Don Parmley passes

Don Parmley - photo by LuAnn AdamsDon Parmley, lifelong banjo player and patriarch of the legendary Bluegrass Cardinals, has died. He was 83 years old.

A native of the Bluegrass State, Parmley’s family moved west to California when he was a very young boy. There he developed a fascination with bluegrass and the Earl Scruggs style on banjo. In the early 1960s, Don was a founding member of The Hillmen, also known as The Golden State Boys, which included future icons Vern Gosdin and Chris Hillman as well.

The Hillmen became quite popular in southern California, appearing frequently on television, a connection that proved very valuable with Don being tapped to play all the incidental banjo music for the huge CBS hit program, The Beverly Hillbillies in the ’60s. Earl Scruggs, of course, played on the show’s prominent theme song.

When Hillman left the band to accept a job with The Byrds, The Hillmen disbanded and Don started The Bluegrass Cardinals. His son, David, was only 15 years old at the time the group debuted, and already turning heads as a unique and soulful vocalist. He has gone on to be recognized as among the finest singers of his generation in bluegrass music.

Don kept the Cardinals going for 20 years, with many top artists joining him along the way. Randy Graham was the founding mandolinist, a position also shared by Larry Stephenson, Norman Wright, Herschel Sizemore and several others. Fiddle players included Mike Hartgrove, Warren Blair, and Don Rigsby. The band recorded a number of albums considered essential in the bluegrass canon, and debuted does of songs now part of the standard repertoire.


After an absence of several years from the bluegrass stage, David Parmley is back this year with a new band he calls Cardinal Tradition. Don’s legacy in our music is on solid ground. His lifetime contributions to bluegrass are deserving of special mention, something that will hopefully be recognized soon by the IBMA.

Health problems have troubled Don in recent years, but a legion of fans and friends in the bluegrass community will morn his loss.

R.I.P., Don Parmley.

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John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.