Bill Clifton: America’s Bluegrass Ambassador to the World – a review

I have had to think long and hard about what to say about the recent Bill Clifton biography, America’s Bluegrass Ambassador to the World, by Bill C Malone.

In many respects it is a perfectly acceptable biography, scholarly, yet quite readable.

However, for some reason, maybe to allow the author to offer some opinions or conclusions, Malone has chosen not to make this an authorized biography, despite Clifton’s willingness to assist, even if only to check the final manuscript before it was submitted to the publisher. Why do I say this? Well Malone indicates that Clifton’s (the family name was actually Marburg) middle name is Augustus – adding two unwanted letters at the end – and he makes several other errors, typos maybe, and errs in respect of at least one opinion. Malone speaks about this choice in the book, but it is still difficult to understand why he chose to go down the route that he did. Additionally, two photographs are miss-labelled and one picture of Clifton in Germany is not in fact with England’s Echo Mountain Band as captioned. Thus, the band that has played a very important part in Clifton’s life is denied proper recognition. 

Malone did interview Clifton as well as his family, including Clifton’s four sisters, who apparently doted on their young brother; friends, former band-mates and associates, in addition to utilizing to the full the excellent book that accompanied the Bear Family 8-CD box set, Around the World to Poor Valley. Dutchman Rienk Janssen wrote the wonderful biography.

Malone traces Clifton’s early education, which began at a private K-8 school in Baltimore. The schooling that followed was somewhat bitty, with time at a preparatory institution in Concord, New Hampshire, a term at another school in Baltimore, expulsion from the school in Concord, and further education at a two-campus establishment, one near Onchiota, New York, and the other on Biscayne Bay, Florida. This last period was a much happier one for Clifton, although, as while at the earlier schools, “hillbilly” music was an all-consuming passion. The Marburgs have the head gardener of their Selsed estate to blame for Clifton’s burgeoning love of traditional music.

Bill Clifton was born into a well-to-do family in the Washington, DC stock-broker belt, and chose to go his own way in life by following his musical muse. Malone acknowledges the fact that family members were disappointed with Clifton’s decision to spend much of his free time while at college on developing his knowledge of early country music, including his appreciation of Carter Family’s songs. Clifton formed a very active friendship with A.P. Carter, learning from him and preserving the Carter family’s music.

During his time at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Clifton met a kindred soul in folk singer Paul Clayton, and they began singing together. Subsequently, they teamed up with a couple of other students and they ventured into the realms of playing bluegrass music. In 1952 they did 17 recordings, but they didn’t see the light of day until 1975 when Bear Family released 12 cuts.

As is well-known, Clifton spent many years in England, attracted to that country by the recognition of his music that he was receiving there. This is documented in Country and Western Express magazine, which had polls from 1958 to 1963 that regularly placed him as the favorite bluegrass music performer, and this came to Clifton’s attention. Ready to pursue music full-time, Clifton and his family set sail for England. According to Malone, Clifton and his wife had a second motive, the education of their children, as at the time American schools were not mixed gender. Be that as it may.

Malone recognizes what Rick Townend of the Echo Mountain Band cites as the “main emphasis of his work to preserve and foster traditional songs and music.” In that regard, Clifton published his own enduring songbook, a very popular work that saw several re-prints. Clifton was an early pioneer of the bluegrass festival, and the fact that his promotion was only for a one-day event should not detract from his far-sightedness.  

Although his stay in Europe was initially intended to be short-term, Clifton got work at folk clubs and on television and radio that kept him busy for a several years, and he mixed that with appearances in Belgium and Germany. In turn, these appearances extended to the Netherlands, Switzerland, Scandinavia, and to eastern Europe countries.

Clifton organized tours for Bill Monroe, Pete Kuykendall and the Stanley Brothers also.

Clifton actually made several trips back to America, making some personal appearances, performing with several other top-notch bluegrass musicians, and doing some recording with releases on Mercury, Starday, Nashville – in England on London, EMI and Melodisc LPs, in the process adding innumerable memorable songs and individual arrangements to the bluegrass music catalogue.

Malone reveals that Clifton’s three years-service in the Peace Corps in the Philippines was burdensome and fraught with difficulties and unhappiness, such that he wanted to end his service after two years.

Before returning to England in 1970, the family visited New Zealand where Clifton played at the third National Banjo Pickers Festival and recorded with a local band, The Hamilton County Bluegrass Band.

During the 1970s, he signed with County Records and formed the First Generation band, consisting of Clifton on guitar, Red Rector on mandolin, and Don Stover, who joined the duo in 1978, on banjo.

It was earlier in that same year that Clifton married his second wife and the new family emigrated to the United States, settling down in Virginia.

Come By the Hills (1975) German TV Musik-Laden show – Bill Clifton & Echo Mountain Band
Mick Audsley (guitar), Rick Townend (banjo), Andy Townend (mandolin) and Tim Davies (double bass)

Clifton maintained a determination to be self-sufficient, but Malone cites a few instances where he did get financial support from his family, but apparently not so in 1980 when for six months his second family had to subsist on food stamps. Peculiarly, this period came in the midst of Clifton having a job (from spring 1979 to 1982) at the Tenneva Food Company of Bristol, Tennessee.

In 1980 he formed his own label Elf Records and in the following 25 years he released one LP and five CDs, one with Jimmy Gaudreau, with whom Clifton had a brief partnership, and one with the Pick of the Crop, whose members included Jean-Blaise Bochat (banjo; born in Switzerland) and Joost Van Es (fiddle; from The Netherlands).

Ultimately, we get a picture of someone who is driven to foster and add to American–Appalachian culture.

His talents were recognized twice by International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), being given a Distinguished Achievement Award in 1992 and, in 2008, he was inducted into their Hall of Fame.

Bearing in mind the many flaws in this Bill Clifton biography, it and the Hazel Dickens book don’t do a great deal for Malone’s reputation.


Bill Clifton: America’s Bluegrass Ambassador to the World by Bill C. Malone
Paperback: 184 pages
Publisher: University of Illinois Press (September 20, 2016)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0252082001
ISBN-13: 978-0252082009
Product Dimensions: 15.2 x 2.8 x 22.9 cm

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. 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.