Hooked on Bluegrass

Tom Diamant

In the 1950s and early 60s we had an electronic device that we used to take us far away to lands we could only dream about in our imagination, introducing us to the sounds, cultures and music of people thousands of miles away. We would hide in bed, under our covers, late at night, against our parent’s strict orders to “turn it off” and see where we could travel to that night. It was call AM radio and as a boy growing up in Chicago, I would search every night for stations as far away as I could find. Tennessee, Iowa, New York, Canada, and Mexico. And strangely enough the stations I chose to listen to played Country music, and sometimes Blues.

Back then Country Music was not so strictly defined on these stations, so one could hear Bluegrass, Oldtime, Gospel, and Cowboy music. I remember the station that broadcast from Del Rio Texas via the Mexican station across the border (XE something or other. Mexican border stations started with the letter X). And WLAC from Nashville, WCKY in Cincinnati, with the blues DJ John R. And there was Don and Earl, a gospel, Blue Sky Boys sounding duo on KXEL out of Waterloo, Iowa. It wasn’t just the music but the ads for light up glowing Jesus’, song books, recordings, and yes the famous baby chicks ad (http://www.yodaslair.com/dumboozle/wlac/wave/chicks.wav) that John R from WLCA used have. It was visiting another world to me, and I loved the music.

But then on Saturday night, there was no need to travel so far on the wings of the ether, there was the WLS Barn Dance from the 8th Street Theater in Chicago. And then when WLS changed to rock n’roll, the WGN Barn Dance (which did not last too long). The show was filled with old time country music, comedians, cowboy singers and more and I listen in every Saturday night (I never did get to go to see the show live, although I really wanted to.) There was also an old time string band, Captain Stubby and the Buccaneers who had a TV show in the middle of the day. I would look forward to staying home sick from school just to watch them.

What attracted me to this music? Why did the son of German immigrants growing up on the hard edged West Side of Chicago become attracted to the rural sounds of Country Music? That is a mystery that I cannot answer. All I know is I loved it! Perhaps it was because I was not unaccustomed to acoustic “folk music.” My parents were politically progressive and in the 1950s that meant you listened to Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Josh White, and if you lived in Chicago, Big Bill Broonzy. But once I heard the “real “stuff that “folky” sound meant nothing to me (Big Bill was not folky, by the way).

I was not immune to those ads on the radio and from the Jimmie Skinner Record Shop in Cincinnati Ohio I purchased a set of two 45rpm EP records. EP stood for extended play, three songs per side. These were from the Starday Records catalog and had, Leon Jackson performing his own composition, and now Bluegrass standard, “Love Please Come Home” and two other songs. On the flip side were three songs by Jimmy Martin and Bob Osborne. The other 45 had Jim & Jesse, The Country Gentlemen, Stringbean, Jim Eanes, The Kentucky Travelers and Bill Harrell. The then there was that LP on the Budget Label (69 cents) Diplomat Records “Banjo in the Bluegrass.” Again from Starday Records material; with, Red Allen (the famous session with Frank Wakefield, Chubby Wise, and Don Reno), Carl Story, The Stanley Brothers, Buzz Busby, Bill Harrell, The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, and…………Vern and Ray singing “Cabin on a Mountain! “ So you can see where I was headin’.

By then I was starting to get hooked on Bluegrass and two events happened in 1961. The University of Illinois in Urbana Champaign put on Flatt & Scruggs (us, too young to drive kids, convinced Pete Leibundguth owner of the local instrument store, The Fret Shop, to drive us all down there) and The University of Chicago put on The Stanley Brothers. Well folks, after seeing the Stanleys and Flatt & Scruggs that was it. I had already had a guitar, but no more Carter Family pickin’ for me. I was hooked on Bluegrass! The University of Chicago in those years went on to have Bill Monroe, The Lilly Brothers, Jim & Jesse, The Osborne Brothers, J.D. Crowe (with Doyle Lawson on guitar and Larry Rice on Mandolin), Clarence Ashley with Doc Watson, and many other Bluegrass and Oldtime musicians. I started collecting every bluegrass record I could afford.

When I came out to California in 1969 to live, a friend from Chicago told me I should go and hear this duo Vern & Ray. Man did I get a smile on my face. I knew them from that one cut of “Cabin on a Mountain” on that old LP (which I still have, of course). I started hanging out at Paul’s Saloon, and got involved in record distribution in 1973 and later with my own record company. I was distributing the start up label called Rounder Records, then later Rebel and Country as, well as other types of independent traditional music labels. Through promoting these records to radio I met Ray Edlund from KPFA who had a Bluegrass show “Pig in a Pen” every other Friday afternoon. One day he told me they wanted him on every week but he didn’t want to do it, would I like do a show on that alternate Friday. Well the rest is Bay Area radio history, I guess….

(posted 4/26/2009)

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