Moments in Bluegrass: BG75 #9 – Bill Emerson meets Bill Monroe

Following an invitation that the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) extended to its members that they share a memory from “75 years of bluegrass,” we thought that we would collect a few to share with you.

Bill Emerson is considered to be one of the most influential five-string banjo players in bluegrass music. He began his professional music career in 1955 before going on to be a founder member of the world-famous Country Gentlemen, with whom he worked for two spells and recorded several times. He has recorded with Buzz Busby; John Hall; Bill Harrell; Jimmy Martin; Harry & Jeanie West; Red Allen and Frank Wakefield; the Yates Brothers (Bill and Wayne); Red Allen and the Kentuckians;  Scotty Stoneman; in a partnership with Cliff Waldron; with song-writer Pete Goble; with former Country Current member Wayne Taylor; Mark Newton; as well as releasing several albums in his own name or fronting his band, Sweet Dixie. His latest release is the collaboration with his son Billy; the EP Emerson 414. 

Emerson & Waldron recorded the first bluegrass version – Emerson’s arrangement – of the Manfred Mann song, Fox on the Run, now a bluegrass standard.

In 1973 until 1992, when he retired, Emerson served in the U.S. Navy playing banjo with the band Country Current.  

From 1985 through to 1988 he worked with Wayne Busbice (Busby) as A&R director of Webco Records before in 1989, Emerson, with another son, John, took over the label. 

In 1988 he was inducted into the Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame and last year he became a member the IBMA’s Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame. 

“When I was 16 years old, I drove to Nashville and sought out Bill Monroe. He kept a room at the Clarkston Hotel where he stayed before the Opry on Saturday nights. When he answered his door, I told him I was a banjo player looking for a job. He said okay bring your banjo in and play some for me. When I was done, he said, ‘You’ve got a good right hand but you need more experience.’ That night he took me to the Opry where I stood in the wings and watched him play. 

In 1958 I saw Bill’s bus at a phone booth by the side of the road on Rte 1 south of Alexandria, Virginia. Bill was in the booth making a call. I stopped my car, went up to the booth and asked if he needed help. Bill said he was on the way to Maryland and needed a banjo player. I said I’m a banjo player and Bill said, ‘Yes, I remember you, you’re the boy from the Clarkston. Get your banjo and your clothes and meet me at New River Ranch in Rising Sun, Maryland.’ That day the Blue Grass Boys were Roger Smith fiddle, Bessie Lee Mauldin bass, Joe Stuart guitar, and me on banjo. When we were done, Bill paid me and asked if I could go to Pennsylvania with him and play the next day. I had to decline as I was a Country Gentleman and we had our own job to play.”

In an interview with Janet Davis, published Banjo NewsLetter in September 2009, Emerson indicated …

“I later played with him on several other occasions.”

One of those was in March 1971 at the Bluegrass Jamboree, the Virginia Theatre, Alexandria, Virginia, an early indoor event for bluegrass music.

Emerson recorded the Bill Monroe tune Rawhide on December 18, 1989 …


It was released on Emerson’s Banjo Man CD (Webco WEB-0151).  

OK, readers, does this story trigger any thoughts of bluegrass music in days gone by? What related event would you like remembered? Please share in comments. Thanks. 

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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.