When Buzz Busby died last Sunday at 69 after a long illness, his place in bluegrass history was secure only within small circles of genre historians and regional bluegrass musicians who remembered his soaring high tenor, mastery of the mandolin and crucial impact on Washington music.
"If anybody deserves the title of father of Washington bluegrass, it would be Buzz Busby," says Eddie Stubbs, voice of the Grand Ole Opry and a former member of the acclaimed Johnson Mountain Boys, who was tutored by and played briefly with Busby a quarter-century ago.
In the '60s and '70s, Washington was widely known as the nation's bluegrass capital, mostly because of the Country Gentlemen and, later, the Seldom Scene and the Johnson Mountain Boys. But there might not have been a bluegrass scene worth noting without Busby's pioneering presence on a fledgling club circuit in the early '50s, when the music was just finding an audience nationally. Particularly important was Busby's nine-month stint in 1954 as the star of WRC-TV's "Hayloft Hoedown," which broadcast bluegrass six afternoons a week and helped popularize the genre beyond its transplanted rural constituency.
And there would have been no Country Gentlemen had Buzz Busby not "died" on July 4, 1957, in a car crash while heading home from an Eastern Shore engagement with his Bayou Boys. The wreck was so bad that the ambulance driver, unable to find a pulse, declared Busby dead. At the hospital, however, attendants found signs of life and a rescue mission began. Busby remained in a coma for several days, and his injuries kept him hospitalized for three months. Several other band members were less seriously injured.
The band's banjo player, Bill Emerson, who had been traveling in another car, put together a pickup band to fill in until Busby and the others could return. It included guitarist and lead singer Charlie Waller, who'd played with the Bayou Boys for most of the previous two years, and a young mandolin whiz and high tenor singer, John Duffey. Naming themselves the Country Gentlemen, they broke away from Busby while he was still hospitalized and became one of the most popular and influential bluegrass groups of all time.
Busby, a Louisiana native, had come north in 1951 to work at the FBI's fingerprint division, but he found better-paying and more enjoyable work in the city's burgeoning clubs.
"When I came to Washington, bluegrass was absolutely not accepted," Busby told The Post in a 1986 interview. "It might sound like I'm bragging, but I pretty much changed that when I went on television. . . . We literally reached senators and little old ladies' sewing circles and everyone else. I know, because we got letters. In other words, I reached a vast public."
But after the 1957 accident, Busby was relegated to the shadows, never truly rewarded for his role in popularizing bluegrass here. Much of that was due to Busby's own self-destructive behavior, under the influence of alcohol and amphetamines. Through the '60s and '70s, he played occasionally, drove delivery trucks and spent time in prisons and mental hospitals. Busby once told record producer and Patuxent Records owner Tom Mindte, "I started at the top and diligently worked my way to the bottom."
Busby was born Bernarr Busbice, the youngest of nine siblings, raised on a Louisiana cotton farm. Older brothers taught him to play guitar, but Busby taught himself to play mandolin as a teenager listening to the brand-new sound of bluegrass being introduced in the late '40s by Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. Along with Monroe, Jesse McReynolds, Jethro Burns, Frank Wakefield and Red Rector, Busby was one of a handful of first-generation stylists who defined the instrument's sound; his approach was characterized by double stops and what Stubbs called "machine-gun tremolos" with his right hand, reflecting a lifelong fondness for fiddle styles.
Moving to Washington at 17 after graduating from high school (he was class valedictorian) and being recruited by the FBI, Busby immediately teamed up with guitarist Pete Pike, the two sometimes working as a comic duo called Ham and Scram. Busby also worked in a novelty duo called Buzz & Jack with songwriter-guitarist Jack Clement, who would later become a major producer in Memphis and Nashville, and in the Tennessee Troopers with Clement and Scotty Stoneman, a brilliant fiddler whose career also was destroyed by alcohol.
After building up a huge following at hardscrabble downtown honky-tonks like the Famous Restaurant at 12th Street and New York Avenue NW and the Pine Tavern at Sixth Street and Massachusetts Avenue NW, Busby and his new band, the Bayou Boys, won numerous prizes at the 1954 National Country Music Championship Competition in Warrenton, Va., which led to "Hayloft Hoedown," one of many regional attempts to emulate the success of country music showcases like "The Grand Ole Opry" and "Louisiana Hayride."
After "Hoedown" ended its brief run (apparently advertisers weren't interested in its target audience), Busby headed back to Louisiana, where he spent close to a year as part of Louisiana Hayride, then a thriving rival to the Opry. He began his recording career there on the local Jiffy label with a powerful double-sided single: "Me and the Jukebox" and "Lost" (covered two decades later by Jerry Garcia's bluegrass project, Old & In the Way).
That single would spur more Washington bluegrass history when it was leased to local bluegrass enthusiast Bill Carroll as the first release on Carol Records. Carroll soon partnered with Charles Freeland and Carol changed its name to Rebel Records. In the '60s, it became the dominant label in bluegrass and home to both the Country Gentlemen and Seldom Scene.
In the late '50s, Busby recorded a series of singles for the Starday label in Nashville that Eddie Stubbs calls classics of the genre: "When you think about high-lonesome bluegrass, the names Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers come to mind immediately. . . . But to me, the most intense high-lonesome bluegrass ever recorded was by Buzz Busby and the Bayou Boys, tracks like 'Lonesome Wind,' 'Where Will This End?' and 'Cold and Windy Night.' He lived what he sang and it really came through in his music."
Otherwise Busby's recording career was minor: a '60s project with Leon Morris on Rounder, several '80s albums on Webco, a label founded by his brother Wayne Busbice, for many years the principal of Gaithersburg High School. The current owners of the Starday catalogue are planning a compilation CD of Busby's singles with the Bayou Boys, and Pinecastle Records is planning a career retrospective. It will include Webco material featuring the Johnson Mountain Boys, whose fiddler, Stubbs, formed his first group as a seventh-grader at Gaithersburg, encouraged by Wayne Busbice and tutored by Buzz Busby.
Busby continued to live in the Columbia and Catonsville areas, but ill health forced him to retire from performing in the mid-'80s, though he made occasional appearances at bluegrass festivals and did some sporadic recording. In recent years, Busby suffered from Parkinson's disease and an accumulation of health problems associated with alcoholism, giving deeper meaning to another one of his songs, the prophetically titled "This World's No Place to Live, but It's Home."