Way back in 1973, the US Navy Band program in Washington, DC formed a new outfit called Country Current, created to take advantage of the growing popularity of bluegrass and country music in the capitol region. At one point, there was talk of bringing all the members of the Country Gentlemen into the Navy as a touring group, but as discussions ensued, only banjo man Bill Emerson made the move.
Since that time, the band has been stationed in DC and has traveled the country, performing in a role that combines education, recruiting, and public relations. They also serve a ceremonial function, being called upon to play for all sorts of services and celebrations amongst the top brass in the district and northern Virginia.
In addition to Bill Emerson, who served his full 20 years before retiring, Country Current has included several other bluegrass artists working the scene today. Guitarist and singer/songwriter Wayne Taylor led the band for many years, including a time while Emerson was still aboard, and Frank Solivan who still lives in the area, leading his own group, Dirty Kitchen. And the Navy’s most recently retired banjoist, Keith Arneson, who now plays with Taylor’s group.
As the band works their 45th year in bluegrass, with an anniversary concert scheduled later this month in Alexandria, VA, they welcome their newest member, Haley Stiltner, who joined the Navy last year to take Keith’s spot on banjo. Haley has been getting noticed since she was a teen, winning banjo contests in her native eastern Virginia, and eventually graduating from the bluegrass program at East Tennessee State University. For a time, she played bass with the Little Roy & Lizzy Show, and made the plunge – including basic training – to join the Navy when Arenson retired.
When we spoke last week, I asked her if it felt odd being only the 3rd banjo player in Country Current over 45 years.
“I can definitely understand why. It’s a great job, everything I expected and more. The guys in the group are great, and so is the command.
It’s totally unlike anything else I’ve ever done. The skill level is very high.
Basic training was difficult, but I got through it. It teaches you that what you actually have to depend on is your shipmates.”
Once she joined the band after basic, Haley was given a Musician First Class rating, an E6 for you military types out there. That includes a highly respectable salary, and full military benefits (housing allowance, medical care, retirement, etc).
She said that the job is fairly laid back. Like most bluegrass bands, Country Current may only have a couple of shows each week. But they all report to the band building every day during the week, where they rehearse frequently and take care of administrative duties.
The best part so far for her has been getting to play a show in Smithfield, VA recently, quite near where she grew up in Windsor. Family and old friends were able to see her up on stage, picking the fire out of the banjo, and wearing her Navy uniform.
“I also like that all of our concerts include a special tribute to military veterans, where we do a medley of all the service anthems. Plus I enjoy getting to help educate people about the Navy.”
The Country Current 45th Anniversary concert is scheduled for May 19 at 7:00 p.m. at the Rachel M. Schlesinger Concert Hall on the campus of the Northern Virginia Community College in Alexandria. There is no admission charge and no advance tickets are required. The band will feature both their bluegrass and country sets, and several alumni members of the band will sit in.
Congratulations Haley for landing this gig and representing the banjo in the Navy!