Hooked on Bluegrass

Grant Johnston

My path to Bluegrass Music is pretty straightforward. However, since the name bluegrass was not applied to the type of music I loved until I was well beyond 21 years old, it might seem like I followed a convoluted path. My musical taste haven't changed a whole lot but I made the transition from Hillbilly to Country to Folk to Bluegrass, mostly following one band, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs and The Foggy Mountain Boys.

One of my earliest memories is of my father standing in front of a large cabinet sized radio, twisting the knobs as music mysteriously came from that big wooden box. I was pretty impressed by the music but I was equally impressed by the shiny finish on the wood. We had recently got electricity wired into our house and the radio was something my father had acquired in his buying and trading.

In 1949 -- the year we got electricity -- we lived on a farm next to a gravel road in north-eastern Louisiana. My father farmed the land but he subsidized his income working as a carpenter at the International Paper Company mill in Bastrop, 30 miles away. He also owned a small sawmill, situated next to our house, where he cut crossties for the railroad in his spare time. I was no stranger to wood.

Even by First Grade I had seen a lot of wood; firewood, crossties, tree stumps, fence post, and scraps of wood my father used to patch the out house or pig pen. But before we got that radio I had never seen wood that was stained, polished, and waxed to look like a shiny jewel.

When I was in First Grade my father decided to give up farming and move us into Shreveport. He sold the farm, his team of horses, and the tractor. Somebody disassembled the sawmill and hauled it away, leaving the big pile of sawdust behind. Almost everything we owned was sold or given away. I remember my grandmother became the proud owner of the butane stove and the big tank that my mother had used. In Shreveport we would not be needing a butane tank. It was 1950 and our new stove used natural gas. The 'ice box' became a refrigerator. And someplace along the way our big radio was replaced by a table model.

That new radio could pickup radio Station KWKH without any of the static and hiss that plagued early AM Radio. KWKH was one of those legendary 50,000 watt AM stations, broadcasting out of Shreveport and blanketing the south with "The Louisiana Hayride".

WSM from Nashville was the radio home for traditional music. Their "Grand Old Opry" featured the best in traditional Country Music. But The Louisiana Hayride was competing with the Opry for audience, advertisers, and sometime for headliners. If the Opry was going to be traditional, the Hayride would be progressive. Years before Rock and Roll came around, KWKH rocked.

The Hayride didn't abandon tradition. It simply added some progressive country to the traditional line-up. They hired Johnny and Jack. Johnny and Jack played Country Music with a rumba beat. Johnny and Jack even added drums and a rinky-tink piano. And it was good piano. The house pianist at the Hayride was named Floyd Cramer.

Faron Young was a Shreveport native who played KWKH, live on the Hayride and on records. Webb Pierce, another Louisiana native, was a frequent guest. Flatt and Scruggs played the Hayride when they were in the area and their records were broadcast on the shows that played recorded music. When the Opry fired Hank Williams for being drunk the Hayride swooped him up.

A few months later, the news arrived in our house: Hank Williams was dead!. My older sisters started crying. My mother was in tears. Shreveport was devastated. I thought Hank Williams must have been the most important person in the world.

After a period of mourning the Hayride continued, combining more progressive new acts with the traditional. A pair of Country Comedy duets that played the Hayride, Homer and Jethro and Lonzo and Oscar.As a young boy I frequently confused them. In fact, I still have that problem. One of those duets played "I'm My Own Grandpa," a song that I still enjoy hearing. Charley Waller also started on the Hayride.

In 1954, when a young man out of Memphis named Elvis started shaking his hips, it was the Hayride that gave him a break, not the Opry. And every Saturday night for 5 years my family sat around the radio, listening to the Louisiana Hayride. One of those years, 1954-55, Elvis played live every Saturday night. Before Elvis had finished his Hayride contract he hired D. J. Fontana, the drummer from the Hayride house band. Fontana went on the road with Elvis and eventually recorded on over 460 cuts with The King. And that's Floyd Cramer playing piano on the early Elvis recordings.

After 5 years in Shreveport my father decided to pursue his dream in Southern California. Subdivider's were bulldozing the orange groves and building tract homes. A good journeyman carpenter could work 50 weeks a year. We packed what we could load in a trailer and disposed of the rest. With a 1951 Chevy and a box trailer the Johnston family was on the move again. The weekend before we left my parents let me go to the Hayride with my two older sisters. That was my first time seeing live music outside of a Church. I was enthralled by the experience.

I started Sixth grade in California and was pleased to discover Elvis Presley was already on the radio there. Even better, we soon owned a T.V. and I discovered televised music. Town Hall Party and Hometown Jamboree were two of the T. V. shows I remember. And my mother soon owned a new 1959 Chevrolet with a radio that worked.

At that time Bluegrass Music was not a separate genera of music. It was all called Country or Hillbilly Music. But different bands were striving to have an identifiable sound. California had Lefty Frizzell and The Maddox Brothers and Rose. However, the Hillbilly band that stuck in my head was Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs..

Flatt and Scruggs had a distinctive sound, hard driving music with a speed and pace all their own. The banjo rolls from Earl Scruggs could compete with the drum set in any Rock and Roll band. Flatt and Scruggs prevented many arguments when I was riding in my mother's car. She kept her radio tuned to those Country stations. I could tolerate most of the Country songs if I thought Flatt and Scruggs would be played.

As I got older I focused more on the early Rock artist but after I got a job one of the first albums I bought was "Folk Songs of Our Land" by Flatt and Scruggs. A quick web search shows that album was released in 1962. And after looking over the album notes (I still have the album I bought in 1962) it shows Flatt and Scruggs as Folk Musicians. The word Bluegrass is not mentioned on that album. In 1962 I was a self-proclaimed Folk Music fan. Bluegrass, as an identifiable type of music, had not been born yet.

About that time I left the L. A. suburbs behind and moved north, right into the heart of San Francisco. I soon started searching for the music I loved. I quickly discovered not all Folk Music had a Scruggs style banjo. I found a Tower Record Store in North Beach that was open 24 hours a day. I learned a lot about Bluegrass by reading the backs of record albums.

However, until the name "Bluegrass Music" achieved widespread recognition I wasted a lot of time searching out Folk or Hillbilly music. Some places that advertised Country Music had Webb Pierce style hillbilly music, not Bluegrass. Some other places that advertised Folk Music played Irish music or music from the Andes in South America. It's a good thing I enjoyed variety because I sure got a lot of it while I was searching for Scruggs style banjo.

So that's my story. I realize I haven't mentioned Bill Monroe but he is one of the musicians I discovered after I was Hooked on Bluegrass. It was Flatt & Scruggs that started me down that musical road. I learned a lot about Folk Music while I was searching for Bluegrass.

(posted 2/14/2008)

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