"Back in the '50s," Vallie Cain recalls, "you could only count about three bluegrass bands around here. There were the Stonemans, Buzz Busby and us. The Stonemans had two or three groups working out of their family. They played at the Famous Restaurant near the bus terminal downtown. We played there a couple of times, and so did Roy Clark."
The Washington area may be the bluegrass capital of the world, but few fans, especially the younger ones, remember the acts that pioneered the music here. Sitting comfortably in their Falls Church home, Benny and Vallie Cain do remember. For more than 30 years they have played old-time and bluegrass music in this area, winning awards, recording albums and hosting radio shows.
In the best spirit of the music they love, the Cains have always been semiprofessionals, holding day jobs and playing the rest of the time. And they are still playing. Just two years ago they toured Europe. Along with four other acts, the Cains will play a fundraiser at the Birchmere this Sunday for the Capitol Area Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Association.
Over the years, the Cains have witnessed dramatic changes in the local country scene as well as the growth of country music from a rural folk form to a modern industry. It was the folksy musical culture of their childhood in Berkeley Springs, W. Va., that set the course of their careers.
"I heard music mainly at dances, church festivals, picnics and social gatherings," Benny Cain says. "We'd have barn dances in real barns and also hold dances in large living rooms in people's homes. That's where I started playing. It was all guitars and fiddles -- not many banjos and mandolins back then. We used to listen to the Grand Ole Opry every Saturday night and the Wheeling West Virginia Jamboree. We liked the traditional bands like Bill Monroe, Roy Acuff, the Possum Hunters and Sam and Kirk McGee."
The Cains formed their first band, The Country Cousins, in 1949, playing mostly country and pop material. They landed their first radio show on WINC in Winchester, Va., and it was while hosting their Saturday morning program that they first met one of Winchester's more promising vocalists.
"Patsy Cline was just a kid then. She came in one Saturday and had her nose pressed up against the glass in the studio watching us broadcast," Benny Cain chuckles. "Somebody came in and said, 'There's a little girl out here who sings real good. Do you mind if she sings something?' While the announcer did a couple of commercials, we went out and rehearsed with Patsy. She came on and sang a couple of songs. She had a great voice but wasn't used to our bluegrass-style accompaniment."
In 1950 Benny and Vallie were married and moved to the Washington area. It was at this time, with Benny switching to mandolin and the couple developing the high harmony style, that they began to move into bluegrass.
"The first bluegrass music I ever heard," says Vallie Cain, "was Toby Stroud from Wheeling. Then we heard Bill Monroe, Mac Wiseman, Lester Flatt and Reno and Smiley, and that's what we wanted to play. One day we tried to do a bluegrass song with mandolin and guitar and those harmonies like the Blue Sky Boys, and we liked it and found out we could sing it."
As they became a full-fledged bluegrass band, adding fiddle and banjo, the Cains changed their group's name to the Country Clan. In 1953 they joined station WGAY in Silver Spring and, two years later, also began to broadcast over WSIG in Mount Jackson, Va. The Country Clan was being heard on a variety of radio shows, winning annual awards at Warrenton's National Championship Country Music Contest and playing all over the Washington area in clubs and at festivals, drive-ins and carnivals.
"We played in good joints and raunchy ones," Benny Cain remembers. "We'd play anywhere we could find a bluegrass crowd. It hadn't caught on yet, and we were competing with country acts. We played at Joe Dell's on Ninth Street and we played a bar and grill at Sixth and Massachusetts called the Madrid. We also played at Georgetown at the B&J, which is Clyde's now, and at the Pine Tavern where Buzz Busby always worked. We played one place at Seventh and H where the Rouse Brothers played. Ervin Rouse wrote the 'Orange Blossom Special.' He'd do stuff on the fiddle that I've never heard anyone else do."
Many bluegrass greats-to-be played or sat in with the Cains, including Bill Emerson, Charlie Waller, John Duffey and Don Stover. Throughout the '60s the Country Clan played all over the area and recorded two albums for Rebel Records. In addition to originals, these records featured obscure folk songs, a reflection of Benny's hobby as a collector of old records, songbooks and sheet music. Benny is also an expert on vintage acoustic instruments, which both he and Vallie collect.
"I used to write articles about old Gibson mandolins and Martin guitars for Bluegrass Unlimited," Benny explains. "There's a great demand for certain prewar instruments, so I've been collecting them for at least 30 years. I do it to accommodate musicians in the area looking for rare instruments. People come to the house all the time. Ralph and Carter Stanley used to always stop in, and I sold Ralph a banjo. I sold David Grisman a Lloyd Loar mandolin dated 1923. Loar designed the Gibson F5 mandolin, and there's never been one like it. They only made 250 of them and they sound the best. That's what Bill Monroe plays."
The Cains' performance schedule slowly tapered off through the '70s, but in 1982 they were invited to bring their old-time bluegrass sound to Germany, Holland and Denmark for three weeks.
"For some reason," Benny laughs, "they really like us over there. They like the traditional bluegrass, not the jazzier modern stuff. So do I."