Among the many exciting acts set to grace the stage during the IBMA’s Wide Open Bluegrass festival in late September is a special collaborative performance in honor of Charlie Waller & The Country Gentlemen. Organized by Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush, the 8:00 p.m. set on September 29 will also include Jon Randall on guitar, Charlie Cushman on banjo, and Mark Schatz on bass.
The Country Gentlemen left a huge mark on bluegrass during the 47 years they were active, changing the face and the sound of the music along the way. To modern ears this may seem absurd, but the Gentlemen were rebels and genre-benders when they hit the scene. Bringing in material from the then-fashionable ’60s folk music scene, and eventually pop and country songs, was not always well-received by the bluegrass establishment of the day. But that early edition of the band, with Charlie Waller, Eddie Adcock, Tom Gray, and John Duffey broke and rewrote a lot of rules as young men.
A reformed lineup in the ’70s featured Bill Emerson and Doyle Lawson, replacing Adcock and Duffey, and found a spot as well for a teen-aged Jerry Douglas on reso-guitar and a young Ricky Skaggs on fiddle. By this point a well-established institution in bluegrass, Charlie continued to record quality songs and present a highly-entertaining stage show, and the group remained a top draw until he passed away in 2004. Along the way he brought in a number of upcoming artists who have gone on to have on impact on our music, much as former-Gent Doyle Lawson has done in more recent years. Familiar names who spent time as a Gentleman include Jimmy Gaudreau, Darrin Aldridge, Jimmy Bowen, Norman Wright, Bill Yates, Gene Wooten, Pete Kuykendall, Dick Smith, Mile Lilly, Mark Delaney, and Dwight McCall.
They have left behind a rich bounty of classic material kept alive by bands around the world, like Bringing Mary Home, Matterhorn, The Traveler, and Legend of the Rebel Soldier. Though they weren’t the first to record the song in bluegrass, their version of Fox On The Run is what catapulted the song into legendary status. More than two dozen albums record the history of this unusually influential outfit.
We spoke last week with Sam Bush about the tribute show at Wide Open Bluegrass, about which he was characteristically enthusiastic.
He shared some of his early impressions of The Country Gentlemen as a boy.
“I’ve been loving the Gentlemen so long… my mother worked at Sears, and they sold records. I saw the Hootenanny album there, with Charlie Waller, John Duffey, Eddie Adcock, and Tom Gray in 1963 and got it because it said bluegrass. There were no pictures of the band, so I didn’t know who they were or what they looked like.
Then I got the Starday At Carnegie Hall record. On this one, there was a picture, but it had them all left handed for some reason.
I got to see them at the Roanoke festival in ’66, and they absolutely blew the roof off the place. They started with Copper Kettle, and It’s All Over Now Baby Blue. And they put on a show! They didn’t just stand there. They played all their folk-influenced stuff.”
Bush said that the idea to do this tribute came from Jerry Douglas.
“Like so many of the cool things I have done, this one comes from Jerry. He called me up and asked if I would be interested in doing it. And I was like… ‘Yeah!’
The hardest thing is, how are we going to get this down to just a one hour set?
I’m just really looking forward to it. I loved John Duffey, his singing, his mandolin playing. There was something about him that made you stand up and pay attention.
Jerry was the only one of us who was in the band, but I was in the audience.”
Rehearsals are set to begin soon, and that first obstacle of choosing material will be up front. Randall will have the role of singing the John Duffey parts, so what he can hit may be a determining factor.
We asked Sam the inevitable question about whether there might be future iterations of this tribute set?
“Can we just do this one, and then worry about that? Scheduling would be tough. First thing we want to do is to entertain the audience that day, and have some fun at the show.”
It is sure to be a memorable performance. Full details on Wide Open Bluegrass can be found online.