Bill Runkle passes

Old-school banjo player Bill Runkle passed away on Thursday, January 7, 2021, his 82nd birthday, due to COVID-19.   

Born on January 7, 1939, in Laurel (now Brogue), Pennsylvania, William G. Runkle grew up surrounded by music. Both his uncles played fiddle – one played banjo also – and his mother and sisters played piano and organ. He became aware of bluegrass music when aged about seven or eight, and his older sister Nancy got him started on guitar. A natural piano player, she influenced Runkle’s rhythm and timing. 

He credits Bobby Diamond with showing him a lot when he switched from guitar to banjo in 1959. Subsequently, Runkle’s first full-time job was with Dean Burke, who worked under the name Porky and the Travelers. When Burke started square dances in York, Pennsylvania, Runkle, Dick Laird, his brother-in-law Jerry Lince, his father Richard Laird, and Charlie Shaw – incongruously called the Country Four – played with him about three nights a week. 

At about this time Bill began a 25-year stint hosting a regular Saturday bluegrass radio show on WGCB in Red Lion, Pennsylvania. 

Runkle, a very keen classic automobile enthusiast, had a service station in nearby Collinsville.

He then had a six-year stint in a band – initially playing country music – led by Pennsylvania’s popular radio personality Al Shade. When Shade decided “to go bluegrass” with new personnel and a change of billing – the Short Mountain Boys – Runkle recorded three albums in addition to an earlier 45rpm record. 

Others from whom Runkle picked up banjo tips include Del McCoury, Porter Church, J.D. Crowe, Bill Emerson, and Walter Hensley, as well as Earl Scruggs. 

McCoury would encourage him, “Now play it like that every time, what you just played, cause nobody else does that. Play that.”

He toured and recorded with Del McCoury for about eight years, having joined him in 1970, after having originally met about 1957. The band played as much as two or three times a week with dates in Texas, Oklahoma, North Carolina, up into New England – including Maine and Boston – and in Canada.

While with the Dixie Pals, Runkle helped to record songs such as the classic hard-driving bluegrass hits I’ve Endured, High On A Mountain, and Rain Please Go Away. In all he featured on four early McCoury albums, and wrote I’m Lonely Tonight, a track on the High On A Mountain LP.  

Runkle sang baritone, and lead on the duets when McCoury moved to the high tenor vocal part.

Shortly after leaving McCoury, Runkle was hired by Bob Paisley and played with his band for about a year. 

Danny Paisley remembers …. 

“Bill was a good friend to many of us. He bought me a 1976 Martin guitar when he played with the band. I paid him in payments. 

Bill had his own used car sales. He got me a nice used car from an auction. And told me to pay $500 for the repairs and paperwork. 

I called him one time to fill in on banjo, but Bill was on vacation in Florida, over 800 miles away. I told him the gig didn’t pay that much, and I’d find someone else. He said, ‘I’ll be there.’ And sure enough, he drove all the way to Pennsylvania to play the gig. 

I’ll miss Bill.”

Along with other former members of the Dixie Pals, Runkle formed a new group, Square Deal, with Dee Gunter (guitar and vocals) joining shortly afterwards. With Gunter they played throughout the mid-Atlantic region, and in 1985 recorded the album Country Boy Rock N Roll (DeeBee DB 1985). 

Square Deal – Raisin’ Cane In Texas 

[Dee Gunter (guitar, vocal), Bill Runkle (banjo, vocal), Don Eldreth (mandolin, vocal), Bill Poffinberger (fiddle) and Dewey Renfro (bass)]

Subsequently, during another fleeting association with Gunter, he played with the band Dixie Dukes releasing Back at it Again. 

For several years Runkle limited his involvement in music.  

However, in later years he established his own band, Smith Hollow, performing in the local area and recording a CD, Lonely Tonight. Mainly a showcase for Runkle’s banjo work it features 10 instrumentals including four original tunes; Marching Through Glenville, Kicking The Dog, Carocus (in C-tuning) and Jackrabbit, as well as the aforementioned I’m Lonely Tonight. 

Minnesota band Stoney Lonesome recorded their version of I’m Lonely Tonight in 1992.

In 2017 Runkle was honored by the Pennsylvania House of Representatives with a tribute recognizing his contributions to bluegrass music.

There will be a private service.

R.I.P. Bill Runkle

A Discography

Bill Runkle

  • Lonely Tonight (Bill Runkle and Smith Hollow) (Patuxent CD-275, 2015)
  • Back at it Again and Country Boy Rock & Roll (Bill Runkle & Dee Gunter) (Patuxent CD-305, 2017)

Del McCoury and the Dixie Pals

  • High On A Mountain (Rounder 0019, February 1973)
  • Del McCoury (Rebel SLP-1542, 1975)
  • Del McCoury And The Dixie Pals (Revonah R-916, 1975)
  • Our Kind Of Grass (Rebel SLP-1569, 1978)

Various Artists

  • The Patuxent Banjo Project (Patuxent CD-250, July 7, 2014)
  • Bill Runkle – Marching Through Glenville. 

Share this:

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.