After our “Troubled Times” album was released in 2006, “Milwaukee Blues” was received well within BlueGrass radio and concert audiences and became a staple in our live shows. We always introduced the song as one from our candidate for “Grandfather of Bluegrass Music”, Charlie Poole.
Around this time , I had a chance meeting with Rounder’s Ken Irwin at a show and he mentioned the album and that he liked our treatment on “Milwaukee Blues” and that we should consider recording an entire album of Charlie Poole material….
The next page in this album’s story begins eight years later in December, 2014 at James King’s Nashville benefit. Stan Wilemon and I were talking to Chip Covington, a great friend from Chicago who actually had pitched Poole’s “Milwaukee Blues” to us when we were selecting material for “Troubled Times” and worked closely with the band during that period. Ken Irwin was in Nashville attending the show and stopped by to chat with us .
He asked me , ” have you thought any more about doing that Charlie Poole Tribute album that I mentioned to you ten years ago”? I said “no, but it was an interesting idea”…….
My Dad’s older brother was Cleo Davis, Bluegrass Music’s
original Bluegrass Boy. So, Bill Monroe and his music was important and appreciated greatly in our home. My Dad, Leddell Davis, was a very good musician and singer , he loved the Monroe Brothers , Blue Sky Boys, Copas, Ernest Tubb, Acuff, we would sing those songs together that he grew up on. The first albums I remember having were Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Bill Monroe. We lived next to my Mother’s parents and my Grandfather, J.H. Bailey, was a Baptist minister who played old-time fiddle and twofinger and clawhammer banjo. I had the opportunity to be around wonderful acapella gospel singing and learn “parts singing” blending in with the Church congregation. We visited some of the Churches on neighboring Sand Mountain, where I got to first hear Fa-so-la singing, just about the prettiest , eeriest, moving vocal harmonies I’d ever heard. I wouldn’t know till later that the Louvin’s had grown up there and alot of the Church people there were kin and friends of Charlie and Ira. When I first started travelling, I had the opportunity to meet and become friends with Charlie Louvin. Naturally, I told him that I had visited with my family some Churches in the Henager, Ider, Alabama area and knew alot of his kinfolk. He appreciated that and told me , ” well, you know where we got our music from”……
When I was around twelve years old, I had my first opportunity to see Bill Monroe and the BlueGrass Boys . The radio said they would be at a venue very close to our home and my Dad and Mom carried me to the show. We sat within a few feet of the stage and proceeded to enjoy musical steak that night. I experienced what I’ve read that a young Levon Helm said he experienced twenty years earlier when he saw Bill and the Bluegrass Boys in his hometown of Marvel, Arkansas. Levon went home wanting to be a musician and so did I. To me, Levon and so many more great artists grew up around Highway 61, the crossroads or melting pot for New Orleans Jazz, Delta Blues, Hillbilly, Old time and Bluegrass music, all different styles or tastes, ready to be mixed together at the descreasion of the musical chef and served for public consumption. Add ten or fifteen years of honing the mixture, “getting in with the right bunch of fellows” , prolific songwriters, a playhouse or musical kitchen called Big Pink, the stew is called The Band, whose first two albums defined greatly what is called Americana music today. It’s amazing to think of how many people that were quickened from the musical seeds that Bill Monroe was sowing throughout those years and the directions and heights that some of these young disciples were able to take their particular brand of music. Naturally, the most beloved and accepted ones studied and used the essence of Bill Monroe’s offering along with their other musical influences to create music with a new face, some vastly accepted and appreciated throughout the general music world.
Like Levon and many other people, I left my first Bill Monroe show expierance wanting to do what Bill did and make people feel the way that Bill’s music made me feel. So from the beginning, our textbook was Bill Monroe and the music he created. The challenge of learning to sing and play his music as proficient as we possibly could was a fun and exciting and daunting task. Even after being accepted into the BlueGrass community and having the opportunity to be a touring band, we were still searching for many secrets to Bill’s music and how to get closer to that flame. Every so often, and very early in our career,we’d be around Bill and get the chance to get some advice . We were visiting with him one day in his Nashville office, we had been traveling only a couple of years, but had played some shows with Bill. He opened up a Bluegrass Unlimited magazine right to an advertisement with our picture and said “I think you boys will be doing something in a couple of years”. Great incouragement to a bunch of younsters just beginning they’re journey and having the time of their lives……
In about four or five years of “ho ing the mixture”, tons of riding, schooling ourselves watching the first generation Masters presenting their craft, we had an opportunity in 1989 to affiliate ourselves with Rounder Records, one of our chief goals from our beginning. I remember Ken Irwin calling me and asking that I get all the band over to my Mom and Dad’s house for a jam. He and Hazel Dickens were in Louisiana at a music festival and would stop by on their way to DC. We played some music, had dinner together and had a contract when they left for DC. Great validation to a young band trying to make their name in the business……
I believe that Bill Monroe genuinely appreciated artists who tryed their best to play his music as close to the Monroe Doctrine as they could, but at some point, he would be the first to tell you that you must try to carve out your own niche or strive to create your own idenity within music, just as he had done, many years before. After starting our relationship with the Rounder Family, one of the first pieces of advice that Ken gave us was, “you have a Bill Monroe thing going, you should work at creating your own idenity or style”. That was hard to understand at that time in our musical lives, kind of a curve ball to the youngsters who had been having a good run at playing Bill’s style as close as we could and having alot of success with that formula…….
Even before Mitch Scott , Gary Waldrep and myself started travelling together in our first WRB incarnation, an early musical mentor to me, Crate Shelton, always told me that the Northeast region, especially the Baltimore/DC area was the hotbed for this music. Crate had lived and worked there in the 1960’s and had experienced the rich Bluegrass scene there. He would tell me, ” there’s a radioman there, Ray Davis, who plays the real thing and promotes great shows in that area. If Ray likes your music, the band can work and have success in the Northeast”. We had started to get into that region by 1986 and realized quickly that Crate had been right about that area being a hotbed for this type music. Correct also that Ray Davis was a beloved torchbearer for Traditional BlueGrass music, with a tremendous following of faithful Bluegrass Country listeners and concert goers. Thankfully, Ray accepted and appreciated what we were doing musically and us as people and did his best to promote and publicise and personalize us to his radio family the rest of his life. Certainly a man of integrity, musically and personally, having Ray play our music to his audience was tremendous validation to us and a much needed springboard to opening up the fertile working ground of the Northeast to the band. I remember, in our early relationship with Ray, being at the old WAMU building at a radio fundraiser, playing music “live” in between the pitches for the pledge drive. About fifteen minutes before the end of Ray’s show during a commercial, he tells us, “play a fast fiddle tune and don’t stop, I’m gonna pitch the rest of the show” and proceeded to roll for fifteen minutes without stopping, rising the intincity of the pitch every minute and by the end of the fifteen minutes he was really rolling and stopped at the very last second of the show before commercial. As I was watching him work that last segment, arm aching from playing a marathon “Katy Hill”, I was thinking to myself, this man is as great at his art as Bill Monroe is at his art. That was a amazing experience that day watching Ray do what he did so very well. Around that time, and for many years, we have worked often in the Northeast and was around Ray and got to know him personally. We had many opportunities to be a part of the bi- yearly WAMU radio fundraisers, first playing “live” during Ray’s shows, then Mitch Scott and myself would drive up and set in with Ray for the fundraisers, then the last number of years, I would set in with Ray. Sitting beside him during these fundraisers, the job was to roll with whatever direction Ray was heading toward, whether it be giving thoughts on the music that was being offered as premiums, the importance of donating to the station, or any other subject he wanted to go with and try to keep three hours fresh. This was as natural for Ray as breathing, but was newground for me, especially when Ray was rolling strong with a pitch and might hand off to me to continue that same direction and come to a strong close while he cued another bit of music. To me, it was like being in a jam session and trying to play your break on a tune that you didn’t know well. It forced me to think quicker, think deeper, have a greater general knowledge of the music being discussed and be able to discuss finer points in an interesting way. I know that in those early efforts to assist Ray , I was more hindrance than help but I got better as we went along and was able to get comfortable with the process and hopefully helpfull in the duo role. When we first started doing the fundraisers live, we were very careful to try to speak correctly and put our best foot forward, young Southern musicians trying to fit in with with a important new audience . After the first few opportunities, Ray said, ” look fellows, these people are going to like you because you are different, if you try to be something other yourselves, they’re going to know that and will turn off from you”. Real simple advice, but so foundationally “right on” in music and in most aspects of life. Over the years, we had the opportunity to record alot of music in Ray’s “basement” studio, some with the full band, but mostly with smaller incarnations, duos, trios and four piece combinations. Ray usually had songs picked out when we got there to record and I found myself doing somewhat different kinds of music sylistically, certainly traditional roots type feels, but different that what we’d been recording and concentrating on. Older, sweeter approaches to the songs, alot of the songs with a brother duet approach. Lightbulbs and memories were flooding back to me, these were some of the songs and feels that I had sung and loved with my Dad years before. I had forgotten how beautiful this type music was and how closely kin that I was to it. Ray always urged us to lean heavily on being ourselves and draw from our personal musical roots and let that be our chief ingredient to the music we did. I began to realize that my early personal musical influences were so rich and perfect to build from, just as important as the styles and music that I had studied and absorbed later in life. And that early musical makeup was what gave the artist individuality. I remembered that advice coming from other people a few years earlier, but I was more ready now to realize and accept the importance of the advice.
Starting in 2003 with the first of three Rebel albums, we were starting to work and record music with a different feel, our intend being to broadening the boundary lines of Bluegrass Music (Bill Monroe’s Music), in a relavant way. The thought was not unique, as many artists with the same intention have been attempting to expand the fences, most with Monroe as a base element and their own choice combination of ingredients. This is where the individual background , early or strong influences, choice of musical location to dig from, and how much of those ingredients are used, separate the artist’s offering. Bill’s link in the Big Music Chain was his choice of elements from several earlier forms of music mixed together forming a new entity, folk music with overdrive. If and when BlueGrass Music (Bill Monroe’s Music) can be evolved in a relavant way, it will be through earthy , well rooted elements and will strike a nerve and be accepted and recognized greatly by Traditional Music appreciators. In my mind, if you attempt to relavantly evolve Bluegrass music, you don’t start with Bill Monroe , you go a generation prior and absorb the music’s that The Father of Bluegrass listened to and start from there. We have the added advantage of Bill’s proven elements to draw from to the degree that we understand and care to use. The future is in the roots, the revolution is in the rhythm, level of acceptance is in the combination of the ingredients.
The idea of recording a “tribute” album of Charlie Poole material was an interesting one to us. For a number of years we had mentioned him as our candidate for “Grandfather of Bluegrass Music”. The best tribute that we could offer him and the public was to try to take the key elements from Poole’s music and evolve that into more modern forms of Traditional Music, stating our case for Poole being not only a worthy candidate for “Grandfather of Bluegrass”, but actually “Grandfather” for a much broader roots music family . Evidence of this came this year in Bob Dylan’s Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech when he mentioned Charlie Poole.
This particular recording contains the most extensive variety of traditional roots styles that we have ever included on one recording, giving further credence for the potential expansion of Poole’s good seeds sown in fertile ground. Selecting fifteen songs from Poole’s eighty recorded song repertoire was not easy, but we know that a number of different feels are represented on the recording , giving it a broader palette . Originally drawn from Tin Pin Alley, Blues, Old Time and Popular early twentieth century music, all these morphed easily into Poole’s style and just as easily into our offering.
Robert Montgomery, a ten year bandmember and fellow Alabamian, helped greatly in co-producing the album, having deep knowledge of Poole’s music, his contribution was essential to the final outcome and his multi-tasking banjo and Travis-style guitar on “Old and In The Way” as well as low and high baritone and vocal lead on “Sweet Sunny South” and “Where the Whippoorwill Is Whispering Goodnight” complemented beautifully. After singing with Marty Hays for the last twenty two years, we know each other and can get close vocally and blend well. Marty has been a big part of the group for many years and contributed greatly to the album. Stan Wilemon and I have known each other for many years, Stan worked with the band early on when we were having our first successes and was a big part of those early successes. He played bass fiddle and sang with the band then and was considered among the best at both. Stan, a gifted songwriter, has contributed some of our most induring original songs and continues in that role. He is a student and master of rhythm, and is foundational, in the guitarist role, to setting the band apart rhythmically, the foundation for musical identity. Billy Hurt, of Virginia, guested on fiddle as we were “in between” in that department at the time of this recording. I feel that Billy has the most knowledge and appreciation of how the fiddle worked in Charlie Poole’s music as anybody in the business and the knowledge and taste to blend that with rich traditional fiddle styles and totally complement the band’s groove on each song. Collectively, the unit is a bandleader’s dream, broad traditionally radical artists with much depth. Invaluable people to musically help create a relavant identity through earthy, roots elements.
As Bill Monroe said “you have to know how far you want to go with it and where to stop.” He accomplished this monumental task and he and his fans were rewarded greatly by the effort.
Now the evolutionary task has come to a new generation of artists who must accept that challenge and strive to split that Bluegrass atom one more time .
The future is in the roots, the revolution is in the rhythm, and the level of acceptance is in the combination of the ingredients.
Right, Right On !