It’s the end of a banjo era! Billy Lee Cox has announced his retirement from Remington Ryde. After 15 years touring with them, he’s announced that the road warrior shoes are going back in the closet. Fans will surely miss his crystal clear banjo picking, and his clever on-stage antics, on the festival stages.
Billy isn’t hanging up his picks forever, but he tells us that the travel was getting to be too much for him. At 70 years old, he can still play as well as he ever did, but the long drives were becoming a problem.
“The bus is about seven and a half hours from where I live in Marysville, OH. So I had that at the beginning and end of every road trip with the band.
If I could hook up with a band that was within an hour or so from me, I would go back out. I’m definitely looking to play some more. But it had gotten to where I could rarely get back home the same night we finished a road trip anymore.”
Part of that comes from Cox having moved a few years ago to Ohio from western Pennsylvania where he lived much of his life. He told us that his daughter moved there when she got married, and when he and his wife started thinking about downsizing, they decided to move out there, about 35 miles northwest of Columbus.
The banjo first appealed to Billy when he was 11 years old. He found himself fascinated with it, and followed his uncle’s band to the local square dances, just to see him play.
“I used sit at the country dances and watch my uncle play instead of running around with the other kids. He told me he would give me his old one if I could learn how to play. So I learned a bit and he gave me his old Silvertone. Before long I could play a little more than him, so he switched to guitar and I was on banjo.
My first show was when I was 13. I remember, it was in Salisbury, MD. I got the bug right then, and have been playing ever since. I love it… I just love the banjo!”
Making it his career didn’t happen until after a stint in the Air Force. He got out stationed at Langley AFB in eastern Virginia, and stuck around there doing heavy equipment work. Before long Cox got a gig playing with Chief Powhatan, one of the most colorful bluegrass acts of the 1970s and ’80s. Based in Richmond, the band played all over the eastern US and Billy learned a great deal watching the Chief, as natural an entertainer as ever played the grass.
“After that I went with Charlie Moore. I was way into Don Reno’s playing back then, and had the chance play with him some. We would do some twin banjo and I just adored Don.”
In 1976 he launched his own band, Mason Dixon Grass with Francis Elliott, and toured with them for more than two decades.
I joined Remington Ryde about 15 years ago. When I first joined, it wasn’t as tight a group as we grew into. But it seemed that each new member that came in made the band stronger until we had one of the best shows on the circuit.
A lot of it had to do with Ryan Frankenhouser, who wrote a lot of great songs. He reminds me a bit of Hank Williams. The songs might seem simplistic at first, but you could get the complete picture from the lyrics. I loved every minute playing with them.”
Another reason Remington Ryde was so popular was that they focused on entertaining an audience as much as playing them good music. And Billy was a major part of that show. He could be counted on to whip up the crowd, and his enthusiasm and pure joy in what he was doing was obvious to everyone in the room.
“I had studied the great early bands from the standpoint of an entertainer, and I was able to harvest what worked in front of a crowd from Reno & Smiley, Flatt & Scruggs, Josh and Jake, etc. I learned that if you give a smile to somebody, you’ll get one back. You play to the folks out front and when you catch their eye and smile, you’ve made a fan.
If I can take people out of their life for a few minutes on stage, I feel like I’ve fulfilled what God put here to me here to do.
It’s a lost art. You don’t see many bands that really entertain anymore.”
These days Cox is fully retired, but you can still expect to see him out at the festivals enjoying himself, and picking with anyone that will have him. And don’t be surprised if he sneaks up and plays some twin banjo with you out in the campgrounds.
And if some group nearby wants him, you may seem Billy on stage again before long.