On This Day #62 – Prime Cuts of Bluegrass

On this day …. 

On July 15, 1992, Kirk Brandenberger and his wife Becky (KBC Music, Inc.) launched Prime Cuts of Bluegrass with the release of their first CD distributed to bluegrass radio DJs, programmers, and the media. 

The radio marketing service was originally based in Owensboro, Kentucky. In 1994 it was moved to Keokuk, Iowa, where Kirk Brandenberger was born. 

The full track listing for Prime Cuts of Bluegrass, Volume 1 (KBC-CD-001) is as follows .. 

  • Dividing Line – Wes Homner
  • Kerosene Circuit – Andy Owens Project
  • (I’m Begging You Please) Help Me – Wild & Blue
  • Carolina Traveler – John McEuen
  • Sawmill Road – Lost & Found
  • False Hearted Love – Breakaway
  • Elephant Hop – Tom Hanway
  • Whisper in the Wind – Bluegrass Express
  • Are You Thinking of Me? – Kentucky Bluegrass Band 
  • Bitter Memory – Andy Owens Project
  • Avalon – Tom Hanway
  • Sweethearts in Heaven – Lost & Found
  • Jesus Will Take Care of it All – Wild & Blue
  • Sing Me to Sleep – Wes Homner

The charter members of Plum River Country Opry (Galena) Bluegrass Express – from Stockton, Illinois – was formed in 1981 by the father/son team of Gary (guitar) and Greg Underwood (bass). The group which Bluegrass Unlimited magazine noted had “a style that accents crisp harmonies supported by precise instrumentation” features many original compositions. Whisper in the Wind, the title track of the band’s fourth release, was written by Greg Underwood on a napkin while the band stopped at a fast-food restaurant. 

The recording matches the lead vocals of Greg Underwood with harmony from Suzanne Cox, with Jay Loadholtz (banjo), Doug Knecht (mandolin) and Brad Kennedy (fiddles) as the other members of the band. 

From the Tony Trischka and Bill Keith schools of banjo playing, New Yorker Tom Hanway has two cuts, one the Reno-inspired Elephant Hop, for which Hanway blends Hindu and Celtic elements, and the Benny Goodman favorite Avalon, with former Grass Menagerie member Kirsten Osthus providing the vocal “(a first take).”

The first recording features some ‘charging’ solos from Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Stuart Duncan and David Grier, the second the very apt fiddle playing of Vassar Clements. 

Hanway remembers … 

“My debut banjo recording was Bucket of Bees, and two tracks made it onto the first Prime Cuts volume. I wrote Elephant Hop and Avalon is an old jazz standard I got from dad and Tony Trischka, who produced that session with Vassar just killing it. 

Much thanks to Tony, Sam Bush, Vassar Clements, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, David Grier, Bill Keith, Kenny Kosek, Kevin Maul, Barry Mitterhoff, Tony Trischka, Andrea Zonn, and so many fine pickers for helping me out when I was just getting started and writing my own tunes.  I am blessed to know them.”

Elephant Hop was voted #1 by bluegrass DJs. 

Expert luthier David Harvey (mandolin, baritone vocals) formed Wild & Blue in October 1988 after leaving Larry Sparks. He sought to use the extraordinary singing talents of his wife, Jan (guitar), and her sister Jill Snider (bass) who between them share the lead and tenor vocal duties on the two cuts – Larry Gatlin’s Help Me, and Jesus Will Take Care of it All by Sheryl Farris of the McKamey family – that are featured. They presented another fine example of sibling harmony. 

John Smith (banjo) makes up the quartet. 

From New Castle, Pennsylvania, Wes Homner is the son of a preacher, multi-instrumentalist and composer of Gospel songs, some of which have been recorded by Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, The Lewis Family, Southern Rail, among others. His recordings of Dividing Line and Sing Me to Sleep open and close this set.  

The former invokes Matthew 25:33 and Matthew 7:21-23 with two voices, that of God and a sinner (bass guitarist Jay Ed Moore and Homner (mandolin and guitar)) with Denny Jones (fiddle) and Jim Metz (banjo). 

John McEuen in the notes to his album String Wizards said this of the tune that he has on the CD … 

“One of the main on my life’s cake has to be the times that I’ve played with Earl. I asked him if he would like to play the banjo with me and he said, ‘sounds mighty fine.’ Scruggs wrote this [Carolina Traveler] and he plays it the way a singer sings. He likes that banjo to sound the way he hears it in his head. One take and it was over. I said, ‘Well, let’s do one more take;’ Earl said, ‘what’s wrong with that?’ It’s not often we get together, and I just wanted to play it again!” 

McEuen played frailing banjo with Scruggs picking in his own stylistic way, supported by Roy Husky Jr. (bass).

Breakaway from the Granite City, Illinois/St Louis, Missouri area was a new band at the time, consisting of “some new faces and old hands.” Their pleasing version of Frank Ray’s (Cedar Hill) False Hearted Love showcases the lead singing of Wayne Miles (guitar) with Jim Turner (mandolin) providing the tenor part and Bill Cross (banjo) adding baritone vocals, ably supported by Martin Chase (dobro), and Jerry Shreckengost (bass). Bill Casolari (fiddle) is a special guest. 

Another local/regional band that was represented was The Kentucky Bluegrass Band, featuring a quintet whose members – Marion E Higgs (mandolin, baritone vocals), Hargis Day (guitar), Steve Day (fiddle), Chris Geary (banjo) and David Dye (bass) – all grew up within 15 miles of Rosine. Not surprisingly, their contribution is hard-core bluegrass. 

Are You Thinking of Me? was penned by Higgs with nephew Steve singing lead and brother-in-law Hargis Day adding the high tenor part. 

Andy Owens is a transplanted sixth generation Kentuckian who lived in Texas at the time of the Andy Owens Project. Kerosene Circuit is the title track on his debut album and is one of the many then new songs written by “Owens’ fellow Texan compadre Steve Hartz.” It explores the touring life of bluegrass and string bands of the 1930s and 1940s as they performed at schoolhouses and in tent-shows that were lit by kerosene lanterns. 

Utilizing sidemen Sam Bush (fiddle and vocal harmony), Jerry Douglas (dobro), David Grier (guitar), and Mark Schatz (bass) with production and engineering by Bil Vorndick, this is a particularly strong performance. Owens sings lead as well as playing mandolin, while Wayland Patton adds another harmony voice … 

Bitter Memory is a bluesy Joel Hill song about a love gone wrong, a typical bluegrass subject, with Stuart Duncan (fiddle), Grier, Schatz, Jeff Scroggins (banjo) and accompanying Owens’ lead are Margaret Bailey and Terry Eldredge (harmony vocals).

Owens is full of praise for the track…

“My first solo CD project, Kerosene Circuit, was put out back in the days before social media, and Prime Cuts was a new and novel way to promote a recording project. I met Kirk and Becky through the IBMA and immediately trusted and loved them like family. The success of my song Kerosene Circuit, being six months on the Bluegrass Unlimited chart, was totally due to the great coverage of Prime Cuts of Bluegrass!!”

While over the years a considerable number of cuts were by lesser-known artists with self-released recordings, established labels, including Rebel Records, did make use of the service, with a couple of Lost & Found songs on this initial collection. 

The Ferrum, Virginia-based band – Allen Mills (bass, lead and tenor vocals), Barry Berrier (guitar, lead and baritone vocals), Lynwood Lunsford (banjo) and Dempsey Young (mandolin, tenor and baritone vocals) at this time – contributed a Randall Hylton-Kermit Teague original, Sawmill Road, and the Buck Owens’ song, Sweethearts in Heaven, that Reno & Smiley brought to bluegrass music with an April 1957 recording for Dot Records. 

Mills sings lead, Young (tenor) and Berrier (baritone) on Sawmill Road ….. 

Gary B Reid, working for Rebel at the time, recently made this observation ……  

“Prime Cuts of Bluegrass was an excellent service that aided in the distribution of new music to radio programmers. Kirk and Becky Brandenberger did a wonderful job of staying on top of who the spinners of the music were, and made sure that our music got there. Equally important was the feedback that they provided, including comments about the music from the DJs as well as which stations were making use of the tracks.”

Each issue was accompanied by an evaluation form 

KBC Music, Inc. issued 100 CDs, the last of which was released on July 15, 2009.  

Thereafter the Brandenbergers quit the business, which was eventually sold becoming New Cuts of Bluegrass. 

John Lawless wrote this summary at the time that their retirement was announced … 

Six times each year, a new volume of Prime Cuts has been delivered to hundreds of program directors and show hosts all over the world, with 12-15 tracks that the labels or artists have selected to highlight. They have helped countless new artists gain airplay, and figured in the promotion for most new releases by major bluegrass artists. 

During 1998 Prime Cuts of Bluegrass offered two CDs for sale to the public. 

In 2004 Kirk and Becky Brandenberger were recipients of an International Bluegrass Music Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award.


While the date, July 15, 1992, is generally recorded as the release date it is actually the date by which the first evaluation form was to be returned. 

Kirk Brandenberger, a well-recognised fiddle player, enlightens us … 

“I believe it was shipped on the 15th of June of 1992 (via media mail), with the thought of getting it into the DJ’s hands and beginning to get play by July 1st shows.”

He went on to add … 

“However, on the first volume we were green and didn’t know if there would be a Volume 2. The next one didn’t come out until December. Once we started rolling we were able to put one out every two months.  

The DJ’s were given one month from the ship date to get the evaluations back to us, then they were tallied and a final report went back to the artists and labels within the next two weeks.

So, one volume was completely out of the way before the next was shipped. It worked pretty well and thankfully we were able to keep on schedule. 

Thanks to Wayne Bledsoe and past Bluegrass Now magazines, we were able to figure some of this out. It was good to have that memory jogged.”

Further note: 

New Cuts of Bluegrass (owned by Jimmy Metts, based in Franklin, Tennessee) issued just four CDs. 

Any plans for digital downloads failed to materialise. 

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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.