20 Questions with Katy Daley is a new, ongoing feature here at Bluegrass Today. The column may be new, but you all know the contributor, Katy Daley, a familiar voice from the Katy Daley Show each weekday morning at WAMU’s Bluegrass Country. As the situation allows, Katy will conduct interviews with bluegrass artists and personalities, bringing her wide knowledge of the music to bear. There won’t always be twenty questions, but you can be sure they’ll be good ones.
Here is Katy’s interview with Blake Williams, veteran banjo player, humorist, and now, stage MC at bluegrass festivals around the country. You can read all of her interviews here at Bluegrass Today.
KD: You’ve played with two great pioneers in the First Generation of bluegrass – Lester Flatt and Bill Monroe. I know you have some great stories, especially about Monroe. I’m interested in hearing what you learned from them on the music side and on the business side. Would you consider either one of them your biggest inspiration as men, as musicians or bandleaders? Tell me how did you land two big jobs like those?
BW: I was fortunate, Katy, to be raised up in radio. In fact, I was a DJ at WSMT-AM radio 1050 in Sparta (TN) at age 15. We got the Grand Ole Opry real clear. I was in close proximity to Nashville so the love for the music and the area there where I was raised in Sparta, TN, which, of course, was the hometown of Lester Flatt and Benny Martin, had a rich heritage and some great bands when I was a kid. So I was exposed to bluegrass early and fell in love with radio and bluegrass.
Took my first professional job with Bobby Smith and the Boys from Shiloh in 1974 when I was 17. That put me in the network of bluegrass stars because in the early ’70s when you went to a festival you saw Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Ralph Stanley, Don Reno and all those great bands. So I got put into that at an early age. And I would just tell them if a spot comes open I’d like to work with you sometime. My first one was Lester Flatt. I was his last banjo picker in 1978. Loved Lester! Such a sweet man but he was in poor health and we didn’t get to travel but about 6 months. He passed away in 1979. I loved Lester because he treated it as a show. Now he would do his Roy Acuff impersonation and it sounded like Roy Acuff singing Lester Flatt, but he would put an Acuff song in his show.
KD: Who was in the band with you?
BW: We had Curly Seckler, Marty Stuart, Charlie Nixon, Tater Tate and Pete Corum played bass. That was the final Nashville Grass ensemble. When Lester died I went back to work at the radio station. James Monroe called me one day and asked if I would work with him some. I said sure, so we went out picking. He picked me up in Cookeville, TN to go work a festival in North Carolina and he said, “Did you hear that Butch (Robins) has left Daddy?” And I said, “No, who did he hire?” He said, “He has RC Harris playing the banjo. He’s tried out a ton of banjo pickers but he hasn’t hired anybody.”
James was wanting to do a country thing at that time and he was wanting to quit playing all together pretty much. He said, “You should try out for that.” I just went to Bill’s bus when we got to the festival and I said, “Bill, if you don’t mind I’d like to come down and pick one with you tonight on your second show. I’d like to be considered for the banjo job.” He said that would be fine and so he called me down and I sang baritone on Wicked Path of Sin and I think I played Shuckin’ the Corn. We got through with the show and were getting ready to leave and Bill was real noncommittal about the whole thing. I said, “James, he’s not going to hire me because he don’t want you to quit playing music. James said, “Well, I’ll take care of that.” He left the bus and when he came back he said, “Daddy will be calling you.” And so the following Tuesday the phone rang and it was Bill Monroe. He said, “Can you help me go play a couple of shows this week?” And I said, “Sure. Does this mean I’ve got the job?” And he said, “I guess so.” And that lasted 10 years.
KD: Wow. With no discussion of salary, requirements or anything?
BW: Union scale was $50 a day in 1981. That was for a day worked on the road with no per diem or anything. And it was your job to get to the bus and back, and buy your own food. So that’s how it started. When I left Bill I think I was making $165 a day.
The cool thing about Bill and what impressed me the most about him was that he was such a creative person. He could get his mandolin out of the case and write a song nearly every day. But we might be on stage with George Bush one day, we might be at Carnegie Hall, we might be in a cornfield the next. We might be doing a special on-the-road series for the Grand Ole Opry. I mean it was just such an amazing ride.
KD: And who was doing the booking for him?
BW: Buddy Lee Attractions. Tony Conway was Bill’s agent. And Tony and Buddy Lee could get Bill into venues outside of bluegrass. For example, here’s the power of Bill Monroe. We were going to California one time and happened to be going through Las Vegas. Driving down The Strip in the bus, and Wayne Lewis said, “Bill, Ray Charles is singing tonight out at the MGM.” Bill said, “I sure would like to talk to him.” We just pulled the bus over and went in and said, “We’ve got Bill Monroe from the Grand Ole’ Opry out here and he’d like to talk to Ray Charles.” Pretty soon we’re being led by men who are talking into their coat sleeves under the bowels of the MGM and here comes Ray Charles walking down the hall after his set was over singing Blue Moon of Kentucky at the top of his lungs. We got in there and Bill Monroe said, “I’ve got a song that would make you a powerful number.” Ray said, “Well let’s hear a little bit of it.” Bill sang The Bluest Man in Town, which Bill and Del McCoury ended up recording. Ray said, “I really like that. I’d love to do that with you.”
Ten minutes later we’re back on the bus and Bill’s playing solitaire like nothing happened. That’s the power and the people that he affected. Rock and Roll, Country…. Story after story of people washing their eyes with water out of the pump to keep their eyes open to hear the Grand Ole Opry. Standing on a street corner to see his car going by in the ‘40s because they didn’t know what he looked like. Just an amazing figure. Very strong willed person. He believed in the music standing for itself.
He wasn’t a very showy person but he had his little things that he would do on stage to get the audience. The Old Old House? Boy, he’d make you think he was crying when he sang that. He had that quality about him. But he protected his publishing. The one business aspect of Bill Monroe’s life was that he took care of his publishing and song writing. And, as you well know, everybody from Paul McCartney on down recorded Blue Moon of Kentucky and made Bill a lot of money. He was a tireless promoter, tireless song plugger. Never got tired. Never complained. Loved what he did. It was an amazing ride
But I’m going to tell you something I like to tell people about the defining moment in their life. That’s the moment when your life makes this change, and for me that happened the day Bill Monroe had his open heart surgery. This was in 1991. I’d been with him 10 years. Charlie Smith, he was a Blue Grass Boy, had contacted Bill about doing a videotape at the Grand Ole Opry House in the studio where Hee-Haw was recorded. We were to go there that night and I had a camera. I don’t even remember what it was for. But Bill had open heart surgery and he was in Baptist Hospital in Nashville so we were out of work and they said, “Just tell the Blue Grass Boys to come down and we’ll film this segment.” When we were done I wandered into Dressing Room 2, which was our dressing room that I’d been going to for 10 years. There was Acuff and all those guys roaming the halls. That was another great experience of playing with Bill Monroe. I got to be around all the pioneers and Hall of Famers and legends. But I was just sitting there in Room 2. Mike Snider had been working with Bobby Clark and Charlie Cushman as a trio. He was working at Opryland, working road shows, he was on Hee Haw, he was doing really well. He came through the door and said, “The next person who asks me for a job playing bass, I’m going to hit him right square on the mouth. I don’t need a bass player.” He come over and we talked and visited and he said “Williams, what are you going to do?” and I said, “I don’t have any idea”. The next morning he called me and he said, “Can you play bass?” And I said not really. He said, “Can you hold one?” I said I can hold one. He said Cushman’s got one let’s go out, we’ve got a few shows, let’s pick. We went out and we laughed and I made the awfullest mess on the bass. I got a few of his tapes and he said to take them home and work on them a little bit. Next thing I know he’s offered me a job. He’s got 110 days at Opryland and Opry spots galore, road shows and flying to gigs.
And he’s making people laugh. That’s what really got to me. He was making people forget their troubles and enjoy the show. That was a defining moment for me.
Bill Monroe didn’t like the fact that I left him. When you left him he didn’t speak to you. I passed him in the hallway in the Opry for two years and he wouldn’t speak to me even though I worked the notice and even called Dana Cupp for him and everything. He was mad because I left and he couldn’t understand why I started playing bass. Just blew his mind. And he couldn’t tell people, “well, he’s got a lot more work, doesn’t have to travel as much, whatever.” He just thought, there’s something wrong with him he started playing the bass.
KD: When you give notice, what does that mean? You went into him and told him in person?
BW: That’s typically a two-week notice. I told Mike Snider that I wanted to wait til Bill got back on his feet before I gave my notice and Mike was fine with that. The first show he worked after his surgery was the Fall Bean Blossom Festival. I called Bill and said I’m going to play Bean Blossom with you and I want to give my notice to you. I said I’ve got something that I think is going to be good for me. I said that I knew Dana Cupp has always wanted this job, and if you would like for me to, I will call him for you and let him know. Is that OK? And he said, yeah, that’ll be fine.
He had come to rely on me a lot because I would help him with how long we’d been on stage, who’s that out there, do we need to plug this show. More often than not I would go collect his money for him, I was running the concession, I was talking to the sound people. So he relied on me quite a bit and I got that. But he’d had hundreds of Blue Grass Boys come and go, and I knew I needed to do this, but he wasn’t happy about it. Finally, one night at the Opry he came up to me and stuck out his hand and said, “What is your name?” And I knew that was his way of saying “we’re cool.”
Going to work with Mike, I think opened my eyes and made me more confident on stage. It helped me look at the funnier side of life, which is a beautiful thing to go through. Plus, while I was standing at the New Orleans bandstand at Opryland one day my sweet wife Kimberly walked in. She had made a little gift basket to give to some of the technicians for Easter. Well, what she did for my life has been so incredible, because not only were we bandmates and life partners, but we prayed to God that we would find a way to be together 24/7 doing what we love. She founded East Public Relations and just started doing tour support, easing her way into that while we had a band and it’s turned into that she’s just one of the most respected people we’ve got. She’s one of the hardest working ladies and I help her with that. She helps me run cows. When I MC a festival she’ll wrangle bands and haul them around. It really is a perfect partnership. Part of that was going into Dressing Room #2 that night, getting that job with Mike Snider and being on that stage to meet her.
So Bill Monroe affected me creatively as a showman, and I had a lot of respect for his entertaining capability. But I have to say that things really made a difference when I started working for Mike Snider because it was just a different look at life. He used to say “when you came to work for me you were an old man.”
KD: How old were you?
BW: I was 38. No, wait. I went to work with Lester when I was 21. I went to work for Bill when I was 24 so I was 34 when I left Bill.