers of that era and of previous years were riveting, powerful, polished and exciting — Benny Martin, Scott Stoneman, Dale Potter, Jim Shumate, Bobby Hicks, Kenny Baker, to mention just a few. I loved them all.
However, Joe Birchfield’s unpretentious old-time playing evoked an emotional response at an even deeper level. Why?
Some would say that Joe’s music was a unique embodiment of the roots of Southern fiddle music and of a lifetime spent meeting the challenges of rural Tennessee mountain life. Others might conclude it was fueled less by a need to impress live audiences and more by deep insight — conscious or unconscious — into the underlying musical constructs that generations of fiddlers had tapped into over their lifetimes. Perhaps it was an instinctive mystical connection with what Bill Monroe called the “Ancient Tones.”
I did return to Boston with Tasty Licks. However, by 1979 when the band had run its course, I was once more drawn to Southwest Virginia and East Tennessee. Despite having previously lived in various locations throughout America and beyond, this became the first place in my adult life where I truly felt at home. I stayed in Appalachia for 30 years. Nowhere else have I felt such a nourishing closeness to the roots of the music that has shaped so much of my life.
The writer is a bluegrass artist, songwriter, author and educator who founded the East Tennessee State University Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music Program in 1982, which he directed until his retirement in 2007.
At ETSU, Jack Tottle’s students included such future award-winning performers as Kenny Chesney, Tim Stafford, Adam Steffey, Barry Bales, Martha Scanlan, Becky Buller, and many others. In October 2022 the university held a concert commemorating the Bluegrass Program’s 40th anniversary. It included a ceremony at which the university’s president, Dr. Brian Noland, presented both Tottle and his former student, Kenny Chesney, with Honorary Doctorates of Humane Letters.