This year’s IBMA Awards Show in Raleigh, North Carolina, appears to have been a transitional one in which younger bands like Flatt Lonesome emerged for major awards. It was also a year in which a Flatt & Scruggs cover band, The Earls of Leicester, received the Entertainer of the Year trophy for the second straight year. However, perhaps the most enthusiastically approved winner was Danny Paisley, who was named Male Vocalist of the Year over a strong field that included three former winners. Paisley, whose voice, manner, and style come from an earlier era, was greeted with cheers of joy. The Paisley family, who live in southeastern Pennsylvania’s Chester County, are part of a story that mirrors the progress of bluegrass music from its origins in the hills of Appalachia to urban and suburban America of the 21st century.
According to a video recorded by David Morris at the DC Bluegrass Union, Paisley says he started performing with his father in 1974, when he was 16. Now, after more than 40 years in the business, he’s recognized as one of the bluegrass greats. Danny’s father, Bob Paisley, was born in Ashe County, North Carolina, in 1931, in the midst of the Great Depression, but, after military service in WWII, moved to Landenberg, Pennsylvania, to find industrial work as a chemist. While he had grown up playing harmonica and guitar for fun with his family, he began playing professionally in the Wilmington, Delaware, area around 1964. He teamed with his friend Ted Lundy, who had migrated from the Galax area, and the band became The Southern Mountain Boys, recording four albums during the 1970s. Lundy died in 1980.
After Lundy’s death, Bob Paisley continued to record and tour as Bob Paisley and the Southern Grass for the next 25 years. They recorded on Rounder Records in 1980, early in Rounder’s life. Southern Grass played at President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration and toured Europe, Japan, and Canada. Like many other bluegrass musicians, Bob Paisley supported his family with a day job, while performing on the weekends. From the 1950s through the ’70s, he worked as a chemist with the National Vulcanized Rubber Company in Hockesin, Delaware.
Other southern musicians were drawn to the area by the mushroom growing and canning industry in southern Chester County and the industrial complex dominated by the DuPont Corporation in Delaware. On the weekends, these people flocked to Sunset Park in West Grove, Pennsylvania, and New River Ranch in Rising Sun, Maryland, to hear country and bluegrass music, to jam, and to perform. This tiny region where Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and New Jersey intersect, just north of Baltimore, became a hotbed of bluegrass and country music in the 1950s and ’60s due to the migration of Appalachian folk to the quickly expanding industrial population in the area. After Bob Paisley’s death from cancer in 2005, Danny Paisley became the band’s leader.
We first saw Danny Paisley & the Southern Grass at a small festival in Lodi, New York, called Pickin’ in the Pasture, located on a hill above Lake Cayuga, one of the most magnificent settings in all bluegrass. I must admit that to my untutored ear, Danny’s singing sounded harsh and nasal. It wasn’t until several years later, when I heard him sing with a first-rate sound man, that I came to appreciate both his fine, traditional vocal skill and the background from which it came. Over the years, as we’ve come to know and appreciate Danny and his music, and his skill as a singer and band leader has become ever more clear. He’s a country boy with little formal education and few pretensions, a consummate entertainer who understands his genre with a deep knowledge of its history. Recently, he participated in the production of a major biographical project celebrating the life and career of singer/songwriter Ola Belle Reed.
In 2013 Danny Paisley had a heart attack during a small festival in south Georgia. After a triple bypass and recuperation, he returned to the bluegrass trail. His only seeming compromise to his health issues has been to sing and play his beloved old Martin guitar from a stool. The band’s repertoire is still peppered with songs they’ve sung for the past four decades, classics in bluegrass music. Meanwhile, contemporary neo-traditional composers have continued to provide new material. His recording of “Don’t Throw Momma’s Flowers Away” by Chris Stuart and Ivan Rosenberg was named 2009 Bluegrass Song of the Year by IBMA.
Several years ago, Danny began bringing his young son, Ryan, along to a few gigs. Ryan, perhaps six or eight years old, would stand behind the band, chopping away on his mandolin. Soon, young Ryan was growing up and had taken his place in the lineup as the regular mandolin player, maintaining the strong chop he had while maturing into a fine mandolin player whose music was developing far beyond his years.
In 2012, during a performance by Marty Stuart, who himself, at age 14, had been invited onto the stage at the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival by Lester Flatt, Stuart invited Ryan Paisley to join him on the stage for a song or two, passing the torch once more. Since the Paisley band, as well as the Paisley and Lundy families, are the home team at Delaware Valley, this invitation and the subsequent performance held great resonance with the audience and for Ryan himself.
Since then, Ryan Paisley has become a regular touring member of the band. Now home-schooled and attending Liberty University online, Ryan’s music continues to mature and develop. He’s a thoughtful young man who often speaks for the band from the stage and in interviews. While still somewhat shy, he’s full-fledged member of this band, which has been performing nationally for more than 40 years. Meanwhile, Danny Paisley belies the frequent contention by critics that the soul has been removed from bluegrass. As long as there remain hard-edged performers like Danny Paisley, whose picking and singing hearken back to the founders while forging ahead, there’s still plenty of soul in bluegrass.