Bobby Atkins, veteran banjo player and singerof roughly 60 years’ experience playing bluegrass and country music, passed away on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at Gibson House Hospice Centre near Reidsville, North Carolina. He was 88 years old.
Bobby Lee Atkins was born on May 22, 1933, in Shoals, Surry County, a musically rich area of north-western North Carolina, where his father played the fiddle and clawhammer banjo and his mother the autoharp and keyboard instruments.
At age of four the family moved to Gold Hill, NC, where he was raised on a tobacco farm. A year later Atkins’ mother showed him three chords on a guitar. In the second grade he, his brother, Kemp, and three others would go down into the woods, imagining themselves playing on the Grand Ole Opry. Their teachers noted these nascent talents and encouraged them to sing and play for their classmates.
Life at school was short-lived for the sharecropper’s son, whose time was much needed to help work the land, but he didn’t forego music and, at the age of 14, Atkins with his brothers Kemp and Thurman played and sang on radio stations throughout their home state, beginning at WFMB in Mayodan.
About two years later he became aware of bluegrass music when he saw Don Reno, as one of Tommy Magness’s Tennessee Buddies, at Madison Drive-In. Hearing Reno pick Foggy Mountain Breakdown led to Atkins switching to the five-string, acquired in a swap for an old watch.
He practiced as much as he could and listened to bluegrass on radio, on record, and where possible at shows.
Then in 1951, as a guitarist, Atkins joined a country music band, The Rainbow Pals, and while he did get to pick a few bluegrass numbers he left the group after about a year, becoming a member of a band that famous bluegrass promotor Carlton Haney had organized in Reidsville. This led to Atkins’ first encounter with Bill Monroe. However, a trip to Luverne, AL with Monroe was short-lived due to homesickness.
Gradually he overcame that by working with Jim Eanes. His friendship with Eanes and their recurring working relationship led to them later recording two albums together.
Atkins’ next experience as a Blue Grass Boy came in 1954 with some dates in Virginia and the Carolinas. He had two further stints with Monroe: briefly replacing Don Stover in 1958 and spending five months with him in mid-to-late 1961. Atkins didn’t record with Monroe.
In 1956 he played for Charlie Monroe before joining Joe Stone and forming the Dixie Mountaineers. They worked various radio stations and were the house band on WRVA’s Old Dominion Barn Dance, in Richmond, Virginia.
In a long and intermittent partnership, the duo spent some time in Texas, where they had two radio shows a day in Odessa, and a live TV show in Big Springs each Saturday. On returning east, Atkins and Stone featured on radio stations WPAQ and WSYD, and played show dates opening for the likes of Flatt & Scruggs and Reno & Smiley. By 1968 their schedule was limited to three TV appearances each week on Greensboro’s WUBC (Channel 48). They released a handful of singles during a 15-year period together.
Joe Stone & Bobby Atkins – Love Is A Lot To Understand (Stark SR-002)
In the summer of 1968, following one of those TV shows, Atkins was approached by Dobro picker and songwriter Frank Poindexter, accompanied by his nephew Tony Rice, then just 17-years-old. Consequently, they, along with two back-up singers Shirley Tucker and Rita Williams, formed a band. Later they added Kemp Atkins (bass), Marshall Honeycutt (snare drum). As part of the Appalachian Music Makers, Poindexter and Rice did some TV shows, commercials, and club appearances with Atkins during the eight months that they stayed together.
They recorded 16 sides, two of which – A Mary’s Gone/Ramblin’ Man – were released on a single (Time 1001, 1968). 15 cuts were made available in 1981 by Old Homestead Records on the LP 1968 Session (OHCS-126).
Bobby Atkins, Frank Poindexter and Tony Rice – A Town Called Love Valley, a Bobby Atkins’ song …
Atkins, Poindexter, Rice, Honeycutt, and Slim Martin (who also joined Atkins playing fiddle and harmonica) provided the soundtrack to the comedy film, Preacherman. All except Rice and Honeycutt played and even had cameo parts in the sequel Preacherman Meets Widderwoman.
In 1970 Rice had moved to Louisville, Kentucky, where he replaced Dan Crary with the Bluegrass Alliance, and a year later joined J.D. Crowe & The Kentucky Mountain Boys.
The Appalachian Music Makers, as they were known from 1962, lasted until about 1975 when Poindexter moved away to the outskirts of Charlotte. During this period Poindexter and Rice featured on other Atkins recordings; an LP Country ‘n’ Grass (Colony 13 LPS 2587, 1974), and a Decca single Old 50’s / D.J. Time.
Poindexter’s departure prompted Atkins to form Bobby Atkins & the Countrymen with brother Kemp, Harvey Williams (fiddle), Larry Moore (guitar), and Tommy Randolph (mandolin).
Atkins’ daughter Torey had already been singing with him occasionally, and progressively he began to incorporate other family members, beginning with sons Mark (mandolin) and Matt (guitar). Both had recorded with Atkins, as had nephew Tim, who took over the bass duties before he was replaced in 1984 by Torey’s husband, Kenny Duncan.
Eventually Mark became his partner and co-leader of Bobby and Mark Atkins and the Countrymen, making a slight change to the name to reflect this.
Bobby Atkins & The Countrymen – Trading the Blues (late 1980s)
Bobby Atkins continued to play until quite recently, making some great bluegrass music with his sons, while staying local in the Greensboro, NC area.
As well as releasing several albums with his family, Atkins recorded with others including Margie Lynn; Robin Renee; Tony Mabe and Heather Berry; and Katie Griffin.
Bobby Atkins and Katie Griffin – I Still Miss Someone
(recorded at D&K Recording Studio in Madison, North Carolina)
Sandy Hatley passed along these quotes from some of Bobby Atkins’ contemporaries …
Frank Poindexter shares some memories of time with his old friend…
“Tony and I were watching the Stone & Atkins weekly show on a local Greensboro TV show (WUBC). We liked Bobby’s banjo playing, and we decided to go and meet him. We met and jammed with him and the next week we were on the show with them. We started playing some gigs and eventually started recording. Marys Gone was the first song I’d written and was later released as a single on Time Records under the name Appalachian Music Makers. We continued going into the studio adding new songs which became an album titled 68 Session on the Old Homestead label.
Through the years we recorded several singles and albums as Bobby Atkins and the Countrymen, including an album with Jim Eanes, Heart of the South, on Rural Rhythm records. Bobby had been one of the Blue Grass Boys at two different times. He had a passion of singing and playing banjo. His smooth voice was strongly identifiable, once you heard him you knew it was Bobby Atkins. I visited with him recently and spent about a half of day. He was able to pick a little with me by me placing the banjo in his lap. We were very close, and we meant a lot to each other. I’m thankful that our paths crossed in this earthly life, and I look forward seeing him again someday!”
Fellow Blue Grass Boy Doug Hutchens also remembers Atkins.
“Bobby was a good friend and one of the best banjo teachers that I’ve ever experienced. There’s a whole bunch of guys and girls who give Bobby credit for getting them started in the right way.”
Bobby Atkins demonstrated to the world the qualities that are possessed by a very talented artist and a true gentleman. Equally at home with music of the 1990s as much as he is that of the 1950s, he never liked to be tied to one type of music. He shared with the world his gift of a considerable repertoire of great music, given gladly and generously in performances on radio, TV, and venues such as the Grand Ole Opry, in the process helping others get their start.
He was fortunate enough to perform on the same stages as other music legends, such as Kitty Wells; Stonewall Jackson; Wanda Jackson; Marty Robbins; Mac Wiseman; and Clyde Moody.
Bobby Atkins is related to country legend Chet Atkins. (His grandfather and Chet’s grandfather were brothers)
R.I.P. Bobby Atkins
A funeral service will be held Wednesday, March 30, 2022, at 3:00 p.m. at the Colonial Funeral Home Chapel in Madison, North Carolina 27025, with visitation three hours prior to the service in the chapel starting at 12:00 p.m.
Burial will follow in the Mt. Tabor United Methodist Church Cemetery on US Hwy 220 in Madison.
- Country’n Grass (Colony 13 LPS 2587, 1974) with Frank Poindexter and Tony Rice
- Back Home In Gold Hill (Heritage HRC 601, 1976)
- A Tribute To Charlie Monroe (Old Homestead OHS 90082, 1977)
- Bluegrass With A Country Flavor (Old Homestead OHS 90093, 1978)
- Enough To Keep Me Dreaming On (Old Homestead OHS 80027, 1981)
- Sounds Of The Starlite Lounge (Old Homestead OHS 80037, 1981)
- Ole Time Sundays (Rich-R-Tone LP 8119 ,1983)
- Back In The Good Ole Days (Cattle LP 52, (Germany), 1984)
- Good Times Can’t Last (Webco WLPS 0114, 1985) [re-issued as Promises and Lies (Thunderbolt NTB 2233, 2008)]
- A Song For You (Old Homestead OHS 80074, 1986)
- I’ve Lived A Lot In My Time (Old Homestead OHS 80079, 1986, (2-LP set))
- Songs For Mama (Old Homestead OHS 80083, 1988)
- Songs and Tunes Of The ’50s (Old Homestead OHCS 4001, 1988)
- Feelings Of A Country Man (Old Homestead OHS 90194, 1989)
- Strings (Rural Rhythm RHYD 1011, 1991) – Sometime Band
- Crimes Of the Heart (Richway RRCD 1003, 1993 w. Margie Lynn
- New Sounds (Stokes C 6719, June 1994)
- The Legendary Bobby Atkins and The Fabulous Countrymen – Gold Hill Gold, 40th Anniversary Collection Series (Richway RRCD 1008, September 1996)
- Country Side of Bobby Atkins and the Countrymen, with special guest Torey Duncan (Stokes no#, 1996) (sampler)
- The Best Of Bobby Atkins and The Countrymen (Stokes 49876.2, February 1997) [Re-issued as The Best Of Bobby Atkins and The Countrymen (Thunderbolt TB 7209, 2012)]
- A Bit Different (Stokes 49878.2 (CD), 1998) – Bobby Atkins, Mark Atkins and The Countrymen
- The Other Half Of Me (Thunderbolt TB 11002, 1999),
- In His Arms I’m Not Afraid (Thunderbolt TB 9501, July 1999) – Mark Atkins
- Country Classics (True Brother TB 9602, 2000) with Mark Atkins & Robin Renee
- Memories (Thunderbolt TB 4437, 2001)
- Branded By Her Love / 14 Great Hits (Thunderbolt TB 9702 (US), 2001 / Thunderbolt 10827Y18 (Canada), 2001) (compilation)
- Vinyl Classics (Thunderbolt TB 4447, 2002) Bobby Atkins, Mark Atkins and The Countrymen (from various sessions through the years).
- NC Banjo Pickin’ (Thunderbolt TB 4449, 2002) Bobby Atkins, Mark Atkins and The Countrymen (sampler)
- I’m Head Over Heels (In Love With You) (Thunderbolt TB 1897, 2003) Bobby Atkins, Mark Atkins and The Countrymen (also on JMBA)
- What A Change (One Day Can Make) (Thunderbolt TB 1901, 2003)
- We Do It For You / It Wouldn’t Be The Same (Thunderbolt TB 4488, 2003)
- Back To Back Duets (Thunderbolt TB 74491, 2004) (Bobby Atkins, Mark Atkins and The Countrymen, The True Brothers)
- Bluegrass Our Way (Thunderbolt TB 4491, 2004) Mark Atkins
- Not Just Bluegrass (Thunderbolt TB 4492, 2004) Mark Atkins
- The Heart And Soul Of Country Music (Thunderbolt RB-721901, 2005)
- Bluegrass And More – The Early Years of Bobby Atkins And The Countrymen (Thunderbolt TB 1942, 2005)
- Back To Back (Thunderbolt TB 72472, 2006) w. Mark Atkins, The True Brothers (sampler)
- 100% Country (Thunderbolt TB 192, 2009) – Bobby Atkins And The Nashville Cats
- Memories Of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs Of The 1950s (Thunderbolt TB 1923, February 2010)
- I’d Rather Have Jesus (Thunderbolt TB 15005, July 2010)
- Just Some Old Songs We Like To Play And Sing (Thunderbolt TB 1961, 2010) w Tony Mabe
- Banjo Picking Time (Thunderbolt TB 2012, August 2012)
- Bobby’s Life In Songs (Thunderbolt 052613, 2013)
- Love Songs Bluegrass Style (Thunderbolt 1065, 2014)
- I’m Tired On Being Blue (Thunderbolt Tb 1495, 2017) Bobby & Kemp Atkins & the Countrymen –
- Forever And A Day (Stokes 1-1976, 1976)
The North Carolina Boys
- Down In The Valley (Joy DRP 9966, 1979)
Bobby Atkins, Frank Poindexter and Tony Rice
- 1968 Session (Old Homestead OHCS-126, 1981)
- Jim Eanes, Bobby Atkins and The Countrymen (Old Homestead OHS 90176, 1986) [re-issued Old Homestead OHCD 90176, 2003, and as The Good Ole Days (Thunderbolt TBR 2002-CD, 2002]
- Heart of the South (Rural Rhythm/DCC RHY-1012 (CD), 1991) [re-issued as Bluegrass Legends (Thunderbolt TB 4493, 2005) Bobby Atkins, Tony Mabe, Heather Berry, Mark Atkins
- Hillbilly Music (Thunderbolt TB 7777, November 2011)
Bobby Atkins & Katie Griffin
- Bobby Atkins & Katie Griffin (Thunderbolt 199507, 2013)
- The Variety Hour DVD, vol. 1: Bob’s Special (Thunderbolt TB 1933, 2006)
- The Variety Hour DVD, vol. 2: Bob’s Special (Thunderbolt TBVD 1942, 2006)