45 years for The Bluegrass Experience

The Bluegrass Experience at The Castaways in Greensboro, NC: Fiddlin' Al McCanless, Donald Beane, Sunffy Smith, Tommy Edwards, Paul Beane and Charles Lee ConardEverybody loves anniversaries, right? There’s something about the inherent difficulties of modern life that leads to a near universal sense of wonder when anything survives past a dozen years or so. These days it’s rare to keep the same job throughout your working life, or live in the same house – or even keep the same spouse – and we expect the identical thing from bands in bluegrass music.

So when we noted that North Carolina’s Tommy Edwards & The Bluegrass Experience are celebrating their 45th anniversary of continuous operation this month, it seemed like a good time for a hearty slap on the back.

During that time, the band has fielded a total of only 12 members. Of the six founders (photo above), three have passed on and two, guitarist Edwards and bassist Thomas “Snuffy” Smith, remain with the group to this day. They have four albums to their credit and are looking forward to a special Anniversary Concert this November at Fearrington Village near Chapel Hill, NC.

Other current members include Mike Aldridge on mandolin, Stan Brown on banjo, and Keith Thomas on fiddle. The band has been featured this past three years at the IBMA’s Wide Open Bluegrass streetfest in Raleigh, and are excited to play their first MerleFest next year.

The Bluegrass Experience (with Kenny Kosek sitting in) at Carlton Haney's inaugural New Grass festival at Camp Springs in 1973 - photo © Jan EasonThings got started, as they often do in this bluegrass rich region, with six friends competing together at the many fiddlers conventions in western North Carolina. When they won the World’s Championship Bluegrass Band at The Union Grove Fiddler’s Convention in 1972, the Experience was off and running, becoming a fixture at the Carlton Haney festivals and finding plenty of dates on the burgeoning college music scene.

They were invited to perform at the Finnish National Folk Festival in 1975, the only American band to be asked, and hosted a regular Thursday night show at Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill for nine years starting in ’72. Those shows at the Cradle often included visiting artists like Peter Rowan, Bobby Hicks, Dan Crary and Tony Williamson hopping up on stage to join them.

Tommy’s wife Cindy shared a few words about the musicians who have and continue to work with The Bluegrass Experience.

The Bluegrass Experience in 1984, performing at a Jim Hunt for Senate rally in Siler City, NC (Thomas "Snuffy" Smith, Donald Beane, Thomas Edwards, Paul Beane and Patsy Richardson Conklin) - photo courtesy Jeff Davis, The Chatham News“Notable members through the years include Fiddlin’ Al McCanless who helped found the group in 1971. Not only was he the  featured fiddler on the Folkways album, The Red Clay Ramblers with Fiddlin’ Al McCanless, he had previously played with The New Deal String Band, the ground breaking new grass group that recorded an album for London records in 1969. And from that same band, vocalist Leroy Savage came to The Experience in 1978 and stayed until 1981. Former Bluegrass Boy Stan ‘Stanjo’ Brown is the band’s current banjo player, and former Bass Mountain Boy Michael Aldridge is the mandolinist. The fiddler is Keith Thomas who has worked with notable area bands as well as Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road. Jimmy Cameron who played bass for five years with Doctor Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys was the band’s mandolin player for several years, and two pioneers of North Carolina bluegrass, mandolinist Paul Beane and his banjo playing brother Donald Beane were original members of the group.”

And they’re still going strong. Here’s a video performance by the guys at the Temple Theatre in Sanford, NC back in 2012.


Hats off to Tommy Edwards & The Bluegrass Experience!

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.