The history of bluegrass music draws from artists and audiences in all regions of the United States. Our own region’s vibrant bluegrass scene has contributed an enduring and continuing chapter to that history. DC-area performers, promoters, venues, and radio outlets have been leading influences in the music’s early heritage and in its expression and development over the decades.
During and after the war years, jobs in the Baltimore-Washington area drew workers from southern and mountain regions. They brought their musical tastes and talents with them, which soon were being served by radio stations like WDON in Wheaton, MD; WGAY in Silver Spring, MD; WARL in Arlington, VA; and WKCW in Warrenton, VA. These outlets created a whole new generation of city-bred bluegrass fans and musicians. Warrenton hosted the National Championship Country Music Contest, emceed by “Tom Cat” Reeder, whose broadcasting career led eventually to WAMU. North of Baltimore, the New River Ranch and Sunset Park were country music parks that packed in crowds to hear all the big-name national acts. Some of the most important listeners were our local musicians working their way up and playing as opening acts. Often emceeing at New River Ranch was Ray Davis, then a DJ at WBMD in Baltimore, who subsequently hosted his program at WAMU and then Bluegrass Country during a span of almost 30 years.
Even before the term “bluegrass music” had been coined, locally-based musicians in the 50’s, like Buzz Busby, Earl Taylor, and the Stoneman Family were helping shape the emerging genre with their song-writing, their showmanship, and the instrumental virtuosity of band members like Don Stover, Walter Hensley and Scotty Stoneman. Benny and Vallie Cain were another group that served as the springboard for many of our young musicians, including Pete Kuykendall. A big bang for DC-area bluegrass was Buzz Busby’s unfortunate car accident with several band members, which left band-mate Bill Emerson to find some fill-ins. His choices of Charlie Waller and John Duffey led to the formation of the Country Gentlemen in 1957, with Eddie Adcock later taking over on banjo and Tom Gray on bass. The Country Gentlemen’s crossover repertoire and John Duffey’s unpredictable pranks on-stage brought new and growing audiences to bluegrass.
No matter how you define a “bluegrass festival,” the first ones originated in the 60’s within easy drives from here: in Luray, Berryville, and Fincastle, VA. In those settings, traditional pickers from more rural areas and folk-inspired pickers from the cities made common ground. One of the acts who appeared at Bill Clifton’s 1961 festival provides an example: DC/Baltimore-based Red Allen and Frank Wakefield, from Kentucky and Tennessee, welcomed Amherst College grad Bill Keith into their “Kentuckians”. Meanwhile, David Grisman as a student at NYU was driving from New York to DC for mandolin lessons from Frank.
After rock and roll had done its damage to sponsorships for the radio shows that had been the bread and butter for early bluegrass groups, the musicians were hard-pressed to make any money. As described so well in Tim Newby’s “Bluegrass in Baltimore,” bands competed hard just to play all night in small, rowdy bars for next to nothing. Veterans from that era like Carrol Swam and Russ Hooper are the backbone of the enduring group, Bluestone. Two other veterans from that Baltimore scene are the renowned Del McCoury and his brother Jerry. The 1960s folk music revival finally brought more urban acceptance of bluegrass, especially in the Washington area.
As more festivals were promoted and as more bluegrass talent was booked into clubs, college towns, and even performance halls, bluegrass had its resurgence. A new generation of pickers epitomized by the “New Grass Revival” infused the bluegrass scene with instrumental virtuosity that became more improvisational and genre bending. The DC-based Seldom Scene put expressive harmonies on top of a progressive instrumental style that featured a resonator guitar. What resulted was a run of weekly bookings that lasted from the early 70’s until the mid-80s – first in Bethesda’s Red
Fox Inn and then in Alexandria’s Birchmere restaurant. Mike Auldridge, John Duffey, Ben Eldridge, Tom Gray, and John Starling comprised the “original Seldom Scene” that was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2014. Most of them held onto their day jobs – just like today’s band members – but they still managed to keep DC the center of gravity for bluegrass.
Two local institutions were especially important resources for the increasingly vibrant bluegrass scene – in our region and nation-wide: Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine, and FM bluegrass programming on WAMU radio. Both had originated in 1966-67, and both were essential resources by the time Jimmy Carter invited Bill Monroe and The Seldom Scene to the White House in 1980. Monroe’s performance, with Doc Watson, was recorded by WAMU for NPR.
During the 80’s, more bluegrass listeners found their way to the traditional roots of what had become popularized. WAMU programmers and hosts Gary Henderson and Dick Spottswood always have shined the light on those traditions, including their gospel component. The traditional repertoire of one band in particular took our area by storm: the hard-driving and soulful Johnson Mountain Boys. During its 10-year run from 1978 until 1988, the band’s line-up included performers who remain mainstays of our bluegrass community: Dudley Connell, Marshall Wilborn, Tom Adams, and David McLaughlin. Fiddler Eddie Stubbs, after over a decade of hosting his radio show at WAMU, went on to become today’s voice of WSM radio at the Grand Ol’ Opry.
The music we call bluegrass is as rich and diverse as ever in the greater Washington area, and the Bluegrass Country Foundation is proud to participate in carrying on the tradition and broadening it. Just as the long-playing stereo record moved music listening on the radio from AM to FM, the digital content of today has moved broadcasters and listeners to more media and more parts of the RF spectrum. Even so, radio remains at the heart of every musical community. The thriving bluegrass community of the greater Washington area deserves its radio voice, and the Foundation is here to serve. May the history continue.