When you hear the phrase “Duty Free,” what comes to mind? If you’re like most, an exempt purchase is one of the first things. In Bristol Tennessee, you think of Hal Boyd and the talented group of guys that make up one of the area’s most popular bluegrass bands when Duty Free is mentioned.
On historic State Street in downtown Bristol, the street splits one city into two states. A regular sight at Bristol’s annual music festival, Rhythm & Roots, is folks standing in the middle of the road, pointing their camera at the ground, taking pictures of their feet; or what seems to be a focus on their feet.
What they are actually doing is what thousands of visitors to the city do each year, taking pictures of the embedded brass plates that lie between the yellow double lines in the middle of the road, splitting the city into Bristol Tennessee, and Bristol, Virginia.
State Street has a far more famous history in the music world than the split of two cities. In 1927, Ralph Peer brought fame to the town by recording the Bristol Sessions in an old hat warehouse on the corner of what is now State and Martin Luther King Boulevard. Using the Victor Talking Machine, he introduced the world to Jimmie Rodgers, and the Carter Family.
Today, the Paramount Center for the Performing Arts, known in it’s day as The Paramount Theater, still stands proud on State Street (on the Tennessee side) as it did when it was a newly built showplace in 1931. Next door to the Paramount is a more modern discovery, and favorite of many Bristolians, The KP Duty Restaurant. It was here, steeped in the rich history of this famous city – on this famous street – that Duty Free was born.
Among what band leader Hal Boyd calls “a band of brothers,” were several musicians who had all played the jam sessions in the area together, and had all known each other for a long time. KP Duty had been hosting an open jam on Friday nights for diners, situated on a little outdoor patio at the restaurant. They invited Boyd to gather a group, and come down to play a few hours’ set. He pulled together his “band of brothers,” siblings Rick and Charlie Powers, Bobby Love, and Tim Laughlin to play the requested set as a group.
Boyd is on bass, Bobby Love on mandolin, Charlie Powers on guitar, Rick Powers on banjo, and Tim Laughlin on fiddle
The band was an instant hit, and decided to name itself that night. They were playing at KP Duty, and they were playing for free, so they dubbed themselves Duty Free. The name stuck, and some five years later the band has collected a great following, and is still going strong.
Known for a sound that is very reminiscent of The Country Gentlemen, the band performs many Gentlemen cover songs in an authentic style, featuring the lead vocals of guitarist Charlie Powers. The versatile band masters the music of many other legendary performers, and is known in the area for another fan favorite version of a Bob Dylan classic.
Boots of Spanish Leather: [http://traffic.libsyn.com/thegrasscast/spanish_leather.mp3]
In a recent interview with founder Hal Boyd on The Local Grass Radio Show, he noted that all of the members of Duty Free agree that The Country Gentlemen did music the way it ought to be done, and their style of music greatly influenced the members of the band through the years. He also notes the harmonies and musical style of Country Gentlemen, and groups like The Seldom Scene brought him back to bluegrass.
Dust On The Bible: [http://traffic.libsyn.com/thegrasscast/dust_on_the_bible.mp3]
Up This Hill And Down: [http://traffic.libsyn.com/thegrasscast/up_this_hill.mp3]
Duty Free performs bluegrass, and bluegrass Gospel, and plays often at local churches in the Tri Cities area throughout the year. They have performed at the prestigious Paramount Theater as opening act for many top their artists, and are regulars at Bristol’s Rhythm and Roots Reunion. While they share the opinion of many who would like to make a life’s fortune playing music but know it’s not likely, the band all work public jobs, and facetiously call themselves “Four Wrenches and a Fiddle,” playing most of their engagements on the weekends.
Find out more about Duty Free on their website, and look for them on the Mural Stage at the 2012 Rhythm & Roots Reunion in downtown Bristol in September.