Country Gentlemen – 50 Years Old Today

Our intrepid British corespondent, Richard Thompson, has put together a terrific piece marking the 50th anniversary of the Country Gentlemen. For those of us in the United States, it’s a fine thing to contemplate over the 4th of July holiday. It’s a long post, and we encourage you to read the whole thing.

The Country Gentlemen, circa 1965: John Duffey, Eddie Adcock, Charlie Waller and Ed Ferris The story of the formation of the Country Gentlemen is well told. An automobile crash involving Buzz Busby and his Bayou Boys left only Bill Emerson fit to play a personal appearance that had been scheduled for July 4.

Emerson called a couple of friends and they formed a quartet to fulfil the date at the Admiral Grill in Baileys Crossroads, Virginia. The band’s original members were Charlie Waller on guitar and lead vocals, John Duffey on mandolin and tenor vocals, Bill Emerson on banjo and baritone vocals, and Larry Lahey on bass. Thus, it is claimed, modern bluegrass was born.

The Country Gentlemen are universally acclaimed as one of the most important progressive bluegrass bands. They brilliantly created a unique blend of folk and bluegrass that did much to make bluegrass music very popular in the Washington DC area.

After a few early personnel changes, the line-up of co-founders Charlie Waller (guitar) and John Duffey (mandolin) with Eddie Adcock (banjo) and Tom Gray (bass) that played from 1960 through to 1964 came together. This combination has often been referred to retrospectively as ‘The Classic’ Country Gentlemen. This quartet was very popular during the early 1960s; one of the highlights of the period being their appearance at Carnegie Hall in September 1961.

In November 1965 their song Bringing Mary Home climbed to #43 on Billboard magazine’s country music charts; their best placed release. Ed Ferris had by this time replaced Tom Gray on bass.

Another highly rated combination was that which comprised Waller, Emerson, Doyle Lawson (mandolin) and Bill Yates (bass); a quartet that was together briefly in the early 1970s.

Just as Bill Monroe had a renowned training school for traditional bluegrass musicians, the Country Gentlemen have numerous young musicians on its membership roster. These musicians can rightly be referred to as a Who’s Who of the contemporary bluegrass world. In addition to those already mentioned are:

Roy Self Porter Church John Hall
Jimmy Gaudreau Ed McGlothlin Jim Cox
Pete Kuykendall Tom Morgan Jim Hall
James Bailey Ricky Skaggs Jerry Douglas
Billy Gee Bill Holden Carl Nelson
Mike Lilly Norman Wright Jimmy Bowen
Keith Little Kenny Haddock Dick Smith
Walter Hensley Kevin Church Rick Allred
Kent Dowell Dave Kirk Ronnie Davis
Greg Corbett Mark Delaney Randy Waller
Billy Gee Greg Corbett Darin Aldridge
Gary Creed

Honorary Country Gentlemen – those who played on recording sessions for the Country Gentlemen – include Wayne Yates, Mike Auldridge, Ronnie Bucke (Freeland) and Spider Gilliam.

Charlie Waller remained the sole original member until his death in August, 2004. Since then Charlie’s son Randy has taken over the leadership of the band and has continued to keep the name of the group prominent among the nation’s finest contemporary bluegrass bands.

The Country Gentlemen made their recording debut in October 1957, cutting Going to the Races and Heavenward Bound for the local Dixie label. That single never made much impact beyond the Washington DC city limits, but the Country Gentlemen’s December 1957 recording of It’s The Blues and Backwoods Blues for Starday led to their name becoming known further afield. The band made a number of singles for Starday over the next few years, including Rolling Stone, a cover of Tom Dooley (with new lyrics by Kuykendall), High Lonesome, The Devil’s Own, Hey Little Girl, The Hills of Home, New Freedom Bell, (Poor) Ellen Smith, Red Rocking Chair, I’ll Never Marry, Copper Kettle and Sunrise.

It has been estimated that at one time the Country Gentlemen released on average one album a year. It is certainly a long list ……

Country Songs, Old and New (Folkways, 1960) Folk Songs & Bluegrass (Folkways, 1961)
Bluegrass at Carnegie Hall (Starday, 1962) Blue Grass Hootnanny (Design, 1963)
On The Road (Folkways, 1963) Folk Session Inside (Mercury, 1963)
Bringing Mary Home (Rebel, 1966) The Traveler (Rebel, 1968)
Play It Like It Is (Rebel, 1969) New Look, New Sound (Rebel, 1970)
One Wide River To Cross (Rebel, 1971) Sound Off (Rebel, 1971)
The Award Winning Country Gentlemen (Rebel, 1972) Going Back To The Blue Ridge Mountains (Folkways, 1973)
Yesterday & Today Volume 1 (Rebel, 1973) Yesterday & Today Volume 2 (Rebel, 1973)
The Country Gentlemen featuring Ricky Skaggs (Vanguard, 1973) Yesterday & Today Volume 3 (Rebel, 1974)
Remembrances & Forecasts (Vanguard, 1974) Live In Japan (Seven Seas, 1975)
Joe’s Last Train (Rebel, 1976) Calling My Children Home (Rebel, 1978)
25 Years (Rebel, 1980) Sit Down, Young Stranger (Sugar Hill, 1980)
River Bottom (Sugar Hill, 1981) Good As Gold (Sugar Hill, 1983)
Return Engagement (Rebel, 1988) Classic Country Gents Reunion (Sugar Hill, 1989)
Nashville Jail (Copper Creek, 1990) Let The Light Shine Down (Rebel, 1991)
New Horizon (Rebel, 1992) Sugar Hill Collection (Sugar Hill, 1995)
Souvenirs (Rebel, 1995) Early Rebel Recordings: 1962-1971 (4-CD Box Set Rebel, 1998)
High Lonesome (Starday, 1998) Crying In The Chapel (Freeland, 2001)
Nashville Jail (Copper Creek, 2001) Complete Vanguard Recordings (Vanguard, 2002)
On The Road…And More (Smithsonian-Folkways, 2002) 45 Years Of Memories (Pinecastle, 2002)
Songs Of The American Spirit (Pinecastle, 2004)

Since then Randy Waller & the Country Gentlemen has released Keeper of the Flame (Lendel, 2006), supported by Mark Delaney on banjo, David Kirk on mandolin and Gary Creed on bass.

Through the years the Country Gentlemen has recorded many songs that have become perennial favourites, including bluegrass versions of songs from a diversity of idioms, Little Bessie, The Long Black Veil, Two Little Boys, Bringing Mary Home, The Legend Of The Rebel Soldier, Bob Dylan’s Girl Of The North Country, Matterhorn and Fox On The Run. Other very popular recordings include This Morning At Nine, Calling My Children Home, Come And Sit By The River, Electricity, When They Ring Them Golden Bells, God’s Colouring Book and Casey’s Last Ride.

The Country Gentlemen have won many awards during their long existence. In 1972 they dominated the Muleskinner News awards, collectively and individually, and in 1973 the group won the best band award for the second year in a row.

They have won many SPBGMA awards, both individually and as a group, including their induction to the SPBGMA Preservation Hall of Greats. In 2003 Charlie Waller was given the very special Diamond award for winning male vocalist of the year 10 times.

The iconic ‘Classic’ Country Gentlemen were IBMM Hall Of Honor inductees in 1996 and in February 2006 they were inducted into the Washington (DC) Area Music Association’s Hall of Fame.

The Country Gentlemen Reunion Band (Eddie Adcock, Jimmy Gaudreau, Randy Waller and Tom Gray) is making some live appearances in 2007 under that name. The biggest of the events planned to mark the 50th anniversary will be held July 13 & 14 at Watermelon Park, Berryville Virginia. Also, the quartet has recorded a new CD, although other details remain unresolved at the moment.

A couple of Country Gentlemen have graciously provided comment to mark the occasion.

Tom Gray, one of the early pioneers, provides a story that has an international flavour …….

“In the summer of 1963, The Country Gentlemen played a two week engagement at the Moon Cusser Coffee House in Oak Bluffs Massachusetts, on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. It was a folk music venue which would have two acts play every night for a week at a time. One of our weeks there, we shared the bill with the Scottish folk singer, Jean Redpath. The MoonCusser had a big old house where they would house their entertainers. During the week we spent there with Jean Redpath, we would sit around at night after our shows and talk music and share songs. She developed a friendship with Eddie Adcock. Eddie was into body and muscle building and talked about how much weight he could lift. Now Jean was a strong woman herself. So, one night when Eddie talked about lifting weights, she decided to show what she could do. She picked up Eddie over her shoulder and carried him around the house, finally dropping him in the bath tub. John Duffey had followed them into the bathroom, laughing at Eddie’s predicament. So she turned to John, said “What are you laughing at?”. She then picked up John, threw him in the tub, and turned the water on.”

Jimmy Bowen, a much more recent member of this great band, shares his thoughts about what it means to him to have worked with his hero Charlie Waller.

“I dreamed of being a Country Gentlemen ever since the age of 8. I got my first guitar when I was 6 and started to learn to play. My father was an avid Flatt/Scruggs, Monroe and Reno/Smiley fan. I grew up listening to those pioneers. But, there was just something about groups like Country Gentlemen, JD Crowe, Tony Rice, Seldom Scene and Bluegrass Cardinals. Growing up listening to the albums (back then), it was magic just to hear Charlie Waller open his mouth. God, what a voice. I started to learn how to sing tenor at the age of about 12 or 13. My dad always told me that maybe if I practiced enough I might get good enough to become a member and sing tenor with the great Charlie Waller. In a comical way, I would say, “Oh dad, he will be dead and gone before I can reach the age to perform or even try out with Charlie Waller”. But I kept practicing and learning the material. When I was in the later years of high school, I went to Statesville NC to see Charlie perform at an auction barn. That was when Rick Allred and Kent Dowell were members. I waited around and hung around the bus until Charlie got sick of looking at me and me hanging around, he asked me, “Boy, what do you do”, and I said, “I sing tenor sir, could I sing just one song with you?” We sang “Lord I’m Ready” off the ‘Calling My Children Home’ album. The crowd went nuts. Man that was a thrill to finally sing with Charlie Waller.

I went on to college after that weekend and achieved a degree in Accounting from the Citadel (Military College of South Carolina). After moving to Nashville upon graduation in 1985, I called Charlie about a job. He said that he and Bill Yates were parting ways and he needed a bass player. He remember how I sang with him in Statesville a few years back and really wanted me to come on board as a member. I met the band in Kentucky one weekend to do some show with Melvin Goins. Man, I have never had such fun in my life. I started with Charlie in the later part of 1987. Charlie, me, Kevin Church, and Norman Wright were members at that time. To perform with those guys was such an honour. It was just an honour to a member of the Country Gentlemen. Charlie was my Bill Monroe. Through the years that I stayed a member, Charlie and I became closer and closer, We were really like father and son instead of employer to employee. Randy and I look a lot alike and so I think a reminded him of Randy. Randy wasn’t around a lot in those days, but Randy and I stayed in touch and became like brothers. I told him I would always take care of his Daddy while I was there, and I did.

During those years I had the honour of recording two CDs with Charlie, (1) New Horizon – which gave him Waltz of the Angels – which went No. 1 for us and (2) Souvenirs.

Due to illness that occurred with Charlie in the later part of 1994 – November to be exact – during the Myrtle Beach festival – I had to leave the band. God, what a sad time for both of us. Charlie and I both cried that day. Like I said he was like a father and me a son. But due to his illness, dates were being cancelled and I had to work due to wife and kids. Charlie and I continued to do some shows together up until his death when other band members could not make the show for what ever reason.

The only way that I can sum up my experience with Charlie, because there are so many stories during the old days, is this: Bill Monroe may have been the Father of Bluegrass, Jimmy Martin may have been the King of Bluegrass, BUT Charlie Waller was the MASTER! I miss him so and the bluegrass community has lost the greatest voice that ever was and will be in the bluegrass industry. Charlie Waller was a symbol o f respect, humbleness, caring and especially class. I will always remember and love the man that gave me my break in the music industry, Charlie Waller.

This tribute is dedicated to those Country Gentlemen who have now passed on …….

Charlie Waller John Duffey Ed Ferris
Ed McGlothlin Porter Church John Hall
Carl Nelson

With grateful thanks for the assistance of Tom Gray.

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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.

  • bluegreen

    Thank you, Richard Thompson, for a funny, informative, and deeply moving tribute. I love the traditional sound, but, in many ways, John Duffey was my Bill Monroe. This piece made me feel his loss — and those of the other once and future Gents — all over again.

    Humor leavens the sadness, though: One wonders how Jean Redpath and Bill Monroe would have “played against” each other, as Monroe used to put it.

    I only wish I could be at Watermelon Park to see the musical one. Here’s hoping other posters will provide reports on the show.