Washington state banjoist Harley Worthington died on September 21 in Everett. He was 82 years of age.
Though a native of Tennessee, he lived much of his life near Seattle, where he taught a great many young northwest pickers the ropes in the world of bluegrass. His longtime musical partner, Hank English, with whom he formed a popular group called The Tennesseans, was the first band that hired a young Mark O’Connor to play fiddle.
Born October 21, 1940 in Whitesburg, TN, Harley grew up in Russellville, near Knoxville. His dad was a professional musician, though he had to give it up in 1932 when an accident with a milling machine took two of his fingers. Harley started to play when he was seven, using instruments that his father had built for the children to play, and the family would perform on area radio programs while he was a preteen.
The proximity to Knoxville meant that he could hear all the greats of bluegrass on the radio. Especially on the Midday Merry-Go-Round on WNOX, he would hear Flatt & Scruggs, Red Rector, Carl Story, The Osborne Brothers, and Jimmy Martin, and he became a serious fan of their music. In high school he obtained an old banjo that had been his grandfather’s, and started learning to play. Growing up poor, the Worthington family couldn’t even consider buying instruments for their children.
While still in school, Harley soon began playing with a number of groups around Knoxville, including The Lane Brothers, Dixie Travelers, and Tex Climer & the Blue Band Coffee Boys.
Upon graduation in 1960, he joined the Air Force and was stationed in Washington state. Before long, he was meeting and playing with local pickers, even though he had to borrow a banjo as his was left behind in Russellville. During this time he met and played with Phil and Vivian Williams, who were also early bluegrass pioneers in the region.
He began playing with Hank English, a guitarist and vocalist and a fellow Tennessee native he had met at a local gathering. Harley was still in the Air Force when they started picking together, and when he got out in 1970, they started a band that lasted several decades which they called The Tennesseans.
Together they became the premier Washington state bluegrass band, and served as mentors for west coasters new to the sound. In addition to Mark O’Connor, The Tennesseans also had hired Barbara Lamb, now a successful fiddler in Nashville, when she was a teenager. O’Connor’s younger sister, Michelle, also served an apprenticeship in the group.
The Tennesseans were known not only for superb musicianship, with Harley’s cracking Scruggs-style banjo at the forefront, they are also remembered as fine entertainers, with Worthington’s big laugh and bubbly personality a big part of it.
In the ’70s, Harley also performed and recorded with a North Carolina-born guitarist and vocalist, Earl Jones, as the Earl Jones & Harley Worthington Pickers.
In 1976, Harley was part of the team that launched the Darrington Bluegrass Festival, which started the next year, and is still in operation 46 years later.
The bluegrass community in Seattle and Washington state, now a growing and thriving movement, will certainly miss one of their founders.
R.I.P., Harley Worthington.
We thank Barry Brower for his help in assembling this article.