Having a Coffee with ……………. Bob Wolff

This is the third in a fun new series in which we ask bluegrass music personalities, some famous, some not so well known, about some of their interests as well as about the music that they love.

Today’s guest is Bob Wolff, who initiated the concept of World Wide Bluegrass Music Month, presented by him to the wider bluegrass world during a meeting at the International Bluegrass Music Association [IBMA] World of Bluegrass [WoB] convention in Owensboro, Kentucky, in September 1987. He played for several years with the New York Mandolin Orchestra, and lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

UPDATE – Bob passed away during 2022.


Bob WolffWhat would you like to drink?

Coffee would be great.

Do you want anything to eat as well?

I don’t eat while I am talking, so let’s stick to the coffee, thanks.

What is your favorite food?

Right now one of my favorite places to have a burger is Five Guys: Burgers & Fries. I usually drink cherry diet Coke with my meal.

What’s the nicest meal that you have ever had?

Back in the 1960s, when in New York City, I ate at Luchows and favored their sauerbraten, with red cabbage and potato pancake. But, like many great restaurants from that era here in the states, Luchows is no more. And, even the German restaurants that I frequented in the 1990s are closing or changing to places that serve European Cuisine, a mixture of German, French, and Italian dishes. Right now I like an Indian place a few miles from here. Perhaps the best place I’ve found to eat basic American food here in the Boston area is dBar, located in Dorchester.

What drink would you have with that?

It is a long time since I have stopped drinking alcohol. Never drank much, but was a wine drinker from the late 1960s until the late 1980s. Sometimes now I have a good German non-alcoholic beer. But few places in this Celtic-centered area serve one of these. Typically they serve an Irish brew that I can’t stand. But, my fall back is diet Coke or Pepsi.

Let’s talk bluegrass….. Where/when did you first hear bluegrass music?

I’m sure I heard it earlier, but the first time I knew I was hearing bluegrass music was in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I had been spending evenings on the pier at South Street Seaport. My son, who was 9-11 years old at that point, liked to go there. The attraction for me was sea chantey singing. The Seamans-X was a group that performed there each Tuesday night and we were often there. One week in 1982, they announced that the next weekend there would be a festival of bluegrass and old timey music. I decided to attend. For both days, every 30 minutes there would be a different band. They interweaved bluegrass with old time, so one quickly learned the difference. Among other things, this focused my attention on bluegrass and taught me about Bill Monroe. I was already focused on the mandolin as it was used in sea chanteys.

On 13 December 1982, I attended my first ever Bill Monroe appearance in New York City. He performed at the Lone Star Café. Stephanie Ledgin was producing bluegrass events at the Lone Star Café at that time. That was a Tuesday night. I remember that, on Saturday of that week, I went to some Manhattan music stores looking at mandolins. I had a check for $50 from my parents for Christmas, and wanted to get an inexpensive instrument on which I could learn whether I could learn to play. Because of an injury to my left index finger back in 1961, I wasn’t sure I could finger the instrument. Two months later I bought a much better instrument, one of the mandolins I have now.

What song do you have a particular liking for?

That is a hard question. I really enjoyed how Bill Monroe sang a number of songs.

You play a …….

Mandolin. But, in high school and during my college and grad school I played string bass.

My student grade mandolin is an A-style Kentucky, made in Japan. It cost $180 in 1983 at Mandolin Brothers on Staten Island.

I also have a Gibson A instrument, made in 1909. It has a nice sound, different from the Kentucky, and also has a wider neck, which makes it more difficult to play. I also have a Martin Taterback mandolin, also made in 1909; I haven’t played that one much. It is mostly a decorative item. Having and trying to play that instrument certainly gave me humility in relation to the parlor musicians who played these instruments. It is easy to see why Orvil Gibson wanted to create a “violin styled” mandolin in America. The 1909 Martin instrument is a copy of the mandolins Italians brought to the USA.

What’s your favorite bluegrass memory?

I have several.

One happened on the occasion of my giving the first Worldwide Bluegrass Music Month T-shirt to Bill Monroe. I was in Arvada, Colorado, for business, and Bill was performing there for two nights. During the day on Sunday, Bill, his then girlfriend, and I drove into the mountains adjacent Arvada. Behind the front range, on a high point, we got out of my rental car and walked around, took some photos (which didn’t come out well) and Bill picked up several rocks.  He borrowed a felt tipped pen from me and wrote “CO” on each rock. He said he liked to collect rocks. When we got back to the motel we were all staying at, he said, “Well, you did a lot better than you thought.” I guess that referred to my driving and his quiet shot gun performance. I presented a second T-shirt that night. I also presented Bill with a nail from a train track tie. It had a #11 on it. I asked him whether he knew what it was, and he said that he did.

I attended the 2nd Annual Merle Watson Festival. It was a great event. It was particularly wonderful to experience Doc performing with almost every group in the festival. I also got to speak with him for a few minutes, and was able to tell him how much I enjoyed his music.

I attended the Edale Festival in northern England, met several great bluegrass people, and got to hear Hot Rize and a lot of English folk music performed around the main performance space.

Are you a sports fan? Who do you follow?

The Boston Red Sox; last year I watched every game. Boston is great for following baseball. If one is not near one’s TV at game time, the game played in the afternoon or evening can be seen at midnight in a two hour version. And the same game is shown again the following day. Although the team didn’t do so well last year, there is great hope here in New England that they will develop well during the 2013 season.

I guess you know that 2012 saw the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park, where the team plays. Fortunately the team’s owners decided to pour big bucks into restoring and improving the park in careful, historically respectful ways. I don’t know if you noticed that a lot of great things happened in 1912. Here in America Woody Guthrie was born, and the Red Sox started playing in Fenway Park. A whole lot of other things happened that year, mostly good stuff, to balance the Titanic sinking.

What hobbies do you have?

I am in my tenth year of learning to be a potter. I also collect the work of studio potters. This past week I attended a workshop of Phil Rogers, a Welsh potter. I also bought one of his pieces from the exhibition currently at the Pucker Gallery here in Boston. Phil makes beautiful objects.

What is the last movie film that you watched?

Lincoln. I think it is an excellent script, beautifully researched, set and acted.

What is your favorite film and why?

My favorite film is Auntie Mame. Not Mame, the musical, but the much older speech movie. I have a DVD of it and probably have watched it more than 15 times over the years. Mame is such a free spirit!

Do you get much time to watch TV?

I get some TV in. I like Downton Abbey and The Good Wife.

Do you have a pet?

Julia, with whom I share the caretaker’s cottage on an estate, has a dog, a miniature Schnauzer, by the name of Sophie.

You’re retired now ….. (?) What would you be doing if you weren’t involved in bluegrass music?

I have been active, one way or the other, in acoustics and theatre consulting for facilities for the performing arts since 1963. Today I am a supervisory consultant at Studio A – Acentech Inc., an acoustics consulting firm in Cambridge Massachusetts. For years I helped architects and engineers design theatres, concert halls and opera houses. Now I work with younger consultants as they do this work.

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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.