BLUEGRASS LEGEND Charlie Waller was supposed to perform at Wednesday's State Theatre fundraiser for Eddie Adcock, his old friend and bandmate from the classic Country Gentlemen lineup of the late '50s and '60s. Adcock, a superb banjo player and all-around instrumentalist, underwent triple bypass heart surgery in early July and had to stop working while in recovery and rehab. The concert, featuring Seldom Scene alums John Starling, Mike Auldridge, Tom Gray, Jimmy Gaudreau and Rickie Simpkins; Cliff Waldron and the New Shades of Grass; and the Country Gentlemen, was put together by Bluegrass Unlimited magazine to help Adcock battle the twin dragons of lost income and medical expenses.
Sadly, Waller, the only constant Country Gentleman over that band's 47-year history, passed away Aug. 18 after a heart attack at his home in Gordonsville, Va.; he was 69. Waller had been scheduled to go to Nashville that weekend for an Adcock benefit, but the Waller family had to schedule a viewing at the same time that event was to have been held. Instead, Adcock traveled from Nashville and was one of 15 current and former members of the Country Gentlemen who sang the band's classic "Calling My Children Home" at the graveside service.
"If there was anyone on this planet my dad loved, it was John Duffey," says Waller's son Randy of the mandolinist who, with Waller, Adcock and bassist Gray, made up that classic lineup. Duffey, whose haunting tenor blended with Waller's resonant baritone in a hugely influential sound, died in 1996.
"But if there was anyone alive today that he absolutely adored, it was Eddie, and wild horses couldn't have kept him away from there, so I feel his spirit will be there when we play."
It will be in several forms: in the photograph of Charlie Waller atop an otherwise empty stool on the State Theatre stage; in the 1936 Martin D28 guitar with Waller's name inlaid in the neck in pearl, given by the father to the son on Christmas Day, 2002; and in a final spotlit, spectral encore from the Country Gentlemen's new, Adcock-produced album, "Songs of the American Spirit." The song is Dixie Hall's "Let Me Fly Low," which Randy Waller describes as a man's wish that, should he die, his spirit fly low so he can hover over those he loves as a guardian angel. It was also the last music played at Charlie Waller's funeral.
According to Randy Waller, "We had no idea about how much meaning the song would have when we recorded it." The State Theatre show will be the Country Gentlemen's first local appearance since Randy assumed his father's role as frontman for the group, which includes longtime banjo player Greg Corbett, mandolinist Darin Aldridge and bassist Billy Gee. They made their official debut last weekend in Myrtle Beach, S.C.
The story behind the gift of the D28 is told on "Daddy's Old Guitar" on Randy Waller's new, eponymously titled album, but the story of the succession goes back to 2000, when good lineage proved stronger than bad experience. Randy grew up surrounded by the music of the Country Gentlemen and spent many summers on the road observing the rigors of life in a perpetually touring bluegrass band. That may explain why his initial forays, mostly unsuccessful, were in country music and Nashville.
"I'd been playing music for years and I'd even gotten out of it -- I'd been moving furniture for years," Waller says. But when his father gave him his guitar, "I figured I'd better get out there and play. When he was sick back in 2000 [Charlie Waller suffered a mild stroke], I went out and played about three weeks in his place, and at the last show, they made a tape off the board."
After finally hearing that tape in early 2003 -- "he'd never heard me do Country Gentleman songs!" -- the senior Waller invited Randy into the fold. "He said, 'You need to get out there and do it with me.' And that's when I went out on the road with him. I was out there the next job. As a matter of fact, I was late and missed the bus and I drove all the way to the job. I wasn't going to miss the opportunity to play with him."
And now, Waller adds, he's happy to be helping Adcock. Many years ago, he had a lengthy stint as bassist in Eddie and Martha Adcock's band, and they appear on his album. "I have a very deep friendship with Eddie and Martha," he says, adding "they contributed vocals on my project and did it for nothing! They're family, so I'll do anything in my power to help Eddie Adcock. If he wants to mow his grass, I'll do it!"
First, though, comes the responsibility of continuing the legacy of the Country Gentlemen.
"My dad was living for that 50th anniversary, pushing for that," Randy Waller says. "He never saw this coming. He thought he was indestructible. But I'll tell you what: This band will see that 50th anniversary. I know that my dad wants me to go out and do this. That's why he gave me his guitar, why he was taking me out and introducing me to the audience, basically to get preapproved. If I had just come out of the wild blue yonder now, it would have been far more difficult for me to continue and be accepted.
"I'll be honest with you: I'm no Charlie Waller, and I'm not claiming to be. But I've got a lot of him in me and I'm pretty proud of that, and I want to put it out there where he would want it to be. I do have some similar vocal inflections, because I grew up listening to him. So I can sing his songs and pronounce the words the way he did, and I think you can hear him in there. But certainly I am in no way the caliber singer that he was, no way, shape or form. He was definitely one of a kind."
Randy Waller adds that at his father's funeral, "I had a guy who came up to me, hugged me and whispered in my ear: 'Randy, you've got some really big shoes to fill.'
"And I whispered back in his ear: 'Nobody can fill those shoes. I'm just going to take them for a stroll.' "
Tickets for the Adcock benefit at the State Theatre (220 N. Washington St., Falls Church) are $20. Doors open at 6; the music starts at 7:30. Call 703-237-0300.