Mandolin maestro Herschel Sizemore passed away on Friday morning, September 9, 2022 at his home in Roanoke, VA. He was 87 years of age.
Herschel Lee Sizemore was born on August 6, 1935, in Sheffield (near Muscle Shoals), Alabama, and raised in the more rural community of Leighton.
His mother was a very good self-taught guitarist in a style that, while likened to that of Mother Maybelle Carter, actually preceded it.
While the family listened to a battery-operated radio, there was nothing on the Grand Ole Opry that captured Sizemore’s attention until he heard Bill Monroe. He was drawn even further towards the mandolin when he was age eight and his parents took him to see a performance by Monroe at the Grand Ole Opry.
At about the same time he began playing a mandolin that his brother, Ross, then in the army, sent home. After learning some chords, Sizemore started playing with old-time fiddler Hugh McCormick, who along with Sizemore’s mother were his earliest musical influences.
When he was 14 years of age, he got his first paying musical job, playing at area schools and square-dances with Ned Campbell & the Sunnyside Playboys.
After about three years he got his break as a professional, linking up with Rual Yarbrough, Linden Smith, Billy Sizemore, and Edison Dooley to form the Tennessee Valley Playboys. After about six months they altered the name to the Country Gentlemen, though that was quickly changed to the Dixie Gentlemen when they learned of the Washington DC-based band of the same name.
Jake Landers replaced Smith, and during the next few years they established a good following through their personal appearances as they toured the south-eastern states, and were featured on both local radio and television stations.
Using the name The Blue Ridge Mountain Boys, the trio recorded two LPs for Time before establishing their credentials more firmly as The Dixie Gentlemen, with a release by major label United Artists.
Ironically, the band disbanded just two years later, and Sizemore and Yarbrough worked for Bobby Smith & the Boys from Shiloh, who in this audio clip appeared in concert on the same bill as Bill Monroe.
Yesterday’s Gone (c. 1965) – Bobby Smith & the Boys from Shiloh
(in concert; thought to be at The Bluegrass Cellar, Nashville, Tennessee)
For two years (from 1967 through to 1969) Sizemore worked with Jimmy Martin & the Sunny Mountain Boys, enjoying what Sizemore is cited as saying that it was “two of his musical best.” The two remained friends until the later passed away often spending leisure time together.
Herschel became good friends with Lester Flatt, and ofter traveled with Flatt & Scruggs on their bus. In fact, when Curly Seckler left the band, Sizemore was offered the job, but turned it down as his wife, Joyce, had just learned that she was pregnant with their first child.
He and Bill Monroe were also on friendly terms, with Herschel believing that the reason Monroe respected him was because he took a different direction on the instrument, and didn’t copy his style.
In April 1969 Sizemore moved from Alabama to Roanoke, Virginia, and joined the Shenandoah Cut-Ups (with Jim Eanes on guitar, Clarence ‘Tater’ Tate on fiddle, Billy Edwards on banjo, and John Palmer on bass). It was a very busy period for Sizemore with many festival dates, as they toured in what used to be Red Smiley’s bus. One of their first gigs was working on the Wheeling Jamboree.
During a five-year spell they recorded a clutch of albums for Revonah and Rebel. The Shenandoah Cut-Ups also recorded an LP for County with Curly Seckler, and for a while they promoted this with many festival appearances together.
The Shenandoah Cut-Ups – Are You Washed In The Blood
Live at Renfro Valley, 1971
Interspersed with those was a release by The Country Grass, effectively Sizemore’s own band. This group stayed together for only two years, as a revolving door of personnel changes and Sizemore taking up a full-time job at Purolator Courier, with whom he was already working part-time.
Although he did keep his hand in, musically, as his off-duty time allowed, Sizemore soon yearned to return to playing full-time and following a session for R. C. Harris that also involved Bobby Hicks and Del McCoury he joined the Dixie Pals.
This association also lasted two years; the highlight for the band that also consisted of a stellar combination of Jerry McCoury (bass), Sonny Miller (fiddle), and Dick Smith (banjo) was a late 1979 tour of Japan.
Del McCoury’s Dixie Pals – December 1979, Japan
Strictly Bluegrass Live  – Del McCoury & The Dixie Pals
While with McCoury, Sizemore recorded his ground-breaking album, Bounce Away, which announced him as a, if not the, leading light for young mandolin pickers of the day, and showed a different way of playing the instrument from that demonstrated by Bill Monroe. This saw him using open strings and first/second positions on the instrument fretboard, in the manner of Texas fiddlers.
Among the four Sizemore originals is the challenging tune Rebecca, named for his mother.
Hershel Sizemore and mandolin ensemble – Rebecca
…live at Ash Lawn Highland, Charlottesville, VA – 5/15/16
Herschel Sizemore talks about the classic Rebecca perhaps the most popular mandolin contest song on the fiddler’s convention circuit ……
Bounce Away – Hershel Sizemore
John Lawless wrote in November 2018 …..
“Herschel is also credited with what pickers call the Sizemore roll, a technique he uses to note a pause in a vocal melody when played on the mandolin, much like the way a banjo would use a forward roll in such a spot. He employs a cross-picking pattern across several strings while holding a chord in place to keep the 8th note rhythm going on the mandolin, without emphasizing any melody notes.”
In 1980 Sizemore took another break from performing regularly, which lasted until just after he retired, when he jumped at the chance to work with old friends Don and David Parmley, whom he had known since 1976, and he joined The Bluegrass Cardinals.
Bluegrass Cardinals – Mountain Girl (1996)
Mountain Girl is the last album released by the Bluegrass Cardinals on their independent label.
During his four-year tenure with the band Sizemore recorded his second solo album, the aptly titled Back In Business, which included a re-recording of Rebecca among the three original tunes. The collection including Sizemore singing tenor on some songs.
Shortly afterwards he formed the Herschel Sizemore Band with a solid attempt to establish himself as a bandleader.
During the first decade of the 21st century he released two further albums of his own, My Style and B-Natural – a self-produced project with 12 new Sizemore compositions – and worked on one by John Lawless and three with Curly Seckler.
For about five years from November 2002, he co-presented the three-day Roanoke Bluegrass Weekend, an instructional event for bluegrass instruments. Always willing to share his knowledge with others and nurture fresh talent, his unique and influential style was featured in both a transcription book and instructional DVD from AcuTab, and he was invited to serve as an instructor at the most prestigious mandolin seminars in the country.
In October 2011 he was diagnosed as having cancer in his tonsil. In February of the following year a host of bluegrass artists assembled for a benefit concert for him and his wife, also undergoing treatment for cancer, in Roanoke, Virginia.
What was initially to feature just two or three bands became an all-day event with about a dozen bands, including the Punch Brothers, Alan Bibey, The Travelers, Acoustic Endeavours, Ronnie Reno, and the Seldom Scene.
Despite a lay-off of several months while he underwent treatment Sizemore played in a few settings, such as in this re-constituted version of Del McCoury & the Dixie Pals with Jerry McCoury and Dick Smith.
A DVD, Herschel Sizemore: Mandolin in B: A Tribute to a Bluegrass Legend, produced by Rick Bowman and Bill Perrine, was released in August 2013. It’s a lasting and fitting tribute to one of greatest mandolin players of our time.
His close friend and fellow mandolinist Alan Bibey had a chance to visit with Sizemore just a few days before he passed. He recalled their visit fondly, saying they played, talked, and laughed for several hours. Alan said that Herschel was very special to him.
“Herschel was a hero first, mentor second (even if he didn’t know it), and last but most importantly he was my best buddy. One of the greatest mandolin players in the history of our music and just as great of a person. That’s saying something. Until we meet again ol’ buddy.”
2018 was a significant year for him inasmuch as on March 18, he was inducted into the Alabama Hall of Fame and in the following November he had a heart pacemaker fitted.
R.I.P. Herschel Sizemore
- Bounce Away (County 774, 1979) listed on the album as “Hershel (sic) Sizemore”
- Back in Business (Hay HollerHHH-CD-105, 1993)
- My Style (Hay Holler HH-CD-1354, 2000)
- B-natural (Amandolina, July 2009)
Jake Landers and Herschel Sizemore
- For Old Times Sake (B Sharp 2013-1, November 18, 2013) The Blue Ridge Mountain Boys (with Rual Yarbrough) –
- Hootenanny N’ Blue Grass (Time Records 52083 S/2083, October 1963)
- Blue Grass Back Home (Time Records 52103 S/52103, November 1963)
- Bluegrass With A Beat (BACM [UK] CD D 501, 2015) – compilation
The Dixie Gentlemen
- The Country Style of the Dixie Gentlemen (United Artists UAL 3296, 1963)
- Blues and Bluegrass: with Tut Taylor and Vassar Clements (Tune TRC 1001, February 1967), re-issued on Old Homestead OHS 90024, 1973.
- Together Once More (Old Homestead OHS 90020, 1973)
- Take Me Back To Dixie (Rutabaga RR 3016, 1992) with Vassar Clement,s reissued as part of Today And Yesterday (Old Homestead OHCD-4024, ca 1999)
Shenandoah Valley Quartet
- Shenandoah Valley Quartet with Jim Eanes (County 726, 1970)
The Shenandoah Cut-Ups
- Bluegrass Autumn (Revonah R 904, 1971)
- Plant Grass (In Your Ear) (MRC MRLP 1162, 1971)
- Curly Seckler Sings Again (County 732, 1971) with the Shenandoah Cut-Ups
- The Shenandoah Cutups Sing Gospel (Revonah R 908, May 1973)
- Shenandoah Cut Ups (Rebel SLP 1526, December 1973)
- Traditional Bluegrass (Revonah RS 910, 1974)
- Keep It Bluegrass (Grassound GR SC 22580, 1980)
The Country Grass – his own band
- Livin’ Free (Rebel SLP 1532, 1974)
Roby Huffman and the Bluegrass Cutups
- Colorado River (Grassound A-105, 1978)
RC Harris and Blue Denim
- Grass Won’t Grow On A Busy Street (Grassound GR-116, 1978)
Del McCoury and the Dixie Pals
- Strictly Bluegrass Live (Trio AW-2054 (JAP), September 1981) Also issued on Live In Japan Copper Creek CCCD-0118, 1980)
- Take Me To the Mountains (Leather LBG-8107, 1981), re-issued by Rebel – REB 1622, 1983)
- Mountain Girl (BGC BGC 1006, 1996)
- 1971: Jake Landers and Tom McKinney – Present Original Songs and New Banjo Sounds of the 70’s (Tune) – track 11, Bluegrass Minor
- 1976: Bottle Hill – Light Our Way Along the Highway (Biograph) – track 12, Bluegrass Autumn
- 1976: The Conner Brothers – The Conner Brothers (County) – track 10, Bluegrass Minor
- 1981: The Landers Family – Old Folks Don’t Live Here (Old Homestead) – track 4, I Thank God For America Today (co-written with Jake Landers)
- 1981: Al Wood and the Smokey Ridge Boys – Kentucky Country Home (Rich-R-Tone) – track 1, Kentucky Country Home
- 1998: Jim Mills – Bound to Ride (Sugar Hill) – track 6, Rebecca
Also appears on…
- Rual Yarbrough – 5 String Banjo By Rual Yarbrough (Tune TRC-1002, 1968)
- Jim Eanes – Rural Rhythm Presents Jim Eanes (Rural Rhythm RRJE 221, 1969)
- Clarence “Tater” Tate – Rural Rhythm Presents Fiddling Clarence “Tater” Tate: More Favorite Waltzes (Rural Rhythm RRCT 220, August 1969)
- Tim Smith – Favorite Pastimes (Heritage RC 611, 1986)
- David Parmley – Southern Heritage (Rebel CD 1706, November 22, 1993)
- Bill Harrell – The Cat Came Back (Rebel REB-CD-1742, March 3, 1998)
- Lynwood Lunsford – Pick Along (Hay Holler HH-CD-1349, 1999)
- John Lawless – Five & Dime (Copper Creek CCCD 0224, September 14, 2004)
- Curly Seckler – Down in Caroline (Copper Creek CCCD 0236, 2005)
- Curly Seckler – That Old Book of Mine (County CO-CD 2740, October 11, 2005)
- Curly Seckler – Bluegrass, Don’t You Know (Copper Creek CCCD 0243, 2007)
- 2001: Acutab Transcriptions Vol. 1 (Mel Bay) – 70 pages (ISBN 978-0786660797)
- 2010: Herschel Sizemore: In His Own Style DVD (Mel Bay)