Bill Emerson passes

Bluegrass Hall of Fame banjo player Bill Emerson passed away on August 21 from complications of pneumonia. He died surrounded by his family at 83 years of age.

Surely one of the most consequential banjo players of the 20th century, Bill had a career in bluegrass of nearly 60 years. He served as a founding member of The Country Gentlemen, and also had memorable stints with Jimmy Martin and the US Navy’s Country Current. Emerson helped found The Country Gentlemen with Charlie Waller in 1957, but left before they began to achieve national prominence. His return to the Gents in 1970 resulted in one of their most critically-acclaimed recordings, The Award Winning Country Gentlemen, which included some of their most enduring songs – The Legend of the Rebel Soldier, Little Bessie, Redwood Hill, and Bill’s banjo tune, Breakin’ It Down.

In between were a number of influential albums with bluegrass singer Cliff Waldron; Emerson & Waldron were the first to record Fox on the Run bluegrass style in 1969. 

In 1973 he left the Gentlemen and joined the Navy as a non-commissioned officer to build Country Current, the first military band dedicated to bluegrass and country music. There he served for 20 years, leading the band until his retirement. While in the Navy, Bill recorded a pair of albums with Pete Goble, plus his own projects, Home of the Red Fox and Gold Plated Banjo. Following his retirement, he formed a group, Bill Emerson & Sweet Dixie, who released three albums under that name. Bill recorded several other solo projects during this time as well and appeared on Tony Rice’s Plays and Sings Bluegrass.

In addition to Breakin’ It Down, Bill also wrote the classic tune, Theme Time, which has been a banjo standard since he recorded it with Jimmy Martin in 1967. Other standouts from his pen included Sweet Dixie and Cowboys and Indians, among many others.

Though having started on guitar, Emerson first picked up the banjo in 1953 and was playing soon after with Buzz Busby around his native Washington, DC. It was when Buzby was injured in an auto accident that Bill and his Busby bandmate Charlie Waller decided to start a group of their own.

His playing was noted for its drive, clarity, elegance, and precision, and for his ability to always plays a clear melody on both instrumentals and vocal numbers. Ben Eldridge had commented that when he was a novice banjo picker, he would always try to sit in the front row at Emerson & Waldron shows so that he could watch Bill closely. Alan Munde said that Bill’s fingers looked like little tap dancers on the strings. No one who played or learned bluegrass banjo, especially in the period from 1960 to the turn of the century, escaped the influence of his playing.

Rarely mentioned in discussions of his musicianship, Bill was also a fine singer who contributed to the harmony vocals in the groups with which he was associated through the years..

Bill Emerson was inducted into the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame in 1984, and into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2019.

Both in and outside the world of music, Bill always comported himself with style and grace. He was a true gentleman, who welcomed fans and banjo admirers whenever he was in public. Though he rarely taught formally, he led many banjo workshops over the years and was an excellent teacher. The last time we saw him personally was following his Hall of Fame induction in 2019, and he was the same warm and gregarious person he had always been. An excellent friend to banjo and bluegrass music, and all who played or loved it.

Bill Emerson was one of the few, and we will not see his like again for some time to come.

No arrangements have been announced at this time.

R.I.P., Bill Emerson.

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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.