I’m Going Back To Old Kentucky #278

From October 1, 2010 through to the end of September 2011, we will, each day, celebrate the life of Bill Monroe by sharing information about him and those people who are associated with his life and music career. This information will include births and deaths; recording sessions; single, LP and CD release dates; and other interesting tidbits. Richard F. Thompson is responsible for the research and compilation of this information. We invite readers to share any tidbits, photos or memories you would like us to include.

  • July 5, 1936 Billy Baker [fiddle] was born in Pound, Virginia.  *
  • July 5, 1937 Robert Clark ‘Bobby’ Thompson was born in Converse, South Carolina.  **
  • July 5, 1981 Paul Kovac filled in, playing banjo, with the Blue Grass Boys at Geneva, Ohio, just a day or two after Butch Robins left. ***
  • July 5, 1985 Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys made a personal appearance at the Green Acres All Star Reunion, Green Acres Camp Ground & Music Park, Martinsville, Indiana. Others on the bill included Ralph Stanley and Larry Sparks.

* Billy Baker played for Bill Monroe for three spells, one in 1961, another for two months in 1963 – as a replacement for his namesake, Kenny Baker – and again in the winter of 1963/1964.

He never formally recorded while working with Monroe, but he is featured on a pirated radio transcription session (July 23, 1963) and while playing during Bill Monroe’s first appearance at the Newport Folk Festival, July 26 and 27, 1963.

In 1964 Baker and Del McCoury formed the Shady Valley Boys and recorded for Rebel Records. Later the duo worked together when McCoury formed the Dixie Pals.

He recorded with Kenney Haddock and during the late 1970s he had two fiddle albums on the Old Homestead label.

** Banjo player Bobby Thompson participated in four recording sessions during the early1970s.

An early originator of the chromatic style of playing, Thompson was a top studio session player. He helped with the recording of Kentucky Waltz, My Little Georgia Rose, Tallahassee, Kiss Me Waltz, Jenny Lynn and Millenburg Joy.

He was among the session players with Monroe for Tom T Hall’s recording of Molly And Tenbrooks (Mercury Records).

*** Paul Kovac recalls the events surrounding his time he worked for Bill Monroe …..

“I only played two shows with Mr. Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, but he made me feel like he wanted me to BE a Blue Grass Boy for that day, loaning me a matching tie and hat, three-eights, just my size.

The date was Sunday, July 5, 1981, in Geneva, Ohio, just a day or two after Butch Robbins left. I was performing with my band, Hotfoot Quartet, had played all weekend and that day was a day off to enjoy the bigger tour bands. When Monroe arrived at the festival grounds, word had preceded him that he was without a banjo player. Though there were many banjo players willing to offer their services that day, he went to his old friend, Jerry Williamson, who had been running sound all weekend, and asked him to find a banjo player. He came to me, asked if I’d do it, and told me to shave and clean up some.

With all the great talent there, folks were surprised to see me up there with the Father of Bluegrass, and no one really knew until we tool the stage. The crowd was very supportive, as I was from that general area (Chardon, OH). Mac Martin, the great singer/stylist from Pittsburgh still mentions to me the time he saw me play that day.

The band consisted of Kenny Baker, Wayne Lewis and Mark Hembree. I have remained good friends with Mark and his wife Georgia. I recall following the Seldom Scene and Ben Eldridge being surprised to see me in the hat and wished me well. Later, from the stage, I see him talking quietly to JD Crowe and pointing my way, enough to rattle any banjo player’s cage. In the first show, Bill broke a string, and John Duffey, who had been watching the show, brought him his own mandolin, and took Bill’s Lloyd Loar to fix the string. When he returned with the mandolin, Bill and John played Old Joe Clark together, playing each other’s mandolins.

We met on the bus before the show, and Bill and the band talked through the show with me, the order of the first three or four songs, where I would play a banjo instrumental (Blue Grass Breakdown), even tried me out singing baritone on Cryin’ Holy Unto the Lord, which I did not nail the first time, even though I know I could have sung it, to which he snapped, ‘We’ll do it as a trio!’ so I never sang with him. As we left the bus to go play the show, when it was just him and I, I told him I would do by best for him that day and that I hope it will be good enough, to his reply, ‘Oh, It’s just bluegrass.’

Yea, just bluegrass, but you know, it was, just great Bluegrass played by some of the greats. Feeling the power of his mandolin chop enlightened me to where the power and pulse of the music comes from. I won’t forget how it felt. We played every standard parking lot jam session song, but of course, they were all his originals. He also had a new album just out, Master of Bluegrass, and we played a selection or two from that record. And what can you say about Kenny Baker. A true honor to stand next to him and play bluegrass.

That day Bill was strong, a force. He had a bout with colon cancer only a few months before and I think the health issue gave him a wake up call. He seemed happy and appreciative of the reception awaiting him. Not a guy fighting and scraping for recognition, but the acknowledged Father of Bluegrass, doing what he did best, entertaining the crowd, with fire and passion, and gracefully meeting the fans after the show.

After two shows, and the dust settled that day, Bill took me in the bus and paid me $60 in cash and thanked me. We sat alone and talked for about a half hour, about all kinds of things. He told me he always thought Ohio was a good Bluegrass state, which I was glad to hear. I had to give him back the hat and tie, for the next guy, Blake Williams.

After that day, I saw Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys perform many times. I spoke with him a few times after that, with Mark Hembree reminding him who I was.

To me, Bill Monroe was professional, respectful, appreciative, proud, driven, unashamedly honest, on his own creative wavelength, was true to himself and his music. I learned you have to play bluegrass music with full commitment, you have to go for it, find it inside and let it go. It’s the only way to play.”

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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.