Washington, DC: Once the Capital of Bluegrass
I went to a small Quaker boarding school in suburban Chester County, Pennsylvania, during the late 1950s. A small group of guys, mostly two years ahead of me, regularly sneaked down to Sunset Park in the southern part of the county, just north of the Maryland line, to hear country music. They often got together in the dormitory to play and sing. Sometimes, when the school held community talent shows, they’d get on stage to play the music they’d heard.
I was too busy listening to Pete Seeger, the Kingston Trio, Dave Brubeck, and Chris Connor. My loss.
This was back when bluegrass music was creating an independent identity from country and hillbilly music. When, according to some, Washington, DC, became the bluegrass capital of the country.
Watch this video in order to feel some of the excitement that Mike Aldridge, Dudley Connell, George McCeney, and Len Holsclaw felt when they were growing up in the District of Columbia and the suburbs that stretch between Washington and Baltimore.
They talk about going to Sunset Park in Pennsylvania and the New River Ranch in northern Maryland, just a few miles south of it. There, country music and bluegrass stars mingled with fans. People like Johnny Cash, Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe, Flat & Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers played every weekend in a picnic grove atmosphere, bringing country music to the whole Midatlantic region. There, rural areas, cities, and suburbs were growing, changing, and mixing.
Meanwhile, Back in Washington, Gary Henderson was playing bluegrass on WAMU, providing cover to closeted bluegrass fans who pretended to look down on bluegrass to appease their more cultured, upper-middle class friends.
Two other important media outlets at the time were Bluegrass Unlimited and Banjo Newsletter, both constantly spreading the good news of bluegrass.
Meanwhile, in the District of Columbia and the surrounding suburbs, four bands and a radio station sparked the growth of a music that became a recognizably set genre, named for the sound created when Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs joined Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys at the Grand Ole Opry in 1945.
Washington’s population had burgeoned — people from the southern mountains were migrating elsewhere for war jobs, and they brought their music with them. People from West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Carolina flocked to the good jobs available in the Washington-Baltimore-Philadelphia axis, turning on WAMU’s radio broadcasts on their way to work, flocking to the bars and clubs where bluegrass bands played, and attending country and bluegrass shows just north of Baltimore.
Buzz Busby (1933-2003) & the Bayou Boys had a regular gig at the Admiral’s Grill in Bailey’s Crossroads, in Fairfax County, Virginia, just south of the District. This hard-driving band, fueled by Busby’s wickedly rapid mandolin and plenty of high-proof alcohol, may have been the first bluegrass music that many in the Washington area heard. Busby’s music fired their imaginations with its speed and versatility.
As fans began to travel, they headed a few miles north to Sunset Park and the New River Ranch to discover Busby’s musical forebears. Bob Perilla, a local bluegrasser, commented in an article written in 2000 that bluegrass “was the very first music that was designed, from its very inception, to be amplified. Now, a single microphone and a bluegrass band gathered around it is not the same as a Telecaster through a twin reverb. But the truth of the matter is that bluegrass was designed to be electronically processed from the very get-go. I mean, it really only predates rock and roll by a couple of years, and the heavy emphasis on the backbeat is really a huge precursor of rock and roll.”
Three additional Washington-area bands can chart a progression almost until today. The Country Gentlemen, formed in 1957, opened the way for significant changes in bluegrass. They reached out to writers like Gordon Lightfoot and Steve Goodman to include folk music and pop songs adapted for a bluegrass band. The original lineup — which was active until 1964 and consisted of Charley Waller, John Duffey, Eddie Adcock and Tom Gray — was inducted into the IBMA Hall of Fame in 1996.
It’s not easy to choose from their originals for a single to put here, but try this one. Believe it or not, this song, with its very uncharacteristic bluegrass story, was written by country singer Mel Tillis:
The Seldom Scene began at a 1971 jam. They never intended to become a full-time professional band, and they pretty much never did. Maybe that’s how you become a great band: break most of the rules, and continue to do so for more than 40 years.
The Scene, as they’re known to their legions of fans, delivered bluegrass versions of rock music and found their inspiration wherever they could. The original members included a physician named John Starling, a mathematician named Ben Eldridge, Mike Auldridte, graphic designer, a cartographer named Tom Gray, and John Duffey. Duffey was the only full-time musician in the group, a tenor who had a four-octave range and was the son of an opera singer. They added Dudley Connell in 1995.
The Johnson Mountain Boys should be called a neo-traditional band, since they brought enormously high energy and great instrumental and vocal skill. The group presented music from the great bands in the first generation of bluegrass. That generation had been supplanted by more contemporary bands, but the Johnson Mountain Boys specialized in re-introducing the music of the Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, and Flatt & Scruggs as well as other early bluegrass notables.
The band was active from 1978 to 1988, winning national and international acclaim while releasing ten albums. The original band included Dudley Connell, Richard Underwood (banjo), David McLaughlin (mandolin), Eddie Stubbs (fiddle) and Larry Robbins (bass).
In 1988, the Johnson Mountain Boys disbanded but performed in several reunion bands for a decade or more. Most of its members are still active in bluegrass, and, as has been mentioned, Connell is the lead singer of the current version of The Seldom Scene.
All of this to show you how the people who migrated to Washington from across the rural South helped lay the foundation for generations of bluegrassers. They brought their music with them as they took jobs that allowed them to spend more money. They had active media support, a variety of venues for performance, and terrific, groundbreaking bands that created an environment for bluegrass to grow, mature, and nurture musicians and their musical innovation.