Don Parmley remembered 

Don ParmleyNotable banjo player and distinguished baritone singer Freeman D. “Don” Parmley passed away on July 30, 2016, after experiencing complications related to Alzheimer’s disease.

Parmley was born on October 19, 1933, in Monticello, Kentucky.

As a 12-year-old he began learning claw-hammer/drop thumb banjo from his grandfather, but it was the driving three-finger banjo style of Earl Scruggs that he heard on the Grand Ol’ Opry that soon led to him taking up that method of picking the 5-string. Playing firstly just for family entertainment, Parmley quickly made a name for himself in the region, securing stints with popular touring groups of the era such as Carl Story and Hylo Brown.

He enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He was trained as a tank driver, but it wasn’t long before his musical talents became known among the ranks and his duties were expanded to provide music from “back home” to entertain his fellow troops. After his discharge, Don returned home and on May 26, 1956, he married Betty Jean Abbott.

Faced with a severe shortage of employment opportunities in south central Kentucky, the Parmleys soon moved west to southern California where Don found a steady job and entry into a welcoming music community.

He performed with the Golden State Boys regarded at the time as the top bluegrass band in the region.  As well Parmley, the Hillmen featured future Country music icon Vern Gosdin and his brother Rex, noted for his song-writing skills. 18-year-old mandolin prodigy Chris Hillman joined late in 1963.

The band subsequently became known as The Blue Diamond Boys and then the Hillmen.

The HillmenThe best known album from the quartet was the Together album, The Hillmen (ST-T 1012) that was re-issued by Sugar Hill Records (SH 3719) in 1981.

Also, Parmley recorded with Glen Campbell, Doug Dillard and Billy Strange, the last named helped Parmley with an album mixing ‘Blue Grass and Folk Blues’, according to LP’s sleeve, as the duo played 5-string banjo and 12-string guitar (GNP Crescendo, GNP 94).

From 1964 he played the banjo for the TV series The Beverly Hillbillies, contributing background music to the show throughout its nine seasons.

In 1974 Don Parmley formed the Bluegrass Cardinals with his 15-year-old son David (lead vocals and guitar) and tenor singer and mandolin player Randy Graham.

The band’s calling card was their eponymous LP for Sierra Briar (SBR-4205, released in 1976) that prompted the Parmley family and the Bluegrass Cardinals to move east to settle in Virginia where they quickly established themselves as a top name on the bluegrass festival circuit, charming audiences with their solid, tasteful picking and beautiful vocal harmonies.

According to the band’s manager/agent, the late Lance Leroy, a noted bluegrass and early country music historian, the Bluegrass Cardinals were the first bluegrass band to record bluegrass Gospel a cappella style. Many bands performed in that style long before but, for whatever reason, they didn’t record in that style.

Welcome To Virginia - The Bluegrass CardinalsTheir popularity led to a deal with Rounder Records that produced one LP Welcome to Virginia (Rounder 0097).

In all the Bluegrass Cardinals recorded prolifically during their 25-years existence; with five excellent LPs for Martin Haerle’s CMH label; Livin’ in the Good Old Days (CMH 6229), Cardinal Soul (CMH 6235), Sunday Mornin’ Singin’ (CMH 6247), Live & on Stage: the Bluegrass Cardinals with Special Guests (CMH 9023) and Where Rainbows Touch Down (CMH 6259).

In November 2002 CMH issued a 24-track compilation CD The Essential Bluegrass Cardinals: The Definitive Collection (CMH 8415).

During the mid-1980s in partnership with Sugar Hill Records the band released three LPs; Cardinal Class (SH 3731), Home is Where the Heart Is (SH 3741) and Shining Path (SH 3751).

Latterly, the Bluegrass Cardinals issued albums on their own label. On Stage in Nashville [at the Station Inn] (BGC 1001) was quickly followed by New and Old Favorites (BGC 1002), What have You done for Him? (BGC 1004), My Kinda Grass (BGC 1005) and Mountain Girl (BGC 1006).

In 2006 the band released a two-fer, On Stage in Nashville & New & Old Favorites (BGR-1001).

A landmark recording project pitched Don and David Parmley with Del, his sons Ronnie and Robbie McCoury for Parmley & McCoury Families of Tradition (BGC 1003). The CD won the IBMA’s Recorded Event of the Year award for 1991.

Under Parmley’s leadership, the Bluegrass Cardinals provided a learning ground and springboard for the careers of Dale Perry, Mike Hartgrove, Larry Stephenson, Norman Wright, Bill Bryson, Barry Berrier, Warren Blair, Don Rigsby and Ernie Sykes.

Parmley retired from full-time touring in 1997, settling in Franklin County, Virginia.

Randy Southwood, Dale Weddle (Deputy Executive Director Transportation Cabinet Department of Highways), State Representative Ken Upchurch, Don Parmley, Kenneth Catron (Mayor of Monticello), Wayne County Judge Greg Rankin - photo by Toni HumbleIn April 2007 a ‘Day with Don Parmley’ was held in Wayne County, Kentucky. The event featured some great musical performances and a chance for local residents to spend time with Parmley. Signs stating “Welcome to Wayne County, Home of Don Parmley, Founding Member of the Bluegrass Cardinals” were erected on KY 90 at the Clinton and Pulaski county lines.

At Parmley’s funeral Eddie Stubbs asserted ….

“The Bluegrass Cardinals rose very quickly to become a very important product of their time, the late 1970’s and all through the 1980’s.

Their standard of excellence on record and in person was second to none. There was a lot of complexity within the Bluegrass Cardinals’ music, made in three-chord songs they were doing, but it was that complexity within the simplicity that made that music so great.

It’s only a matter of time, I feel like, before the International Bluegrass Music Association recognizes the Bluegrass Cardinals with an induction into its hall of fame. What Don and David Parmley did, and their vision and the music that they made, was extraordinary.”

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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.