If you’re a bluegrass fan that has been around for a while, you’re no doubt familiar with a handful of elite sidemen from days gone by who held their job with only one band for a great number of years. Josh Graves, Jake Tullock and Paul Warren of Flatt & Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Boys come to mind, as does Kenny Baker, fiddle player extraordinaire, for Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys.
In an age when even nationally known bands’ members rotate and change invariably, one would probably think that such a tenure scenario is unheard of when it comes to locally based bluegrass bands. This notion would hold true unless one is considering the history of North Carolina based Al Batten & The Bluegrass Reunion. The Bluegrass Reunion just celebrated 40 years as a band. That’s pretty impressive, but that’s just a drop in the bucket. According to bandleader, Al Batten, in those forty years the band has had only four changes in personnel! That’s an average of 1 band member per decade! Now, there’s a feat that’s bound to be unmatched in any genre of music, especially a local bluegrass band.
(As a side note, most of the personnel changes were because of health issues among members that couldn’t be ignored.)
Al Batten and David Turnage formed the group in February 1972. Al Batten, who currently makes his home in a small rural area of North Carolina known as Shoeheel, on banjo and David Turnage, of Wilson’s Mills, NC on guitar have both held their respective positions for the band’s entire 40 year run. Rounding out the Bluegrass Reunion are two former members of The Bass Mountain Boys; Johnny Ridge from Mebane, NC on fiddle and Mike Aldridge of Saxapahaw, NC on mandolin (not to be confused with Mike Auldridge the resophonic guitarist). The bass duties are left to the capable hands of Phil Patterson who makes his home in Broadway, NC, with all the members providing vocals. These guys have been playing together for so long that there is absolutely no guess work when they hit the stage.
Please Don’t Honey Please: [http://traffic.libsyn.com/thegrasscast/please_dont.mp3]
The Bluegrass Reunion stayed close to home for the first 20 or so years. According to Mr. Batten, they felt it would be in their best interest to give “family, work, home life and church” priority over the music. They have branched out a little more in the past 20 years as the members have retired or earned more time off from their day jobs. The band has toured much of the eastern United States and have even visited Ireland on a couple of occasions to perform for the International Bluegrass and Folk Festival in Omagh and to give the folks there a taste of their brand of traditional North Carolina bluegrass. They have also received awards from The Eastern NC Bluegrass Association and The Piedmont Council of Traditional Music, also known as Pinecone.
The Bluegrass Reunion has become so popular with it’s audiences that most of the time there is no need for the band to call promoters trying to book shows. Most of their show dates are return engagements since they’re usually asked to come back again “next year” as soon as they wind up their last set. The band also stays busy playing private events such as weddings. Because of these return engagements, Al and the guys stay busier through the winter than most local bluegrass bands do all summer long.
The Bluegrass Reunion has 6 CD projects to their credit. The band took a few of its earlier recordings and compiled them into a 2 disc set. Among the band’s recordings is a gospel CD, Don’t Be Left On The Mountain (the title track was written by former band member, Jimmy Cameron) A live CD entitled Live at the Kinston Winter Bluegrass Festival and fan favorite, Instrumentals & Insanities which includes what has to be considered their most popular recording, the old Bud Brewster classic, Always Marry an Ugly Girl. The original lyrics in the song lend themselves to more of a bar room atmosphere, so Al Batten changed some of the original lyrics to make it more family friendly. The change proved to be successful, as Ugly Girl was the number 1 requested song for four years in a row on a Sunday night bluegrass show broadcasting on 100,000 watt WQDR in Raleigh, NC.
Always Marry An Ugly Girl: [http://traffic.libsyn.com/thegrasscast/always_marry.mp3]
If there is a moral to the story of Al Batten & Bluegrass Reunion it would probably be this; if you have a band that’s on the brink of destruction, don’t be so fast to throw in the towel! The Bluegrass Reunion is proof that with a little work and perseverance, a local bluegrass band can last for decades!
Visit Al Batten & Bluegrass Reunion on the web at www.bluegrassreunion.com.