On June 25, 1926, Joe Val was born.
Joseph Valiante, shortened to Joe Val by Tex Logan, was a bluegrass music pioneer from New England.
Born in Everett, Massachusetts, he was a relative late-comer to country music, starting to play the guitar at the age of 14. His interest in bluegrass music was piqued by listening to recordings of Bill Monroe and showing an interest in two local duos, Jerry and Sky, and the Lane Brothers.
Switching from guitar to banjo and then to mandolin Val played in a band called the Radio Rangers and subsequently the Berkshire Mountain Boys.
He also associated with the Lilly Brothers and Don Stover, the major bluegrass music influence in the Boston area from the early 1950s.
As interest in bluegrass music grew, Val played with two other newcomers to the music Bill Keith and Jim Rooney, featuring on their Prestige/Folklore 1963 album Livin’ on the Mountain. Later he was a key member of the Charles River Valley Boys who recorded several LPs with releases on Prestige/Folklore, Prestige International, Folklore and Elektra, their last one being perhaps the most famous; Beatle Country a tribute to the British pop music phenomenon done bluegrass style and released in November 1966.
Despite this venture into more progressive music, Val was a staunch traditionalist, possessing a very distinctive high tenor voice.
In 1970 he formed the New England Bluegrass Boys, co-opting Herb Applin (guitar), Bob French (banjo) and Bob Tidwell (bass). From the very beginning they played some high quality bluegrass music.
Their initial Rounder album One Morning in May (0003) was released the following year to great critical acclaim. Val’s rendition of Sparkling Brown Eyes with its two-part harmony yodels was a particular highlight and set the tone for their music for the duration, despite the seemingly constant personnel changes. Other New England Bluegrass Boys included Dave Dillon and Dave Haney (both on guitar), Paul Silvius, Karl Lauber and Joe Dietz (banjo) and Eric Levenson, who became the group’s bass player in 1976.
Joe Val recorded six top-class albums for Rounder and, as well as playing dates in the US, he made personal appearances in England and in continental Europe to great acclaim.
He had a full-time day job as a typewriter repairman. However, just as Val made the decision to play music full time he was found to be suffering from Lymphoma. His last full show was performed during an afternoon set at a festival in Keene, New Hampshire, in 1984.
Val passed away on June 11, 1985.
In 1986 a neighbour of Val’s, the late Rod O’Neill, founded the first annual memorial event, Joe Val Day. Eventually, the Boston Bluegrass Union (BBU) took over the managing of the event and moved it to a larger location. In the mid-1990s, the BBU event ultimately evolved into the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival.
Since 2000, when the BBU expanded and refined their festival concept, the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival was re-scheduled to Presidents’ Day Weekend. The festival, which won the coveted IBMA Event of the Year award in 2006, marked its 25th anniversary in 2010.
Here the much-loved Joe Val and the New England Bluegrass Boys perform The Fields Have Turned Brown and Sunny Side of the Mountain in a video from circa 1984. It is a fitting way to remember this quiet, unassuming gentleman.
John Atkins, a fellow writer and one-time tour promoter in Britain remembers Joe Val very fondly …..
“As I recall it was the first time I ever booked a whole band myself, and became concerned when I heard Dave Dillon was no longer with the band. I think it was Jim Rooney who said ‘Don’t worry, Joe Val and any other three is a good band.’
Joe was incredibly easy to deal with. Always punctual, offering to help with gear and as long as we could find him plain, wholesome food he was fine. He could never understand why we would walk past three pubs to go in a fourth because the beer was better. He had almost no ego at all and had many more qualities to his voice than was displayed on record. I used to get him to sing Satan’s Jewelled Crown every night a song they did as a trio.
Joe had no record collection of his own and relied on others to find songs for him. I think it was Dave Haney who suggested Crystal Gale’s Wrong Road Again. That was a great song for Joe.
On the second tour he was obviously unwell and had to sit down on stage on a few occasions. He was never less than fully professional in his outlook, and travelling and working with Joe Val was a time of great personal joy for me.”
Charles River Valley Boys
- Bluegrass and Old Time Music by the Charles River Valley Boys – Prestige Records (1965)
- Beatle Country – Elektra Records (1966)
Both are available on CD and in iTunes.
Joe Val & the New England Bluegrass Boys
- One Morning in May – Rounder Records CD (1972)
- Joe Val & the New England Bluegrass Boys – Rounder Records (1974)
- Not a Word from Home – Rounder Records (1977)
- Bound to Ride – Rounder Records (1979)
- Live in Holland – Strictly Country Records CD (Netherlands, 1981)
- Sparkling Brown Eyes – Rounder Records (1983)
- Cold Wind – Rounder Records (1983)
- Diamond Joe – Rounder Records CD (1995)
A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe.
He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.
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