Last night was a big night for bluegrass. Along with 800 other bluegrass fans, I found myself seated in the back of a ginormous room at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Asheville, North Carolina for the Bluegrass First Class show. The head liners that night included Darin and Brooke Aldridge, The Lonesome River Band, Russell Moore and Third Time Out. The frosting on the cake was the final band of the evening, a reunion of the Bluegrass Album Band. The audience held their breath as this legendary group of musicians took the stage. They had not even played together for thirty years. Of course, the band included Doyle Lawson, J. D. Crow, Bobby Hicks, Tony Rice and Todd Phillips. Joining the band on guitar and vocals was Josh Williams. Most of us in the audience weren’t actually sure what this legendary lineup would actually sound like, since at least three of the members were in their mid to upper seventies. Would they come out hobbling on walkers carrying oxygen tanks?
As we soon found out, the answer that was a resounding NO! The group sounded tight and polished just like they had been playing every night for years. Age had only increased their considerable musical skills, and each member of the band performed brilliantly.
The big unknown for me was Josh Williams. I had heard his name for several years but frankly, I didn’t have a clue about him. I had seen him perform as Rhonda Vincent’s guitar player, but he seems to have a limited roll as a singer in that band, and I really didn’t know what to expect. I have to say that in many ways, he stole the show. His singing was absolutely stunning. He sang with great expression, tone and dynamics. He did slightly mess up the last verse of their opening number, “Blue Ridge Cabin Home.” After they had finished that song, he told the audience that he certainly knew the words, but right there on stage it finally dawned on him that he was actually playing with the Bluegrass Album Band, and it shook him up. He said he now had himself under control, and that it wouldn’t happen again. It didn’t. In fact, he flawlessly sang the words to some very rarely performed bluegrass songs such as “Don’t Forget Me Little Darling,” and “We Can’t Be Darlings Anymore.” I was very impressed with Josh, and am now a die hard fan.
Doyle Lawson assumed the role of spokesman for the group, and he did a great job of keeping things light. Between songs, Doyle told a really funny story. As a member of the Country Gentlemen for many years, Doyle confided in us that the lead singer of that group, Charlie Waller, often had problems remembering the lyrics to the songs. Not only did he forget a word or a line here and there, but he also forgot complete verses. Doyle would stand beside Charlie on stage and feed him the forgotten words. Doyle said he often felt like a ventriloquist, because he’d sometimes have to actually sing the words with Charlie’s tone and inflection. As you may already know, the Country Gentlemen were a bunch of cut ups, often playing tricks on each other. Their outlandish behavior on stage sometimes included playing their instruments behind their backs.
Doyle relayed to us that one time when Charlie forget the words, Doyle played a trick on him. Instead of feeding him the correct words, he said, “I wish I had a hamburger.” Charlie started to sing that line, and then turned to Doyle and said, “those aren’t the words, are they?” Of course, when we all heard that we almost died laughing.
Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really about fifty years). Originally from California, he now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He has written thirty songbooks and instructions books for banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin.