A Gathering of Real Country Gentlemen

(Ricky Carioti - Twp)
By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 13, 2007

In the early morning hours of July 4, 1957, Buzz Busby's Bayou Boys were speeding back to Washington from a job on the Eastern Shore when Busby and several members of his band were seriously injured in a car crash after their driver fell asleep. Banjo player Bill Emerson, who had been riding in another car, didn't want to lose the band's regular gig that night at the Admiral Grill in Baileys Crossroads, so he quickly drafted guitarist and former Bayou Boy Charlie Waller, mandolinist John Duffey and bassist Larry Leahy to fill in.

The injured musicians recovered, but the pickup quartet sounded mighty good and decided to keep playing together, eventually choosing a name: the Country Gentlemen. Duffey, the son of an opera singer with a forceful tenor of his own, came up with it as an antithesis to many bluegrass bands calling themselves the so-and-so Mountain Boys. As Duffey saw it, "we're not mountain boys, we're gentlemen."

And, it turned out, the most important, innovative and influential second-generation bluegrass group, popularizing the music in the '60s in ways even bluegrass patriarch Bill Monroe could not. Aside from vocal and instrumental virtuosity, the group adapted folk, rock and country tunes of the day, modernizing bluegrass without abandoning its hallowed traditions, in the process broadening the music's appeal to a non-rural audience.

That legacy will be saluted Friday and Saturday with the Country Gentlemen 50th Anniversary Celebration at Watermelon Park in Berryville, Va., with as many as 50 former members and guests gathered for a once-in-a-lifetime retrospective.

Waller, whose resonant baritone was one of the most memorable in bluegrass, led the group through many incarnations, remaining its sole original member until his death after a heart attack in 2004. His son, Randy Waller, continues with a reconstituted version of the band. He's also the driving force behind this weekend's events, the planning of which, he says, "started well before my father passed away. He must have known more than we did about his health, because I've never seen anybody have a 45th anniversary, but he did. Maybe that was a tip of the hat that he might not be there for the 50th."

Last week on July 4, Randy Waller and Bill Emerson visited the Columbia Pike site where the Admiral Grill once stood. It's now Radley Acura, and, Emerson jokes, "we were expecting we'd get a new Acura, but they weren't forthcoming!"

Well, there have been plenty of honors -- including induction into several halls of fame -- and that's pretty good, Emerson says, "especially given the fact a bunch of kids got together and had no idea it would go this far and get this large. All we wanted to do was have fun and play a little music."

One of the reasons this weekend's gathering will feature so many alumni is that the Country Gentlemen experienced numerous lineup changes. Emerson, who put the original lineup together, was gone by the time of the first of two "classic Country Gentlemen" lineups. That 1959 roster consisted of Waller and Duffey, banjoist Eddie Adcock (one of the Bayou Boys sidelined in 1957) and bassist Tom Gray. Adcock, who left the group in 1970 to pursue a successful solo career, says it was years "before it ever dawned on me that what we had done was a very important thing for the growth of bluegrass music."

Adcock had worked with Monroe and recalls that while working for the Father of Bluegrass, "my biggest paycheck was $12 a week in 1957. I remember the first night I worked for the Country Gentlemen, I got $12.50, as well as $12.50 in the kitty -- a $25 night in 1958! I knew right there and then the Country Gentlemen were in a different vein from everybody else."

The same held for the material, Adcock says. "We knew if the music was to survive, somebody would have to do something different. I had worked with all the hardcore artists, and they weren't making any money. I planted tobacco and worked on Bill Monroe's farm more than I played the banjo when I was with him. Monroe and the Carters were dead as far as sales go, and bluegrass was on its way."

Pete Kuykendall, a national banjo champion who played with the Country Gentleman for 18 months in the late '50s, founded Bluegrass Unlimited in 1966, a magazine that remains the bible of the genre. Kuykendall says: "We were a traditional bluegrass band, but we were younger, approaching it from a younger perspective, part of the reason it appealed to a broader audience. We weren't the old 'hillbilly music' band, and the timing was right: The folk boom had hit, and some of the fallout of that was young people looking to bluegrass music as something that interested them beyond rock-and-roll and the mainstream pop music of the time. And we were doing unique material, different material."

For that, Kuykendall credits Adcock, Emerson and Duffey, "who knew you had to come up with some different material to stand out, or they'd start comparing you to Flatt and Scruggs or the Stanley Brothers." In later years, the role of song finder was played by Doyle Lawson, Jimmy Gaudreau and Jerry Douglas. But, Emerson says, Charlie Waller "was a rock, the foundation of the whole thing, just a great lead singer, and people wanted to hear him sing. He was the one who kept it constant."

Duffey left in 1969, Gray in 1970; they'd resurface in 1971 as part of the equally influential Seldom Scene. Emerson reupped in 1971 in time for the second "classic lineup" featuring Waller, mandolinist Lawson and bassist Bill Yates, then left again in 1973 to join the U.S. Navy Band; he founded Country Current, the Navy Band's world-renowned bluegrass ensemble (he retired from the Navy in 1993). The man Emerson brought in to replace him in the Country Gentlemen? A youngster named Ricky Skaggs.

Skaggs won't be at this weekend's gathering, but with an alumni pool of more than 100 musicians, "it's going to be a pile," Randy Waller says. "There'll be a ton who will be there who won't even get to play, and we'll be pointing out so many people who stood by my dad all those years and gave great contributions. This is the only time these people will be together on one stage -- it will not happen again, no way it physically could happen."

Which may explain why it's not just a local and regional gathering. Fans are flying in from the West Coast, Canada, Europe and Japan.

Carrying on, Waller says, "is a heavy weight, to always have to walk in the shadow of Charlie because nobody could do it as good as him. Once he did a song, it was done, but I do believe I can bring honor to his memory and continue what he started 50 years ago. That's my goal. We'll always be playing Charlie Waller's music, and we'll mix ours in a little bit. It's still his band, he is here, we feel him a lot onstage. When I hold that guitar and I'm up there singing his songs, it's an unbelievable thing to be able to continue after all these years."

The Country Gentlemen 50th Anniversary Celebration Friday and Saturday starting at 1 at Watermelon Park in Berryville, Va. Who: Friday will feature local bands and, after a dinner break, Randy Waller and the Country Gentlemen with former Gentlemen from the '80s on. Saturday will feature Eddie and Martha Adcock, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and Country Current, and, after dinner, the Country Gentlemen with alumni from the '50s through the '80s. For times, tickets and information, visit Fact: From 1960 to 1972, the Country Gentlemen's in-town residency was the rowdy Shamrock bar on M Street in Georgetown (now Winston's). It was ground zero for an urban bluegrass boom that earned Washington the title Bluegrass Capital of America.

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