Hooked on Bluegrass

Bill Clifton

I grew up near the city of Baltimore Maryland on a little farm in Baltimore County. During World War II, 1941-1943 when I was a teenager, there were lot of people that came from depressed areas of southwest Virginia, eastern Kentucky, western North Carolina and settled in Baltimore. The people that came to Baltimore often brought their own instruments, played music, and wanted other people to come and play with them. So living in the Baltimore area gave me an opportunity to go hear a lot of live music concerts and programs.

I had the special opportunity to meet people like Uncle Dave Macon, Sam and Kirk McGee, and Lou Childrey and String Bean. This was back before very many people knew who they were. This was because they came with people like Roy Accuff, Red Foley, Hank Williams, and others. Well, I would go to see “the star”, but then I would get there and find String Bean and Lou Childrey…..Well, they were the stars. Lou Childrey was one of the most wonderful entertainers you ever heard.

I got interested in a wide spectrum of the music that was not bluegrass. In those days it was called “hillbilly music”, and encompassed everything. All the radio stations back then played it all. As things developed, music changed, and Elvis came on the scene, there was a different attitude about what music was, and the radio stations started to drop anything that was acoustic music all together. So we never got to hear bluegrass or old time music on local radio after about 1954/55.

But I always played acoustic music. When I first started recording, I recorded with Blue Ridge Records, and I had a wonderful tenor singer with me named Johnny Clark, who also played five string banjo, Scruggs style. Had he played old time or frailing style, I would have had him anyway because he was such a great tenor singer. Actually, I would have probably preferred to have him play old time banjo, but he played Scruggs style when practically no one else did. When I met him in 1950 there was a handful, maybe only a half dozen people that could play that three finger Scruggs style. Because we were playing together, he was playing Scruggs style, and our group included a mandolin, fiddle, and bass, we became known as bluegrass. But I never considered myself bluegrass because I often added autoharp or old time banjo, and I would pick lead guitar. As poorly as I played lead guitar, I loved to do it, and played lead guitar all the time. That was a no-no in bluegrass. Nobody played lead guitar. Bill Monroe said nobody plays lead guitar in bluegrass, and that guitar is a rhythm instrument. But anyway, somehow I got thrown into the bluegrass bin, and that’s where I am.

When I first got a guitar, I got a book with it that said you’ll need something called a plectra…. So I told the store owner, “Well I guess you better give me one of those then!” I would have played like Maybelle Carter with a thumb pick, but by the time I met Maybelle it was too late to switch over.

(posted 11/11/2009)

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