Jody Rainwater remembered

Legendary bass player Jody Rainwater passed away in his sleep on the evening of Saturday, December 24, 2011, following a lengthy illness.  He was 92 years old.

Rainwater, aka Charles Edward ‘Chuck’ Johnson, spent two years in the early 1950s working for Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs as a Foggy Mountain Boy and worked for many years on country music radio.

Born near Mount Airy, North Carolina, on April 13, 1919, one of thirteen children, ‘little’ Jody Rainwater, as he was affectionately called, he became interested from a young age in the fiddle music that he heard his father play.

By the time he was a teenager Rainwater, influenced by his older sister, Nonnie, had begun playing mandolin. His older brother had taken up guitar and soon they began playing together as Chuck and Slim, The Johnson Brothers. They played numerous reunions and other social gatherings around the area, making a name for themselves with their sense of humor and comedic timing.

In 1936 the brothers went to work at radio station WMFR, in High Point, North Carolina. However, the move was short-lived, but the brothers were undeterred in their desires to take any opportunity that music presented. At the 1937 Fourth of July Horse Show at Kernersville, North Carolina, they entered a competition for performers and won the award for Best Individual Entertainers. Slim got married in 1938 and from then until Chuck entered the Marine Corps at the outbreak of World War II he played very little.

After his discharge in April 1945 Rainwater worked at an auto dealership in Winston Salem, where he met a local musician named Woody Hauser and formed the Blue Ridge Mountain Boys. During the three years with the Blue Ridge Mountain Boys he took on the comic persona of ‘little Jody’, wearing baggy pants, suspenders, old shirts and all.

In 1948 he joined Smokey Graves & the Blue Star Boys at WDBJ in Roanoke, Virginia.

After meeting Lester Flatt for the first time when playing during the intermission of a Bill Monroe road show in Lexington, North Carolina, Rainwater moved to Roanoke to work with the Blue Star Boys, mainstays on WDBJ radio.

In the fall of 1949 Rainwater became the publicist and booking agent for the Foggy Mountain Boys and comedy partner for Cedric Rainwater during Flatt and Scruggs’ Saturday night slot on the Kentucky Mountain Barn Dance. The success of this partnership led to Jody inheriting the Rainwater surname, at the suggestion of Lester Flatt.

In the summer of 1950 he actually joined the band, playing bass and mandolin, and singing bass, as well as serving as a comedian.

Rainwater made his first recordings with the Foggy Mountain Boys on October 20, 1950, cutting a dozen songs, several of which are bluegrass classics, including: Doin’ My Time, Pike County Breakdown, Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms, Take Me In A Life Boat, Pain In My Heart, Preachin’ Prayin’ Singin’ and Back to the Cross, on which Rainwater plays mandolin.

Just a month later they were in Nashville for their first Columbia session, which included Rainwater’s original song, I’m Waiting to Hear You Call Me Darling. Other tracks included Head Over Heels In Love With You, The Old Hometown, We Can’t Be Darlings Anymore and I’ll Stay Around.

Their two sessions in 1951 produced 14 songs. Rainwater sang the bass vocal part on the three gospel quartets, I’m Working on a Road, Get in Line Brother and Brother, I’m Getting Ready to Go.

Rainwater remained with Flatt & Scruggs until June 1952.

In 1998 Rainwater told…

“Earl and Lester treated me like a king, there was just about nowhere east of the Mississippi where we didn’t play. Bluegrass music was known as hillbilly music back when I first started playing. We were out more than we were home, but it was a living back then, not a lot of money though, but we got by.”

After leaving the Foggy Mountain Boys, Rainwater settled in Crewe, Virginia, and, utilising his communication and business skills, he went to work as the morning disc jockey on radio station WSVS, where his programming and support of bluegrass music made him extremely popular with listeners. He was one of the station’s most popular air personalities ever.

Rainwater also played music on the side for many years with his band, The Jamboree Gang.

During his time at WSVS, Rainwater often brought bands into the station to perform live and was responsible for Flatt & Scruggs having a daily noontime show there for five months from September 1954 until January 1955. He also promoted concerts, and he served as emcee for these and for other concerts in the Richmond area, and later at bluegrass festivals around the southeast.

Rainwater spent 20 happy years as a presenter at WSVS, where he…

“never played anything filthy. I told the station that I wouldn’t play anything with bad words, nor would I play anything that was suggestive in any way. Lucky for me, I never had to.”

Rainwater played a mix of bluegrass, gospel and classic country music and today WSVS stays true to that same format.

After leaving WSVS in 1971, Jody worked at various radio stations around Virginia and North Carolina until his retirement in 1984.

He continued to play music, participating in a Foggy Mountain Boys Reunion Show at Jekyll Island, in January 1992, and in October 2008 joining Curly Seckler in the WSVS studios, reminiscing about the old days; ‘though mainly he played in the company of his family.

Bass player and songwriter Jon Weisberger shared these observations about Rainwater…

“The period during which he was playing with the Foggy Mountain Boys was a rich source of fundamental bluegrass music – just about every one of those records is a bona fide essential in the bluegrass songbook – and he contributed mightily to making it so.  He was a solid player who could cover a wide range of tempos and ‘feels’ and pull the whole band together. I especially like the records they made during the stretch when Everett Lilly was in the band; the two of them really worked well together, and I think a lot of folks have forgotten, if they ever knew, that Everett was the mandolin player and tenor singer on those records.  Jody Rainwater also did some great bass singing.  I was on the committee that gave him his Distinguished Achievement Award a few years ago, and I remember thinking that he deserved on the strength of that alone – even before I learned about all he’d done for and in bluegrass and country music since then.”

In recent years, Jody again became involved at WSVS radio, as a consultant, mentor and elder statesman. He was inducted into the Virginia Folk Music Association’s Hall of Fame in 2000 and was honored by the IBMA with a Distinguished Achievement Award in 2009.

Tom Thomas, the Editor of the Flatt and Scruggs Preservation Society website, is of the…

“firm belief that Jody Rainwater, during his years with Flatt & Scruggs, created and defined the true art of bluegrass bass playing. Just listen to those old Flatt & Scruggs records and you’ll hear Jody smoothly moving between 2-4 time and 4-4 time in the same song, either to accentuate a vocal or a special instrumental break.”

Jody is survived by his wife, Emma, daughters Pat Johnson and Charlie Rainwater, son Ronald L. Gallagher, eleven grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren. He was preceded in death by sons Jerry M. Johnson and Robert T. Gallagher, both in 2004.

In lieu of flowers, the family has requested that memorial donations be made to: The Virginia Museum of Radio Entertainment (VMRE), PO Box 47, Crewe, VA 23930.  A special fund has been set up in Jody’s memory to support the Museum’s educational programs in area schools.  The VMRE is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization.

Special thanks to Penny Parsons for her assistance in assembling details of Jody’s life, and for the photographs with Flatt & Scruggs and the solo portrait.

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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.