Bill Browning and The Grateful Dead: 60 Years of ‘Dark Hollow’
Back in 1958 a young singer-songwriter from West Virginia named Bill Browning recorded for a small regional record label. After one of his tunes – “Borned With The Blues” – was released, the song on the flip side of the record was quickly noticed and re-recorded by two other artists with better distribution: Luke Gordon and Jimmie Skinner. While Browning and His Echo Valley Boys’ version was cut in the rockabilly style, Gordon and Skinner’s versions are heavily influenced by Hank Williams. The song was called “Dark Hollow.”
For a song recorded dozens of times by numerous artists and that has become a staple at bluegrass jams, there is very little known about Bill Browning. He was born in 1931 in Wayne County, West Virginia, and actively recorded for three years on several labels including Island, Alta, Enola, Quality, and Starday. During that time period up until 1960, he also performed on WWVA’s Jamboree radio show, and he played gigs in both his home state and Ohio. Sometime in the early 1970s he moved to Hurricane, a small town in West Virginia, and opened up a recording studio while also running Alta Records, which he did until he passed away from cancer in 1977, just shy of his 46th birthday.
Jimmie Skinner was born in Berea, Kentucky, and his family rode that “hillbilly highway” to Hamilton, Ohio, in the early ’30s. Although his recording career had several false starts and didn’t take off until 1949, he managed to write a song that charted for Ernest Tubb and another for Johnny Cash. Throughout the ’50s, Skinner was based in Cincinnati and recorded for Capitol, Decca, and Mercury, where he took “Dark Hollow” to #7 on the country charts.
Luke Gordon’s family also migrated from Kentucky, but headed east to Falls Church, Virginia. He performed in the Washington, DC, area, often entertaining for the wounded military men at Walter Reed hospital in Bethesda and became well known in the Northern Virginia area. His version of “Dark Hollow” also charted, and in 1966 he created his own record label called World Artist.
How the song morphed into a bluegrass standard isn’t clear, although it appears that both Mac Wiseman as well as Ralph Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys featuring Larry Sparks started playing it around the same time, in the mid- to late ’60s.
There’s some interesting theories on how the song finally came to the Grateful Dead, with some folks giving Bob Weir credit and others pointing to Jerry Garcia, which seems to make more sense to me. In 1963 Jerry met his first wife, Sara Ruppenthal, and as a duo they played folk and bluegrass at local clubs around Palo Alto. The following year he started up the Black Mountain Boys, a bluegrass band with him playing banjo, Eric Thompson on guitar, future NRPS member David Nelson on mandolin and the Dead’s lyricist Robert Hunter doing bass. There’s a great long recording of them here. Garcia was so into bluegrass that he traveled to Bill Monroe’s annual festival with the hope of auditioning for him but lost his nerve.
In March of 1967, Garcia had gone electric and was down in Los Angeles. Visiting the Ash Grove, a famed local club of the time, he introduced a set of Clarence and Roland White’s band and it included this version of “Dark Hollow,” which is close to the style that the Dead eventually recorded acoustically around 1970 and released on the Bear’s Choice album in 1973.
Folks who keep track of such things note that the Dead performed the song over 30 times over a 10-year period, with at least a few electric versions. In 1973, David Grisman, Peter Rowan, and John Khan were in Muleskinner, a bluegrass band with Bill Keith and Clarence White, releasing one album that featured “Dark Hollow.” When the three left and formed Old and In The Way along with Garcia and Vassar Clements, the song was again included in their repertoire.
The list of bands who have continued performing this American folk song is extensive and includes the following: J.D. Crowe and The New South, Larry Sparks and The Lonesome Ramblers, Kentucky Colonels, Seldom Scene, Country Gazette, David Bromberg, Tony Rice, String Cheese Incident, Bill Monroe, Del McCoury, Dwight Yoakum, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and a few dozen more.
We’ll close this one out with not one … not two … but three different versions from the Dead and friends. The first is from 1970 with Jerry playing pedal steel guitar, followed by an acoustic version from the October 1980 Radio City Music Hall series, and the last features just Jerry and Bob with Joan Baez at a benefit concert in 1987.
Happy 60th and hats off to Bill Browning.
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