Here’s another post from our all-the-more regular correspondent, Richard Thompson. He writes from England, where he is also a longstanding contributor to British Bluegrass News, a quarterly print publication where he also briefly served as editor.
Recently we posted a story about the poor state of Clarence ‘Tater’ Tate’s health. Tate is currently undergoing a course of chemotherapy to counteract the effects of lung cancer.
Sunday, April 15, The Appalachian Cultural Music Association (ACMA) in partnership with the East Tennessee State University Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music program will present a reunion of former Blue Grass Boys to aid the fund raising to assist Tate with his medical expenses.
The history of reunions for Blue Grass Boys stretches back to almost a quarter of a century, as Doug Hutchens, the organiser of these reunions relates,
“The first what we could now call a ‘Reunion’ would have been September 1982 in Louisville, Kentucky. I had the idea that something should be done for Bill’s birthday. He had come through a lot of health problems in the prior 18 months and that was the year I had the case made. Red Taylor, Gordon Terry, Bryon Berline and Cleo Davis was there. Tex Logan, while never really a member of the band officially, was also there plus the regular members, Wayne [Lewis], Kenny [Baker], Blake [Williams] and Mark [Hembree]. Those went on in or around Bill’s birthday until the early 1990s when I changed jobs and didn’t have the flexibility to do them any longer.
The first ‘Reunion’ as we know it today was in May of 2000 when James [Monroe] called me in the winter of 1999 and said that he was going to start a festival to honour Bill in Rosine and asked if I would arrange and do a reunion of band members. A typical Blue Grass Boy Reunion as we have done it is a stage set with stools and mikes. I have been the moderator to keep things moving and to make sure that everyone get some time. I usually try to watch time, move from member of one instrument to another, to keep some variety, ask certain questions that will get stories going or lead them in certain directions that always get stories going. Then after every two or three stories ask each lead singer to do a song that they did in the band, or fiddler or fiddlers to do a number, the same with the banjo while the bass players usually tell their stories and grin a lot.
We have Bobby Hicks, Butch Robins, Tom Ewing, Danny Jones, R.C. Harris, Robert Bowlin, David Deese, Randy Franks (who went on to act in a popular TV show here in the states In The Heat Of The Night), Wayne Lewis, Blake Williams, Tater and myself.”
The bald facts relating to Tater Tate’s career in country and bluegrass music make impressive and interesting reading, and you find some comments from Stewart Evans online about just that.
Better still is Doug Hutchen’s affectionate resume,
“‘Tater first worked with Bill in late 1956 and early 1957 playing fiddle. Times were slow and he only stayed a few months. From there he worked with a variety of entertainers. I first saw ‘Tater’ on the Top of the Morning Show on WDBJ TV in Roanoke, Virginia, with Red Smiley, David Deese, John Palmer and Gene Burrows. There had been a couple of other short time fiddlers before ‘Tater,’ but he stayed on for the duration of Red’s career then working with the Shenandoah Cutups after Red retired.
In the mid 70s, 1976 or 1977, he joined Lester Flatt’s Nashville Grass until Lester’s passing and stayed on with Willis Spears and Curly Seckler for a while, before working with Wilma Lee Cooper and the Clinch Mountain Clan, [which he did] until he returned to play bass with Bill when Mark Hembree left in the formation of the Nashville Bluegrass Band. When Kenny Baker left the band in October of 1984 “Tater” started what was to become an off and on switch between bass and fiddle depending on the needs of the Blue Grass Boys. He and Robert Bowlin was playing twin fiddles with recently hired Ernie Sykes on the bass on Bill’s last performance March 15, 1996.
‘Tater’ is of the old school, he has been in the business since the 1950s; he knows how to entertain and, possibly more important. how to pace himself to be able to stand the long hours of travel, the countless hours between shows and the internal makeup of a successful working band. He has done it all, and is one of the greatest personalities that Blue Grass music has produced.
The reason we put this day together for him was he is having some health issues right now and we need to rally round him, help him out a little monetarily as well as boost his spirit and let him know how much we care. I did some figuring a few minutes ago and if you add the mileage of the 12 guys that are coming, span from 1954 until the last band in 1996, they will [have] driven 2891 miles to get there. If you add the experience of the musicians it will add to just over 80 years with Bill Monroe.
If we would have had longer to plan this, there would have been many others who could [have] attended. Eddie Adcock was hoping to be there when the first date was announced, but when we moved to the 15th he and Martha will be on their way back from Chicago. Jim Smoak, who worked with Tater in the early 1950s in Little Jimmy Dickens band, was also hoping to be there but the 15th didn’t work for him. Just got a note this morning that Ralph Lewis was recuperating from surgery in Ashville and would not be able to attend. But, why are we doing this for Tater, its pretty simple. We love him.”
The Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys Reunion: “An Afternoon with Tater Tate” will be held at the ACMA Pickin’ Porch in the Bristol Mall, Bristol, Tennessee, tomorrow, commencing at 3:00 pm. Tickets are $10.00 and can be purchased at the ACMA Museum in the Bristol Mall. The ETSU band will kick off the proceedings.
The case to which Doug Hutchens refers is the now famous mandolin case that Bill Monroe’s fans will have seen at the many festivals where Monroe appeared during those last 13 or so years of his career.