Hooked on Bluegrass

Randy Pitts

Growing up in the 50s in southern Illinois, literally on the Ohio River--Kentucky was on the other side--I was exposed to traditional country music from all sides for as long as I can remember. My daddy was a miner--fluorspar--and my mother's father, whose folks were from Ireland, died of what they called miner's TB back then. They call it silicosis now. Both my grandmothers were serious singers, and I heard the Primitive Baptist hymns and Elizabethan ballads from them, especially my Grandma Bryan, who sang Sinful To Flirt and Fair Ellender and Lord Thomas around the house when she stayed with us or we visited her. My mother used to write down the lyrics to Carl Smith and Webb Pierce hits of the day from the radio so she could sing them later--I vividly remember that. We listened to Randy Blake's Suppertime Frolic from Chicago around dinnertime, and I remember when I was five having my folks send away for a picture book of the stars, Elton Britt, Leon Payne, Grandpa Jones, and the like. We also listened to WCKY from Cincinnati, including Wayne Raney and His Talking Harmonica, and of course, the Opry. Bluegrass was always part of the mix then, and I remember thinking that the vocals Bill Monroe in full cry on those Opry shows sounded much like the keening wails of women mourners at the funerals I attended as a small child, frightening and thrilling at the same time.

So it was always there, but I became aware that others found it important when I went off to college. The folk boom was in full force then, and some of the more adventurous of my friends were exploring bluegrass. It was there that I met Bernie Sullivan, who some CBA member may know. He was a member of a band called The Dusty Road Boys (imagine that). Then Bernie joined the navy, I went to Vietnam, and lost track of one another until the early 80s, when we met up again at grass Valley. Oddly enough, we both live in Nashville now--I've known Bernie since I was eighteen years old.

Anyway, I was reminded anew of how vital a music can be by two albums--Will The Circle Be Unbroken, which spotlighted Jimmy Martin and Earl Scruggs, among others, and introduced bluegrass to a much wider audience, and drew me back in as well. the second album was the legendary Rounder 0044, JD Crowe and The New South. A friend of mine was building a mandolin, learning to play the fiddle, and going to local festivals, and he played that album for me. Shortly thereafter, he and I moved to Berkeley, seeking fame and fortune, and instead found ourselves at a CBA event in Berkeley, at Finnish Hall on I believe, 10th street, just off University. I saw lots of people who later became dear friends that day, but I gotta tell you, the single song that sealed the deal was Laurie Lewis with The Good Ol' Persons performing Is The Blue Moon Still Shining?, a song that Laurie introduced, as I recall, as being by "the daughter of The Father Of Bluegrass".

My friend, Don Horn by name, and I were at Grass Valley later that summer, in the front row, and I was hooked, for life. That was in 1977.

(posted 2/14/2008)

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