Recently the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) announced the names of the two inductees to the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame for 2008. In the living performer category is singer/guitarist Bill Clifton, the first international ambassador for bluegrass music.
Born William Marburg on April 5, 1931, in Riverwood, Maryland. Bill Clifton began his music career in March 1950, working on radio station WINA in Charlottesville, Virginia. Later he performed at local barn dances while a student at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where in 1954 he earned a BA degree and in 1959 he added a MA degree, graduating at the university’s Graduate School of Business Administration.
He formed The Dixie Mountain Boys in June 1953, recording in 1954 for the Blue Ridge label, and later for the Mercury and Kapps labels. Starday and its budget label, Nashville Records, also released a number of singles and a total of seven LPs by Bill Clifton & The Dixie Mountain Boys from 1957-1963. Band members included Paul Clayton, David Sadler, Johnny Clark, Curley Lambert and George Shuffler. During this period Clifton was also active in organizational and promotional work with events such as the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island. He is also responsible for organizing one of the very early single-day, multi-artist outdoor bluegrass events held at Luray, Virginia, on July 4, 1961.
Clifton moved to southern England in 1963, about the time his Starday contract ended. He had built a sizable following overseas through his TV appearances, recordings and at the many folk clubs throughout England. He coached a group of Kent schoolboys who had got together to play bluegrass under the name, the Echo Mountain Band.
He organized many folk clubs throughout Europe, promoting and greatly expanding the market for American bluegrass and folk music on the continent. In 1975 the newly formed Bear Family record company made their release, the collaboration between Clifton and the Country Gentlemen, Mike Seeger, Roy and Paul Justice, Going Back To Dixie, the first with the three bears label.
In that same year Clifton was instrumental in the organization of Bill Monroe’s tour of Europe. Clifton’s work has created a fan base that has endured and continues to benefit bluegrass artists touring in the continent.
To wind back the clock a bit, in 1967 he joined the Peace Corps and spent 3 years in the Phillipines. While in the Peace Corps, Clifton visited New Zealand and recorded with the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band (Kiwi SLC 93).
In October 1976 Clifton led a group of bluegrass all stars, Red Rector, Jim Brock, Tom Gray and Bill Keith, on a tour of Japan.
Returning to the USA in 1978, Clifton has since traveled periodically to Europe and Japan for tours and has recorded several LPs of his own and in collaboration with other artists‚Äîincluding his long-time touring partner, Red Rector.
Since the early 1980s Clifton and his family have resided in Mendota, Virginia, and from there he has continued to perform both abroad as well as close to home, at places such as The Carter Fold.
Clifton has also recorded for County, although in recent years, he has released half a dozen albums on his own Elf label, recording with Don Stover, Art Stamper, John Duffey, Tom Gray, Mike Auldridge and Jimmy Gaudreau.
Clifton’s rich catalogue of recorded songs includes The Little Girl I Left In Sunny Tennessee, I’ll Be There Mary Dear, Little White Washed Chimney, Walking In My Sleep, Going Back To Dixie, When You Kneel At Mother’s Grave, Blue Ridge Mountain Blues and Are You Alone? Sung in a strong, rich voice with driving, traditional bluegrass instrumentation, Clifton’s songs received heavy airplay on many country radio shows from the late 1950s to the mid-1960s.
Much of his repertoire is included in his 150 Old-Time Folk And Gospel Songs, first published in 1953. It wasn’t the first songbook, but it did indicate Clifton’s strong inclination towards being a song collector. The influential booklet was later dubbed the “Bluegrass Bible.”
Rick Townend, banjo player with the Echo Mountain Band, spoke of Clifton’s influence on him …
“Bill Clifton provided a unique and special impetus to the bluegrass and folk music world of the UK when he arrived in Britain in 1962. By his work over the succeeding years, his public performances, recordings, radio and TV appearances, and personal contacts helped vast numbers of people here to become familiar with American traditional musics ‚Äì and indeed to play too. It is hard to overstate the value of this to the budding bands and fans, at a time when the internet was not yet thought of, and the first bluegrass newsletter still many years in the future. Later, in the 1970s, he traveled widely in mainland Europe and won many fans for bluegrass music there too.
I myself am massively indebted to Bill, for his encouragement, his taking me in my teenage years to play at festivals and other venues I could otherwise only have dreamed of, the information he gave us about bluegrass music and its people (which till then was been restricted to recordings and sleeve notes), introductions to musicians such as Mike Seeger, Bill Monroe and Art Stamper and, last but not least, for many of the instruments which I play, which he brought back from the USA himself or arranged for visiting musicians to bring. In particular, the enthusiasm we both share for the music of the Carter Family has been especially motivating in my latest music venture ‚Äì the Kent Carters (a tribute band to the original Carter Family).
Bill’s continued contact with the British and mainland European Bluegrass community is still greatly appreciated, and many people, especially of my generation (the ‘folk revival era’ players) will continue to remember and be grateful for his contribution to our music scene.”
In November 1990, Clifton was made the first honorary President of the newly formed British Bluegrass Music Association.
Two years later the IBMA honored Bill Clifton with a Distinguished Achievement Award.
The Hall of Fame inductions will be one of the high points of the International Bluegrass Music Awards, scheduled for October 2, 2008 at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee.
Tickets went on sale to the public on Friday, September 19; call the Ryman box office at 615-889-3060 or Ticketmaster at 615-255-9600.
For more information, contact IBMA at 1-888-438-4262 or visit www.ibma.org.
The Hall of Fame is housed in the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky.