On July 21, 1998, ace British mandolin player Andy Townend passed away in the Kent and Sussex Hospital, Tunbridge Wells, Kent, England, after a short illness. He was aged 46.
Born on January 12, 1952, he was a proficient mandolin player by the age of 11, learning to play on a classical ‘potato-bug’ round-back mandolin. He then played a Hoyer until, in readiness for the 1st Cambridge Folk Festival in1965, Bill Clifton brought him a Gibson mandolin, which he always played after that.
He was described by Bill Clifton as the best mandolin player in Europe and his playing was recognised and respected by no less a figure than Bill Monroe, with whom Townend first played on stage in the USA in 1967.
He also toured with Ralph Stanley for whom he played bass mainly; he did play mandolin on one tune and Stanley made him rehearse the break a lot of times before he got to play it on stage!
During that summer of 1967 Townend played sets with the Country Gentlemen and the Osborne Brothers.
Clifton, while a resident in England, was the mentor of the Echo Mountain Boys, a school-boy bluegrass band that was started in 1963 by Andy’s brother Rick.
Initially the brothers learned their musical skills from their father, a music master at Sevenoaks School, Kent, and when he joined the Echo Mountain Boys Andy Townend, much like the hierarchy in the Monroe family, found that the mandolin spot was the only one left. However, he quickly made the mandolin the star of the show, with a style that was all his own.
As part of the Echo Mountain Boys Townend supported Clifton at clubs and festivals, at a major folk concert in the Royal Albert Hall, London, on tours in mainland Europe, appeared on television with him and helped with some of Clifton’s recordings.
When Rick went to university, Andy switched to playing the banjo and, as a member of a trio, he featured several times on mainstream popular radio. Subsequently, he played for a while with Orange Blossom Sound, Dave Plane and another band at Sevenoaks School, the Bayley’s Hill Boys.
In 1972 the Echo Mountain Boys re-formed, although they changed their name, to reflect their adult status, to the Echo Mountain Band.
In 1975 they recorded an LP entitled The Echo Mountain Band for Westwood Records. They got a bus and went on tour, opening for Ralph McTell. They also played at the Hammersmith Odeon, opening for Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys and were regular guests on BBC radio’s Country meets Folk program.
They stayed together for about five years when they decided to disband and Andy Townend took on the running of a pub.
At the end of the 1980s they did some more recordings and played a few concert dates, including one at the famous 100-Club on London’s Oxford Street. Only two of the tracks have been issued to date, one, The Prodigal Father, was included on the IBMA’s compilation CD Long Journey Home and the other, I’ve Set my Heart on the Blues, on the BBMA compilation The British Bluegrass Album.
Townend recorded two albums with Orange Blossom Sound, on Keep On Pushing (1974) and on Jehosophat and Jones with the Two Ronnies also.
Andy Townend also played with Townend’s Special Bluegrass Service.
As well as being a very highly rated bluegrass mandolin player, he was a master of the jazz mandolin style and played several other instruments including the guitar (bluegrass, jazz and 1950s rock-style), banjo (bluegrass and old-time), fiddle, double bass and sitar.
He was a superb tenor singer also.
John Baldry, another well-noted mandolin player and teacher in Britain, commented ..
“Andy Townend’s mandolin style was unique. He borrowed from a wide range of sources – his motto was “If it’s good, nick it!” – and there was always an input and a cohesion that was pure Townend.”
His creativity extended to composition – Sal-a-manda, the twin mandolin piece Bungalow Baby, Mandolo-mania and Caught Short being most notable – and arranging. Many of his sophisticated pieces for mandolin were based squarely in the bluegrass style, but drew on jazz and other influences.
Townend is a member of the British Bluegrass Hall of Honour, inducted for his exceptional mandolin music and his outstanding contribution to the British bluegrass music scene.
I will let John Baldry have the last word …
“He had a taste for the melodic, and was agreat admirer of Bobby Osborne; Sure-Fire was one of Andy’s favourite bluegrass instrumentals. However, there was also rhythmic power and cutting edge to his playing associated more with Bill Monroe and John Duffey. Add to that his cross picking, inspired by Jesse McReynolds but with Andy’s distinctive roll patterns, and you have an idea of the breadth of Andy’s vision.”