Billy Ray Latham, the gregarious banjo player and showman with The Kentucky Colonels, died on Sunday in Nashville at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He was 80 years of age.
Friends say that Billy had been in poor health of late, and was in and out the hospital repeatedly in recent months. Many of his medical issues came as a result of a terrible automobile accident he was in more than ten years ago when his car was struck head-on by an illegal immigrant fleeing from the police. Latham suffered many broken bones and was hospitalized for some time. A rod inserted in his leg made walking uncomfortable, and the bones fractured in his right hand and wrist made banjo playing painful and difficult.
Born in Wild Cat Corner, Arkansas in 1938, young Billy grew up around bluegrass and country music. He spoke several years ago of listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio with his family, who moved to Michigan when he was a youngster after a crop failure. There he learned to play the banjo and performed with a friend on the radio in Ann Arbor. Once he finished school he took a job with General Motors, but after a layoff he and his brother struck out for California.
Giving banjo lessons while working at a gas station in Los Angeles, a young Clarence White encountered Billy, and invited him to dinner with the family. Soon he had joined their group, the Three Little Country Boys, which then changed their name to The Country Boys. Clarence was on guitar, Billy on banjo, and brothers Roland and Eric were on mandolin and bass, respectively.
The Country Boys were quite popular in southern California in the 1960s. It was at this time that they made acquaintance with the producers of The Andy Griffith Show. Latham had claimed to friends that their group had been first choice to play the Darlin’ Family, but they turned it down since Roland was off with the Army. That gig went to The Dillards, with whom Billy would eventually go on to play as well.
The Country Boys did make an appearance on The Andy Griffith Show, in an episode about a record man come to town to find some authentic folk music.
The band name changed to The Kentucky Colonels when their first label realized that The Country Boys was in use for Mac Wiseman’s group, and that album, The New Sounds of Bluegrass America, came out under the new name. The band performed all over the world, based in Los Angeles, which had a bubbling music scene at the time. Billy came into contact with a good many musicians there, including a young Jerry Garcia to whom he gave some banjo lessons.
When Clarence left the band in 1965, Billy moved east to Missouri, but returned to California not long after. He toured and recorded with Ricky Nelson, and helped form The Country Gazette with Byron Berline, before getting an offer to join The Dillards. At this point The Dillards were more of a country rock group than bluegrass, and Billy was eager to electrify and join in to what they were doing.
In the mid-’70s, the band had a chance encounter with Elton John, who invited them to tour with him. That really put The Dillards on the map, and they maintained a steady tour schedule for several years. Latham left the band in 1979 and took a gig with Roger Miller.
After moving to Nashville he had the opportunity to record with some big names in music. Billy played on tracks with Johnny Cash, Bobby Vee, Scotty Stoneman, and Leroy Mack in addition to the others already mentioned.
But in the 1990s digestive issues took their tool on his music. Bouts with ulcerated colitis and diverticulitis laid him low, and the auto accident in 2004 was a crushing blow. After getting out of the hospital, he needed to relearn how to play the banjo and friends say that he never felt like he got back to where he had been.
Billy is remembered as a fiercely independent soul, almost to a fault. His occasional stubbornness made him a hard man to befriend, and it led to some burned bridges over the course of his life. But he loved entertaining people, and was a natural at it, always bringing a unique energy to the stage wherever he played.
His good friend and final musical partner David Foster in Kentucky told us that, “Billy was never afraid to dream big. He was always wanting to start a band and go on the road. He played with Monroe, and was a hot banjo player out in LA when there weren’t many to be had. He was really in the right place at the right time with the Whites.”
Foster says that a musical celebration and memorial for Billy is being discussed now, hopefully at Nashville’s Station Inn.
No word has been shared about funeral arrangements.
R.I.P., Billy Ray Latham.