Katy spent a good while on the phone recently with Alan Munde, surely among the most celebrated banjo players of his generation, to talk about his long career in bluegrass. In addition to being a trendsetter on the five string, Alan is also a consummate storyteller and his recollections of playing music on the road in the ’60s and ’70s are priceless.
KD: The other day I picked up a copy of the November 2016 Banjo NewsLetter, which was a birthday tribute to your 70th birthday. They had asked most of the contributors to say something nice about you and they all spoke about you in glowing terms. They talked about your talent and how you were a pioneer going between the Scruggs style and the melodic style. They also said you were a great educator and mentor and even more. I agree with all of it. I’d like to start at the beginning of the road that got you where you are today. So give me some feeling about your early years.
AM: I was born November 4, 1946 in Norman, Oklahoma. I grew up far from the center of bluegrass, which in my mind was the southeastern United States. A lot of the musical influences that I had, even before I got into bluegrass, was what was available in Oklahoma. That was country music and the part of country music called Western Swing. It was non-Eastern country music is how I think of it. It was Bob Wills, Hank Thompson, Lefty Frizzell, who’s from Texas, and the California contingent. We would get TV shows like Tennessee Ernie Ford or Rusty Draper, who was a California artist. Basically I would watch anything or listen to anything that had a guitar in it. I was about 14. That was my first instrument. Actually, my first instrument was the accordion but it didn’t last long.
My dad is originally from Providence, Rhode Island. He left there during the depression and hitchhiked out to Oklahoma because he had an uncle in the Army at Ft. Sill. He went up to Norman and got into the University of Oklahoma. He met my future mother there. She was Zelda Ogle from Shawnee, Oklahoma. I don’t know why but he liked the accordion. My oldest brother, Michael, who is 6 years older than I, played the accordion for a while. Then my youngest sister was encouraged by my dad to take up the accordion. This was back in the days when teachers would come to the house. The teacher was an OU student and I think her name was Nancy Carter. She’d been a runner up in the Miss Oklahoma contest, and accordion playing was her talent. After the lesson I would ask my sister what she learned and she would show me how to read the notes, how to press the keys and this and that. So I played accordion very early on. I think I was about 12. I guess unbeknownst to anybody, including myself, I had an interest in music. You know when you’re a kid it’s hard to know what’s going to light your fire. I played the accordion as long as my sister did. When she quit, I quit.
KD: When you say you would play the accordion, was that just around the house or did you go out and play with other people?
AM: No, no, no, no. I just played in her bedroom. That’s where she had it set up to practice She would show me what she had learned and I would go there to work on those things. When she quit I didn’t have enough sense to say I’m interested in this music thing, let me try it.
We had a record player and there were records albums around. If it were a symphony, it would have three or four 78s that lasted about 3 minutes. I remember listening to a collection of Strauss waltzes in that format. I don’t know where they came from. I don’t remember anybody else in the house listening to records. I knew I was interested in music in some fashion. In the late ‘50s and early ‘60s there was a folk music boom so I started seeing guitar players on TV. My oldest brother, Mike, had been away in the Navy, and when he came back he had a guitar and a record on how to play it. He got busy when he went to University of Oklahoma. The guitar and the record were laying around so I started listening to it. The record was Pete Seeger’s Folk Singer’s Guitar Guide. I learned as much as I could off that record.
My other brother, Jeffrey, was in high school and he had a friend who played guitar, Jimmy Stratiger. He would come over and play a little bit Chet Atkins style. Man! It would sound so good to me to have someone right in front of me playing the guitar. He would play and it would sound wonderful and then he would say, “This guitar is Sh**!” (laughter) I thought, “How could that be?” But now that I’ve played for a while, I know what he was talking about.
I would watch any TV show that had guitars. I spent all day Saturday watching country music shows. Some were local like Jude & Jody and the 301 Ranch Hands or something. The Mathis Brothers was another. The shows were almost always sponsored by furniture stores. I watched the Lawrence Welk Show because they always had a guitar player in the orchestra, who they would feature from time to time. Just as a footnote, years later when I got to Los Angeles, Byron Berline and I did a session for Walt Disney and all the other session players were Lawrence Welk musicians. The guitar player was Neal Levang. He was the one I watched on TV. I don’t remember speaking to him. All I remember is their sitting around telling Lawrence Welk stories. Wish I could remember them, but I don’t.
KD: What eventually got you out of the house to get a guitar lesson?
AM: I knew there were music stores in town so I looked in the Yellow Pages to find a store that was close enough to me that I could walk. The one I found was called Mike Richey Guitar Center. It was in the business center around the University of Oklahoma and an easy walk. I called and got an appointment for a lesson. It was one-half of a very small duplex. The living room had a small display case and some instruments hanging on the walls. In the very small kitchen setting on the stove was a small display rack of strings and picks. The lessons were given in the bedroom. Mike Richey was a University student and very much an entrepreneur and a very, very fine guitar player. He’d opened a music store in his apartment. That’s when I went out into the world and started hanging out and playing music with other people.
KD: Later on he dropped the name Mike and was known as Slim Richey. You remained friends until he died just a few years ago. What style did you say you wanted to learn?
AM: I didn’t even know enough to ask. I just wanted to play the guitar. He set me up with a teacher named Jim Kennedy. He said this was the Nick Manoloff method. I don’t know if anybody knows who he is any more. But in the ‘20s and ‘30s, he put together a series of instruction books and that’s what I worked on. I still have them and they’re ancient.
I learned to read notes and make simple chords, strum and whatnot. Then he would teach me contemporary songs that were popular at that time. The Kingston Trio’s version of Tom Dooley. I remember he taught me Under the Double Eagle and Wildwood Flower.
I tried to learn anything I could. I’m not very good at reading music but I still use it. Mike (Slim) moved his shop to a business front on Campus Corner. I would take lessons and hang out there and watch any guitar players that came through. Mike was a jazz guitarist. Around the corner from there was a little coffee house. It cost 25 cents to get in. I wish I could remember all their names but I can’t. Every once in a while they would have a duo that was guitar and banjo. I learned later that Pete Seeger was a banjo player. I got interested in the banjo from that. Plus my neighbor Gary McNabb, a playmate of mine, his father played guitar. I would go down there and he would play some. I’d known Gary since I was 5 or 6 years old and his dad was very, very stern and I was afraid of him. It seemed that once I knew he played guitar he softened up a great deal. Gary wanted to learn, too. At that point he seemed much more open, caring and giving.
Gary gave me an instrumental album which was Foggy Mountain Banjo by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
I knew I wanted to play like that. It sounded so miraculous to me. I couldn’t imagine how to do it. I would stare at the picture on the front, which was a painting. On his fingers, he had these picks and I thought, “Oh. He must do it that way.” I got a banjo. I saved up. Actually, I got it from my income tax refund. I worked as a car hop and soda jerk and whatever else I could. I delivered newspapers. I used my tax refund check to buy a banjo through Mike Richey’s Guitar Center. It was a Vega Ranger.
KD: How much did you pay for that banjo?
AM: I’m going to say $100 and it was the least expensive banjo they made. It had no resonator, no tone ring. Only dots for inlays. Just real simple, straight ahead. Neck, body and strings. I don’t have it any more. I gave it to the IBMM, the bluegrass music museum. Another Vega Ranger was given to me by Louis Kaplan. I play it and several other banjos I have sitting out every day.
I got a book on how to play it because nobody in Norman knew how to play it that I knew of. This Jim Kennedy (guitar teacher) looked at the books and tried to give me a lesson or two. I found Pete Seeger’s book on how to play the banjo. I learned what he called the basic strum and all the things that go with it – double thumbing, pull offs and hammer ons, slides and such—which I knew already from guitar. I got into frailing a little bit. I could do a little bit of that.
I found some friends who played folk music at Slim’s. Music stores used to be real important. I don’t know if they’re quite as important now. Before the internet the way to connect with people was at the music store, which was the center of the scene. I was hanging out there when Brian Neilson came in with a mandolin and Lynn Baroff, a guitar player. Pretty soon we were getting together to play music with other people. They had music that I didn’t have. They were into the New Lost City Ramblers, which was sort of an Old Time music recreation group. It featured the banjo, which was played in a fashion that I could recreate from time to time. We never really played out. I remember playing for a class party once.
Still all this time I’m looking for someone who could play this three-finger style. In Seeger’s book there’s a chapter on the three-finger style and tried to make out a little bit but I’m not real cool or into reading tablature that well. I could pick out Cripple Creek in my own fashion. Not in any official way. It just vaguely sounded like Cripple Creek.
I heard of a guy who lived in the area so I contacted him and arranged to take a lesson from him. My dad dropped me off one Saturday morning for my first lesson. I learned what a roll was. Basically he said to play with three fingers and divide the measure into 8 equally spaced notes. He showed me one roll, the forward-backward roll. The banjo pickers out there will know what that means. It’s a way to play Thumb, Index, Middle, Thumb. Middle, Index,Thumb, Middle.
As soon as he showed me that I said, “Oh! That’s how it all operates.” After that when I went back a second time I was playing songs, I’d figured out other rolls, started to hear them when I listened to Earl Scruggs on records. I’m not saying I got it all in a week because it took a long time. But I sort of had an inkling of how it was all possible.
KD: So he gave you the key to unlock the mystery of Scruggs style playing?
AM: Which is just that. It’s 8 equally spaced notes and you have to make your three fingers come out in patterns of 8. When I went back the next time for a lesson, it was my last lesson on the banjo. I could already play guitar and I could hear melodies and I could pick out stuff. Fact is he kind of ran me off in a way.
KD: What do you mean?
AM: Oh, you know, it’s really easy to hurt the feelings of a very young enthusiast.
KD: What did he say to your tender heart?
AM: You know it’s so funny. Here I am 70 years old and I still remember this. He had a “real” banjo. I just had a …
KD: …a starter.
AM: A Vega Ranger. But he had a Gibson Mastertone. I remember it was a RB-250 Flathead with the bowtie inlays. After the lesson I had to wait for my dad. I’ll say it was another hour. He’s allowed me to play on his banjo, so I’m playing. I’m sure it was very irritating and he said, “Why don’t you put it down.” He made some comment which meant: “I’m tired of hearing you so why don’t you put it up?” You know, all I wanted to do was play the damn thing. I understood and I put it up. I appreciated playing it. Ever since then when people play, I try never to tell them to stop. No matter what, even if they’re out of tune or anything. I’m always go the extra mile for them because I know what it means.
KD: I know how you feel because whenever I play the banjo my husband always says, “Can’t you wait til I’m in the shower?” (laughter) So I know what you mean. So after that you’re home, you’ve got your Vega practicing doing those rolls. What’s the next step?
AM: I needed another banjo. There’s an old WC Fields movie called The Fatal Glass of Beer. Once you’ve tasted beer, you can’t un-taste it, is the essence of the story. The guy had his fatal glass of beer and became an alcoholic. It was like that for me on the banjo. As soon as I played somebody’s “for real” banjo…I’ve mentioned this to you before. You can’t just have your banjo and be satisfied with it. There’s always that “next thing.” I had to have a better banjo.
So I saved up my money and also my grandmother, my father’s mother, loaned me some money. I paid her back. Once again I bought one from Slim Richey. This time it’s a put-together affair, which I think is called an RB-11. It’s a Gibson banjo that doesn’t have tone ring but it has a little brass hoop. It has a resonator on it that has plastic on the back in a stenciled design. People were making reproductions of that sort of design nowadays. It was a better banjo. I used it for quite a while.
When I go to college, I’m still playing with Brian and Len. There’s an event at college in the early ‘60s. It’s a folk music thing and it’s still going. It was for people who played guitars and sang songs. There was an event called “Friday at Four.” Amateur students would audition and get featured at the event. I would go sit in the audience because they had guitar players that I would watch and try to learn something.
Len, Brian and I auditioned and went and played. I should also mention that another group that had recorded, and I was really interested in the ‘60s, were the Dillards. They had recorded an album with a fiddle player named Byron Berline, who was a student at University of Oklahoma. I didn’t know him but I knew he was around there somewhere. So we’re playing at the Friday at Four and we play a tune called Hamilton County Breakdown, which is the very first cut on the Dillards’ record with Byron, called Pickin’ and Fiddlin’. Unbeknownst to us Byron would sometime frequent the event. He came by and heard us play. He didn’t stop or say anything but eventually I met him at Mike Richey’s Guitar Center. He came in there and recognized me and asked me to play some. We started buddying around .
At that time he was on a country music TV show in Oklahoma City, which featured a banjo player named Eddie Shelton. For me, Eddie was a really fine banjo player in a lot of ways. He could be rough sounding to a certain extent. But what he played to the ear of someone at my level was certainly sophisticated, more knowledgeable and much hipper than what I was playing. He was from Tennessee originally, but grew up in Texas. He worked for the National Cash Register Company and they would move him around. From time to time they would send him back East for training in Dayton, Ohio. He would tell me about seeing the Osborne Brothers, Jim & Jesse, or Bill Monroe. He played with Dorsey Harvey who’s David Harvey’s dad. David Harvey is a great mandolin player and works for Gibson.
So Eddie was one of my conduits to the real world of bluegrass. Also, Byron had been to the Newport Folk Festival and met Bill Monroe and Bill Keith. He had acquired tapes of the Kentucky Colonels and Bill Monroe shows. We would sit in his dorm room. He was an athlete, and for a while, he lived in the athlete’s dorm. That was how I started to get into the thick of what was bluegrass.
KD: This takes me back to today with people using the internet, YouTube and videos might not have the thirst we had to have and the lengths we had to go to find the music or bump into people who also liked it. It wasn’t a community at that point. I can really picture you two listening to tapes because many of us did that kind of thing in our search for Holy Grail that was bluegrass.
AM: Oh yeah. I remember riding with Byron in his car. We would be somewhere on Friday or Saturday night. We would turn on the Grand Ole Opry in hopes Bill Monroe or whoever would be on. I remember one time we lost the radio signal so we turned around and drove back to where we could pick it up again.
I guess one reason gold is so valuable is that it’s hard to find. If you could go in your backyard and turn on your water hose and gold came out of it, you wouldn’t think much of gold, would you? That’s kind of how it was. Bluegrass was really hard to find. When you found it, you clung to it and did everything you could to find more of it. I think the internet is great. I can go on there and find a lot of stuff. I remember seeing one of the history of bluegrass videos on which Mac Wiseman said he got a guitar, but it was a year before he could find anyone to tune it. It wasn’t that bad for me.
I remember when I worked for Jimmy Martin, he would talk about walking great distances to find somebody to show him chords on the guitar. It makes the music, for me anyway, really, really important. I would hope the players of today can come up with that same feeling of importance about what they’re doing.
KD: There were a few small groups that you and Byron played with. The Stone Mountain Boys? Who was in that group. You were sort of big fish in a small pond.
AM: Yes, it was a real small pond, just a shallow spot in the earth. Eddie was from Dallas and he had friends who played music down there. The main one was Mitchell Land, a mandolin player. He and other players would make a weekend trip up to play music with Eddie. Byron would go and he would invite me. I didn’t play too much; only a tune or two. Mostly I sat and listened. That was cool for me.
Eddie moved back to Dallas and sometimes I would take the bus down there to play. Mitchell had a brother named Lewis, but Bosco was what they called hm. He played guitar. Once again, we played just around the house.
One time I missed the bus home. Eddie had driven me to the station so he headed out on the highway and caught up with the bus. He pulled up next to the bus and waved him off to the side and the bus driver pulled over! I got on the bus, bought my ticket and rode home. It was a different time. I don’t know if they would do that now.
I look on Eddie as my mentor. I was an apprentice. That’s sort of an older view of how you got educated. You apprenticed yourself with a master bricklayer, shoemaker or whatever. You signed on for 7 years until you were done and joined the guild and then become a master. That was sort of how that went with Eddie. When he was in Oklahoma City, he would just come get me. One time he had a friend from Tulsa who came down and wanted to play music. We played all night. I mean literally we played all night. Finally we just went to sleep on a cot out in the garage. When I got up the next morning the guitar player was gone. Eddie said he left because he didn’t need any more banjo lessons. Eddie would play something, and I’d stop him and ask questions, and he would show me.
Another thing that Eddie could do was he could sing the main theme of his banjo solo. Not the rolls and all, just the main theme. What it did for me was develop a sense that there’s a melody buried in all these notes. Eddie’s singing would highlight that for me. When you play you want to have that main theme survive all those notes.
What I’m describing are the rare little times you find the diamond buried in the mud. The rest of the time the music I heard was pop, country and western swing on the radio. I would also go out and play with other people who played other types of music. There was a hairdresser in Norman that I would get together with and play. She played electric piano and did songs like Bubbles in My Beer and San Antonio Rose. They didn’t say, “Oh the banjo is bluegrass.” To them the banjo was just another instrument of country music.
One of my few music gigs when I was in college was with a jazz guitarist named Doyle Salatheil. He came from a Greek family. He played in New York City in the ‘40s with all the great jazz players of the era. He was living in Norman. He had a brother who went by the name Merle Lindsay. He was a big-shot band leader there in Central Oklahoma who had a dance hall named LindsayLand.
This Doyle Salatheil had a barbeque joint there in Norman. He wanted music every day. I went there and played music with whoever else he had hired. It was usually a guy who sang and played guitar. Lots of country music: Six Pack to Go was one I remember doing, which was a Hank Thompson song. Doyle would come up and have a music contest. He would play a jazz chordal version of some popular song and if you could guess it you won a pitcher of beer. Nobody ever got it because his idea of songs was more mature and sophisticated.
So I was around different kinds of music. I also belonged to the Columbia Record Club because I liked musicals like My Fair Lady. Looking back on all of it, I’m attracted to beautiful melodies and lush chords. That’s how I think of it. Not bluegrass but I liked it.
KD: You certainly were an ear opener for me in that you had all these different styles and influences. Like the song Sabrosa. I wasn’t going to hear that from an East Coast band. There were geographic influences and different songwriters that weren’t played in the Mid-Atlantic and it made for interesting listening. Let me ask a technical question. Playing different styles with all these different people, what is changing at this point about your playing?
AM: My approach to music never changed. When I was in Nashville playing for Jimmy Martin, I focused on what he wanted, which is how it should have been. But my musical interests have always been wide. At the time, bluegrass and country music was pretty much a three chord music. If you were in the Key of G, you played G, C and D. If you played in D, it was D, G and A. But your Western Swing and Bob Wills’ stuff, was influenced by early jazz players like Benny Goodman and Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grapelli. I couldn’t do the soloing part but what stuck with me was the harmonic richness of it. That’s what I think I picked up on — the richness of the chords.
One time when I was with Jimmy Martin we played in Hugo, Oklahoma. There was a guy there who was well known in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s and he’d been on satellite radio for a while named Bill Mack. He was at WBAP and it sort of competed with WSM. It was one of those clear channel stations. WBAP out of Ft Worth was all over the southern part of the United States. They used to play the Texas Rangers games and I’d listen to them coming back from Nashville. He was the truck drivers’ DJ at night and he wrote a song called Drinking Champagne Feeling No Pain. Somebody had a big hit on that song. He had been hired to come up and be the announcer and he wanted to do that song with the band. If it were in C it would have been C to C major 7th to C6th then maybe to D minor then on to G7 and back to D minor. It was a little more involved than three chords. Here he is in front of Jimmy Martin’s band. I played what I thought was appropriate chords and afterwards Jimmy congratulated me on being able to do that. He said that’s the kind of musicians I want to have, not that I do that but I want other people to know that you can do that. But I don’t want you to do that behind me.
KD: Let’s talk a little bit about Jimmy Martin. It must have been tough to follow the banjo players he had. They had set the bar pretty high and he made everybody else hop over it.
AM: Once again this is music and musicians of a different era. If you wanted to be in bluegrass as a banjo player, and you looked around and ask what bands hire banjo players, it was Bill Monroe, Jim & Jesse, the Osborne Brothers did not need a banjo player, Flatt and Scruggs did not need a banjo player, Reno & Smiley didn’t need one, and Jimmy Martin did. Bill Monroe, Jim & Jesse and the Osborne Brothers were the only ones I knew of growing up in Oklahoma. The thought of my putting a band together and going out on the road wouldn’t have entered my mind.
I went to Nashville with some guys from Norman to go to the DJ convention in 1969. I had heard through Sam Bush and Wayne Stewart that there was going to be some bluegrass picking at the Noel Hotel, which was just a block from the Grand Ole Opry House, and apparently a place where a lot of musicians stayed. Tut Taylor was responsible for this party. On the 3rd floor it was wide open, like the current IBMA FanFest and Trade Show. You go up to a floor, all the doors are open and there’s musicians all over the place.
It was there that I met Vassar Clements. He and I, Sam Bush and Wayne Stewart jammed there for quite a while. For me that was really outstanding. I met Al Osteen who was playing with Jim and Jesse. He told me that Chris Warner was leaving Jimmy Martin and asked if I was interested in being in that band. Why not? That’s what I want to do. Al introduced me to Jimmy, who said he’d come back the next night and give me a try out. He and Gloria came back the next night and I think Doyle Lawson, too. They auditioned me. He said I’m leaving next weekend and we’ll get started.
I went home to Norman. By then I had a car – a 1960 Buick LaSabre, it was like a yacht – drove back to Nashville and got in touch with Jimmy. We left on Friday night at midnight.
The whole time I was with Jimmy, when we would head out on a trip, we would always leave at midnight. I think for a lot of people that’s the worst time to leave. Can’t sleep before you go. You leave and you’re tired. It was always kind of rough. It was me, Jimmy, Doyle Lawson, Vernon Derrick, and Gloria Belle. We drove in Jimmy’s 1949 Flexible Bus up to Hamilton, Ohio. I remember a couple of things about that first trip. I’m a big baseball fan. We drove through Cincinnati early in the morning. The road was elevated for some portion and I could see Crosley Field, where the Cincinnati Reds played. I could see between the levels of the stadium. There it is! Crosley Field. I love it. We went on and played that night. The first Jimmy Martin show I ever saw, I was in. I’d certainly heard his recordings but I’d never seen him.
KD: Between your audition and leaving at midnight about a week later, had you worked out any business details? Do you mind sharing what your salary was?
AM: I’ll certainly do that. I had no earthly idea what my business arrangements were. He never said a word to me and I never cared. It’s so funny as I think back on that whole time I was with Jimmy. Money. I needed it but it was the last thing I thought of. He paid, I think, the union rate which at that time was $35 a show. He was supposed to, I learned later, pay a per diem for meals and stuff like that. But he never did. He did provide rooms. I think the whole time I was with him it was $35. That was it. So if you left at midnight on Friday and you drove to Hamilton, Ohio and got a room later in the day so he would only have to pay for one night’s room. You played the show and the next morning you got up and came back Sunday. You’re back late Sunday night. You got $35. Every trip was like that. And that’s how it was. If we sold records he would give us 10% of what you sold. You could make a few extra dollars. Back then you would put the selection of records under your arms and you would walk through the audience hawking the records.
KD: Sort of like the peanut man at the ball game. You know Doyle Lawson told me once that the concept of the merch table was introduced to bluegrass by the Lewis Family. He must have been hawking records for Jimmy, too. He told me he looked over, and there were the Lewis ladies sitting at a table and people were coming to them. Other bluegrass bands saw how smart that was and that was the start of the merch table.
AM: It very well may have come from that. They would be the ones. They had the system down. At festivals we would have a merch table. I found a used record rack at some store and bought it for him. I stayed from October 1969 to October 1971 so it was almost exactly 2 years.
KD: Where did you live on a $35 a show salary?
AM: Gloria Belle and I lived at the same boarding house near Old Hickory in a little area called Rayon City. I think it had originally been the company town of a DuPont Chemical plant. I lived on Rayon Drive in Rayon City. All the street names were related to the DuPont plant somehow. A room there cost me $40 a month. That was just for the lodging. The lady who owned it was Mrs. McDonald and her husband. They were in their 50s or 60s, and were from Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee. She was not supposed to feed me. I would come downstairs and she would feed me, even though I didn’t pay her just because she wanted company. She would tell me these stories like Linda has taken up with Bob, but Bob is still married to Alice. I finally asked her if these people were her family members. And she would say, No, no, no. This is the TV. She was watching those soap operas and was just really into them.
KD: What made you leave?
AM: A lot of it had to do with $35 a show. I didn’t have any money to do anything. I had a really great time and so much of it was with no money at all. Literally, no money. In Nashville there was a place called Bobby Green’s Dusty Road Tavern, which had bluegrass picking. I was just a single guy so I was looking for some socializing. I would go down there knowing that I didn’t have enough gas to get home. I didn’t have the money to buy gas at 33 cents a gallon. I would take a set of strings that I had and hopefully be able to sell it to somebody there in order to get $1.50 for gas to get back to where I lived.
After working with Jimmy for a while I was disappointed that we didn’t work more than we did. I can’t remember how many dates we did but there never was enough. I think he had made a fair amount of money earlier in his career while his wife Barbara was booking him, but they were split when I was with him. His booking agent during my time was the Buddy Lee Agency. Hank Williams Jr. was his star act for a number of the package shows he booked. I think Jimmy was hoping that every package show that Buddy Lee booked, he would be on as the bluegrass act offering some diversity. Also, he thought that being with Buddy Lee would help his chances of getting on the Opry as a regular. We played it several times as guests during my stint with him, but as most people know, he never made it as a regular. It was a big disappointment for him all the way till the end.
Although Jimmy paid the $35 a day, a union minimum, we just didn’t work enough to ever get ahead money-wise. I worked other jobs – substitute teacher, painting, pumping gas, and a few pick-up music gigs. I think my total income each year I was with him was just over $2,000 (including other jobs) which translates to around $13,000 in current dollars. Although I was too naive to have worried about the lack of money, I slowly came around to realizing it was not going to work for me. I enjoyed the challenge of the music making he required, but just couldn’t make it on that little bit of money.
KD: Before we get too far down the road. I skipped over a big part of your story. Let’s talk about when you moved to Kentucky to play with Wayne Stewart and Sam Bush.
AM: There’s a guy in Lubbock named Junior Vasquez and he was telling his story like I’m telling mine. He would say, I met so and so, and that lead to meeting so and so. Finally he said, it’s just that one thing lead to another. As I tell this to you, that’s exactly how it is. They talk about networking and it’s so vital to everybody’s story. Mine is no different in that sense.
But back to the story. This is ’67 or ‘68, I think. There’s a festival in Mountain View, Arkansas and I think it’s called the Arkansas Folk Festival. When a friend and I got there, I got out my banjo and start playing. People come up and start playing. I find out one of them was Courtney Johnson, a banjo player from around Bowling Green, Kentucky.
I was playing some fiddle tunes in what then was seemingly the rage — Bill Keith style of Devil’s Dream and songs like that. I had worked up some on my own. Courtney recognized it for what it was, and was real interested. He was there with a group from Kentucky. We played all weekend and when he went back home he told Wayne Stewart and Sam Bush that he had met this banjo player from Oklahoma who played this new, modern way.
KD: What was that called at that time? Was it called melodic or chromatic or what?
AM: I don’t really recall but I’ll say melodic. So anyway, I got a phone call from Wayne Stewart. He says he’s going to California and heard I was a player, could we get together and play? So he stops by my parents’ house and we sit and play. He actually spends the night and leaves the next day. Rather than going out to California, he goes back to Kentucky. He called me again and says, there’s a really great player here named Sam Bush. We’re getting a group together. Would you be interested in playing banjo? I was still in college and I would have to wait til I graduate. In the meantime, Sam is a really great musician.
KD: And he’s really young at that time, right?
AM: I think he’s 14 or 15. He’s already won the Junior National Fiddle Championship up in Weiser, Idaho. He met Byron up there. There’s a fiddle contest in Liberty, Missouri, which is near Kansas City. I was good friends with Byron’s dad, Lou Berline. I would go with him to fiddle contests. Somehow or other I connected up with Lou and we went to Liberty, Missouri and met Wayne and Sam there. This was ’67 or ’68, somewhere in there. We spent the whole weekend playing music together, had a great time and cooked up this idea about forming a group, which will be called Poor Richard’s Almanac. Wayne is probably 2-3 years older than I am. Sam is 5-6 years younger. I finish up at school and move to Bowling Green, Kentucky after I graduate in ’69.
I’m not there hardly anytime at all before I get my draft notice. This is right in the thick of the Vietnam War. I have to report so I don’t have much time in Bowling Green. We recorded sort of a keepsake on one hand and on the other, in our naïve way, something we hope might appear on an album. We recorded a bunch of tunes that ultimately appears as Poor Richard’s Almanac.
KD: You did that in Wayne Stewart’s garage with blankets nailed up on the walls…
AM: That’s absolutely right. Wayne is from Hopkinsville, KY. His mother had a little bit of money. They owned a big house on Main Street. It was the only house on Main Street that had a Rural Mailbox because it was so far back from the street to the house. Back behind the house was the servants’ housing, which was unoccupied. That’s where Wayne and I were staying. We did tack up quilts because somehow we knew that’s what we were supposed to do. We only had a little reel-to-reel tape recorder. I don’t know what kind. Whatever was the standard of the day. We recorded these tunes. The sound of them is pretty weak but the playing is pretty interesting. That’s early ’69.
We recorded Molly Bloom, which is a tune that I wrote kind of in the melodic style and a tune Sam wrote called Poor Richard’s Blues. Also some other fiddle tunes. I’d have to go back and check to see what all’s on there. We recorded it all over the weekend. Prior to that, I always thought this was funny, we had made a little recording. Probably on that same reel-to-reel but we didn’t have quilts tacked up. We fiddled around to try to get somebody interested in recording us. There weren’t that many record labels at the time. I think we sent one to Dave Freeman, County Records. I don’t think he ever responded. One company was Uncle Jim O’Neal. He had a label called Rural Rhythm. When I went out to California, I actually met him and he was a real character. Rural Rhythm label is still around to this day run by Sam Passamano.
KD: They’ve relocated to the Nashville area.
AM: He worked for this Uncle Jim O’Neal so he knows this. I visited with him and he agreed that Uncle Jim was a real character. Anyway, we sent him a tape and he wrote back and he said, “How dare you! This is obviously professional musicians. How dare you try to pass this off. This is way too good. This can’t be. You can’t be this good.” As if we plagiarized it. We thought that was real funny. So we did it ourselves and ultimately connected with a company called American Heritage Records, which was put together to record fiddle players. Lonnie Pierce was a fiddle player that Sam and Wayne knew, who started the Bluegrass Alliance. He put in a good word for us and got it eventually published.
KD: Has it been re-issued?
AM: Slim Richey had a label called Ridge Runner. He re-issued it many years ago. The tapes are long dust. They don’t exist.
KD: So you said this was about the time you got your draft notice.
AM: I go back to Norman and ultimately they turned me down because my blood pressure was too high. I was overweight. I was a real chunky kid. They turned me down, which was a wonderful day in my life. I remember sitting there with a Navy doctor. I looked over at the page. One side said “Physically Fit” and the other side said “Physically Unfit.” When he circled “Physically Unfit” I was sorry I had that medical condition that lead to problems later on. If I had been drafted, you would be talking to a dead man because I wouldn’t have survived basic training.
KD: I think something that happened the night before your physical might have had something to do with your being rejected.
AM: I’m glad you reminded me. Living there in Norman, I was playing with whoever I could play with. There was a gentleman named Carl Sossman. Now there’s a Sauceman who had some renown in the history of bluegrass. His name was spelled Sauceman, like a sauce. But this man’s name is Sossman. He and his family did Gospel music. He was a really great guy and I still see him from time to time.
My last day before I had to go get my physical, they wanted me to play at a church with them. We went and played music and then they had prayer offerings for people who were sick or having problems. Carl goes up there and says, “I would like to offer up a prayer for this young man playing the banjo. He’s going to the Army tomorrow. I’d like for us to pray that they find something wrong with him. Nothing deadly, just something wrong so he doesn’t have to go.” They offered up a prayer for me and sure enough, who am I to say?
KD: So you came back home rejected, but not dejected. What did you do then?
AM: I needed a job. I didn’t have any money. That’s sort of a theme here.
KD: You graduated from University of Oklahoma. What’s your degree?
AM: I have a degree in Education, secondary Social Studies. It’s what I was trained in but I knew when I did my student teaching that I wouldn’t mind being a teacher, but I was just way too young and that I didn’t know anything. My whole life I’m always behind. I should have been more mature than I was each step of the way. I realized I was too naïve to be a school teacher.
Anyway, I needed money so I went out and applied for jobs around town. I got two jobs because one was during the day and the other was at night so I could do them both. The daytime job was to this day was one of the best jobs I ever had. I loved it. I was a shipping clerk at the OU press. We got a 15 minute break in the morning and a 15 minute break in the afternoon and I would sit on my desk and read whatever was in front of me. Gunfighters, Myth and Reality. I’ve still got it here somewhere. I’m looking. Frontier Justice. They did a lot of Western stuff. The XIT Ranch. Matador Land and Cattle Company. I just read them all in little 15 minute spurts. Charles Goodnight’s biography. They did a lot of South American archeology books, too. I didn’t read those so much. There it is… Frontier Justice. There’s my XIT Ranch book. I see that I still have that. Here’s a really good one I still have: The Texas Republic, a Social and Economic History.
I loved the building it was in. The whole side of the building was windows and I had a good view of things so it was really, really good. Then, in the evenings I was a janitor at John Roberts class ring factory in Norman, Oklahoma. I was there all by myself and I would sweep up stuff, vacuum and whatever else they told me. At both jobs I made a nickle above minimum wage, $1.50 an hour. I went to work at 8:00 or 8:30 in the morning and got off at midnight.
KD: And making more than working with Jimmy Martin.
AM: Probably so. I heard there was an opening for a banjo player at Shakey’s Pizza in Oklahoma City. Here’s the cool part of it all. I went up there and auditioned and got the job. They had a piano player and a banjo player and a screen where they would show the words to songs and people would sing along. It was a Dixieland-ish kind of thing.
KD: I know it’s true but looking back it seems impossible that all over the country we were singing along as we ate our pizzas.
AM: They had big long picnic tables so everyone sat together. Anyway, I went up there and auditioned. As I would play I would mute my 5th string and strum with my thumbpick like a Dixieland kind of banjo player. The guy who played the piano was younger than me. He was only 18 or 19. According to him, he had run away from home. He was a great piano player. He would come down to Shakey’s during the day. They had a player piano. He would put money in the player piano and watch the keys and listen to the song. He was able to somewhat reproduce that. Sometimes those player rolls play things that are impossible because they’re mechanical. He would get the essence of it and he would play it.
KD: Sort of his version of slowing down the 33-1/3.
AM: We would also use fake books. They were books that were illegally issued, no royalties paid. They would be a melody line, chord symbols written above a verse and a chorus. Somebody could request a song. We didn’t know it but he could open the page and read the melody and chords, yell them to me as we were playing. It was really good. To this day I’m still really impressed. The thing about that job was it was a 5-hour shift, maybe 5:00 to 10:00 p.m. and it paid $5 an hour. Minimum wage was $1.50. Little did I know at the time was that was the best job in music that I ever had! (laughter)
KD: Well, ignorance is bliss. So you stayed with music, huh?
AM: Yes. I thought, “Man! This music business is really good!” It got that money because of the Musicians Union. That was the deal. When we talk about unions, and I understand many of the problems the unions have and the bad name they get, but they have an upside, too.
KD: At this point are you still using your second banjo?
AM: Let me think. I think I had by then bought an even better banjo. It was still just a bunch of parts. I bought it from a guy named Doc Hamilton who I met in Texas when I would go down and play ..
KD: Doc Hamilton as in Doc’s Riverboat Reel?
AM: Yes, yes. Doc is a really fine musician. Sometimes photographs of his show up on Facebook. Pictures of classic moments. He went to a lot of events and took pictures. It was a little more authentic and had a tone ring and was a little better. It was the banjo I was using on the first recordings I did with Jimmy Martin. I think Poor Richard’s Almanac was with that banjo, too.
KD: I’ve heard banjo players referred to as the hot-rodders of bluegrass because the instrument can come apart and have other replacements put back in. That seems to be a main conversation with banjo players. What’s the tone ring? Is it a flattop or archtop? Things like that.
AM: The other instruments are glued together so they’re much hard to re-arrange where the banjo’s components are bolted together so it’s pretty easy to swap things out. I never owned in my entire life an original Gibson. There’s always been pieces and parts. Just a point of this, when I was with Jimmy, I had dropped the same banjo we’re talking about and broken the resonator. Some of the laminations came apart and some of the side broke out. I had taken it to Randy Wood in Nashville and asked him to put it back together, he asked how I wanted it to look. I said I don’t have much money. He said he could glue it all back together and he just glued the pieces back in. It was pretty rough looking. I sold that banjo to Bill Holden or maybe it was that Bill Holden wound up with it eventually. He changed things around.
One day I was in George Gruhn’s shop in Nashville years later and he said, “I’ve gotten a banjo in and I was told it was your banjo. Can you take a look at it and confirm that? It had a different neck and it was now an archtop. The only thing that was left was that resonator that was broken. I think that’s why experts like Charlie Cushman and Jim Mills have arisen, people who can recognize all the parts. Some people will say “this is a 1935 Gibson” and then pause “but it’s got a Huber tone ring”. All my banjos are Stelling and they’re all original.
KD: You told me a story about a student who asked to play a banjo. He played to a few minutes and when he handed it back he said, “It sounds like mine.”
AM: Where that story comes from is from the time I was with Jimmy Martin. We played a festival where JD Crowe was also playing. He had just come off stage. JD is he guy that everybody holds up as the ideal in tone and everything. He’s way, way up there. Some kid came over and asked if he could play JD’s banjo and JD said go ahead. He took it off for 10 minutes and when he brought it back he said, “it sounds a lot like mine.” I always thought that was the perfect illustration of how much the player adds to the instrument. It is preferable to have a good instrument but you still have to play it and bring up the sound of it the best you can.
KD: We started out this conversation talking about that November 2016 Banjo NewsLetter birthday tribute to you. Almost all of them talked about your playing melodic with drive, which a lot of people thought wasn’t possible until you did it. How is your style evolving?
AM: I think on Poor Richard’s Almanac, it was pretty good. I can listen to that and not be real embarrassed. But I can see some shallow spots in my playing. Things that I could have done better. When I went to work with Jimmy, what the banjo was in his band, I think was a harmonic drummer. He wanted this certain timing. You played chords and notes rather than percussive stuff. It had to have a certain timing and a certain clarity. A certain kind of attack with your roll. For me a lot of time when he would complain about my playing I would always identify the right hand, you know the roll, but since I’ve gotten away from it I think a lot has to do with the left hand. He would talk about it but I never quite got it. If you’re playing a series of straight eighth notes, the only thing you can do to change that, if that’s where you are, is what you do with your left hand. If you put your finger down on a string in a certain part of that roll, there’s got to be a reason you put your finger down to have that note at that spot come out. If you’re playing all the notes with your right hand and you’re playing at a pretty good clip, it’s hard to make your right hand do much more than what it’s already doing.
He would talk about making notes either quick or lazy. So quick would mean if you were doing a hammer-on to make it really pronounced and really quick. There’s an episode in one of the videos of him trying to coach a fiddle player who was playing Fire on the Mountain. That’s what he’s saying to him: “No, that’s too slow. It needs to be quick. You need to make that note quick.” In his mind, and I think ultimately as a banjo player, I think I can illustrate it. But when I was with him I don’t think I could.
On slides it’s either quick or you can do it a little slower. So with him in the context of these equally spaced notes, put your fingers down some of them go down quick and some of them go slow. The other thing is that you can articulate the notes, have them stand out more if you if you put your finger down on the string and hold it down for as long as you can before you have to take it off, you get one kind of sound. If you put it down and let it up before you have to you get a different kind of sound.
When we speak or sing, we divide sounds into syllables. You do that by shutting down certain sounds so there are short sounds and long sounds. If you do that on your instrument even though you’re playing all these eighth notes, certain ones of those notes that you want sort of stand out a little bit more. Those become the syllables of the words. When you’re playing a melody on the banjo, you’re not just playing the notes of the melody, you’re also playing short and long sounds that are controlled by the amount of pressure of the fingers of your left hand. So you hold down and leave it, or let it up. I can demonstrate it but that’s the best I can describe it. If you have a string of eighth notes in a line, it makes certain ones of those stand out.
Jimmy might use the word punch. When Jimmy said punch, I would think the right hand but really it was the left hand. Just doing a kick-off to a song he would say the timing’s not right. I would once again look at my right hand and wonder how can that be, there is no more. I should have directed my attention to the left hand. He would talk about JD Crowe and Bill Emerson. Of the two, when he was with Jimmy, I think Bill Emerson played more like Jimmy directed. Or it was my sense of what Jimmy directed. Bill really caught on to it.
If you listen to the tune Sweet Dixie with Bill Emerson on the banjo, he plays a lot of notes that are fore-shortened. They’re staccato. If he had left them long, it wouldn’t sound as interesting. If you shorten them in the right way, it’s really wonderful. It makes all the difference in the world. It’s more syllable-ized. I think that’s one thing that ultimately I got from Jimmy. I watch Earl Scruggs doing it on old videos. You can see him shorten the note. He lifts his finger where there was plenty of time for him to leave it down longer than he did. But he doesn’t; he shortens it. It makes the music more syllable-ized.
I think ultimately that’s one thing I got from Jimmy. He didn’t just want everything quickened. I think a lot of banjo players have gotten that. I hear them on the radio. They’ve got the rolls down real well and the melodies really pop out. I think it’s really taken hold where it wasn’t that obvious early on.
I didn’t get it when I was with him, I don’t think. One difference between my playing on Poor Richard’s Almanac and when I was with Jimmy Martin is my roll is more solid and more even and things are quicker.
KD: Does that come from there being plenty of bluegrass-based college-level education now? You were involved for over 20 years with one of the firsts, South Plains College in Levelland, Texas.
AM: I would think it’s made a difference. I know East Tennessee State has one and there’s one in Kentucky where Raymond McLean is at and there are others. Berklee now has that. I do think that there’s more thoughtful attention to playing the banjo with a nuanced approach to it. That’s made a difference. There’s also a lot more examples now.
Early on Earl Scruggs was the best at it. When he played Blue Ridge Cabin Home you really got a sense of what the melody was. It wasn’t just a rat-a-tat-tat of eighth notes. He had a real syllable-ized way of playing. If you have straight eighth notes going on the whole time, it would be like if you had a tongue that just wagged up and down in rhythm (chuckle) and you had to form the words by closing your lips and the entire time your tongue is going in an eighth note rhythm. If you had this one sound and you had to form words by clipping them and letting some of the sounds go long and some go short, then you’d have an idea of having to do that on the banjo in the traditional approach.
With Jimmy Martin’s music he wanted the roll going all the time. My favorite two recordings of Jimmy Martin’s for banjo playing are both JD. They are I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes and John Henry. Both recorded in the same session and really fine examples of what I’m talking about.
KD: I remember the first time ever hearing about the Country Gazette. I was at a dinner party and they were selecting music to play during dinner. Someone held up an album and asked if I had ever listened to it. It was Traitor in Our Midst. I replied, what is that? They said it was bluegrass. THAT album is bluegrass?? (chuckle) The album cover itself was an astonishing wonderfulness. Is that a word? For me, one of the most influential groups I ever heard was the Country Gazette.
AM: When I was with Jimmy, and was getting ready to quit, I won’t say it was a dead end but it was kind of for me. I would always be Jimmy Martin’s banjo player making $35 a show. I suppose it’s the same reason any of them quit. There was nowhere to go. Financially and musically to a certain extent. All the songs would be put through the crucible of Jimmy Martin’s mind.
When I was with him we recorded a song called Chattanooga Dog. It’s a Tom T. Hall song. The song doesn’t go like Jimmy did it. The melody that Jimmy sang was John Henry. The melody of Chattanooga Dog that Tom T. Hall wrote is something else. I can’t remember what it is but it is not that. But when Jimmy sang it, that’s what fell out. He thought it sounded cool and he just kept that. Everything he did he just pushed it though personal style.
I love his music. I was listening to it just this morning because I love to hear Bill Emerson, JD, Chris Warner, Mike Miller and all those banjo players. I loved the style and I loved Jimmy’s singing. I loved the tightness of it and how professional the presentation was. But if I had been with him 20 years it would have been the same thing. I wanted to do something different, so I quit.
I had written to Byron Berlin and said if there was anything going on in California, let me know. He let me know that they were trying to get a group together: Roger Bush, Byron and Kenny Wertz and they were going to call if Country Gazette. They needed a banjo player so I moved to California in 1972 and started playing with them. That’s how I got there.
And this is that one thing leads to another thing. Byron and Roger and been playing with Kay Starr through the Doug Dillard Band. Doug quit and Byron and Roger said they wanted to do something different so they got hooked up with the Burrito Brothers, which is a whole long story unto itself. They had some business connections that were beyond what seemed to me to be normal bluegrass. When I got there and joined what was to be Country Gazette, they already had a manager named Eddie Tickner and a recording producer named Jim Dickson. They worked together as kind of a team. They had been instrumental in getting the Byrds going and other musical things going out in California.
They had a deal with United Artists Records in 1972. United Artists was really flush with money because they had a big hit with Don McLean’s American Pie. They had a lot of money and were willing to try different things. They thought Country Gazette would be a hip addition to this West Coast country-rockish kind of scene. The Eagles were just starting and also Asleep at the Wheel. Asleep at the Wheel and the Country Gazette were signed up at the same time.
United Artist had just brought on from their art department a guy called Norman Seff. He was South African. He had done an album cover for the Rolling Stones. He was a hot shot and they were more excited about him than they were about us. For our first album they gave him basically unlimited resources. He could do anything he wanted and what he hit upon was this. There was a Thelonious Monk album called Undergound. He won an award for it. I don’t know if it was for the album or the artwork. On the cover it had Thelonius Monk with a machine gun strapped on his back as a French Undergound-sort of character in a barn with a piano, and a damsel in distress, and a German general tied up there. It was sort of like he had pulled off some mission and now he was back playing music for his fair maiden.
Norman liked that idea so they took us to a place I think was called Western Costumes. It was huge. A multi-storied, multi-block building which was full of props, movie paraphernalia and costumes. Basically we would walk through with them and they would say, “Try this on.” They tried river boat gamblers, military stuff, and finally we got around to the Mexican Revolutionary stuff with big sombreros. We liked that. They outfitted us all in costumes with bandoleros. They got props like grenades and I don’t know what all. In fact the collar of the shirt I wore, said Charlton Heston. He wore that in some movie.
We got all dolled up in these outfits to have pictures taken. When we got to where we were supposed to be, it was a stage in a small movie studio. They had a set built with a piano, bales of hay. They had us dressed as these Pancho Villa characters. Then they brought in this model, hired to be there in various stages of undress. She was incredibly professional. Did her job. Never exposed herself. She was really cool about it all. In the cover photo, she has just leapt off the piano to my lap.
I look like I’m saying oooo or ahhh. They had given me a cigarette and she had knocked the ashes down into my shirt so I was kind of burning. They took about 450 slides all the time telling us “Do this. Do that. Smile. Don’t Smile. Go here. Go there.” The photographers did their thing and then went away. Next thing we hear is that they’ve spent a lot of time looking through the slides and as they did they developed a story line. That’s when they came up with the idea to make it a comic book. You open up the cover and there’s a story that makes absolutely no sense but it takes advantage of some of the photographs they took. We had to go back for another session for the back cover because on the back cover of comic books there’s always a Charles Atlas ad. They put Byron in the leopard skin because he was the most athletic of all of us. They brought back the same model. Byron held her up. The rest of us were a motorcycle bunch.
KD: How much do you think they spent on the cover vis-à-vis the actual album?
AM: This was 1972. I had heard at one time they spent $15,000 on the recording. I’m sure it was more than that for the cover but I have no idea what they paid him as a salary. It was probably equal to that anyway. It made a difference.
KD: It did make a difference. Everybody knows that album right away.
AM: It got us a lot of places we wouldn’t have otherwise. We opened for the Steve Miller Band. I can’t remember all the names now but we opened for a lot of big names in Europe. We played shows with the Eagles who were starting at the same time. We were playing big stuff for a little bluegrass band. We played all the big-deal TV shows. In Europe, and they made a movie about this, they had a radio station called Pirate Radio. It was a radio transmitter anchored out in the North Sea in international water and broadcasting into Europe. In Holland and in much of Europe at that time, the radio stations were government regulated. We had recorded a Gene Clark song, Tried So Hard. It was going up the chart on this Pirate Radio station. Eventually there was a storm in the North Sea and they had to bring that boat in and it wrecked. I think they made a movie about it.
We played a lot of big TV shows. In England we recorded a segment that played on the same show with the Rolling Stones. It was all going real good for us. Then in 1973 with the big oil crunch and the big long lines of cars to get gas, we were affected because vinyl comes from oil. I think what happened really is the lawyers and accountants used this as an excuse to get a handle on this music business and started getting rid of the ones they didn’t want. Before then the record business was flush with money and they were putting records out right and left. In my mind they were just rolling dice. They didn’t know if the Country Gazette was going to sell or not. But why not, they had the money to try it. If you do that ten times and get one American Pie, then it’s worth it all. But the oil crisis allowed them to keep the winners and cut the losers. And they kept tightening down and tightening down.
KD: Since then it’s been more business than music.
AM: Right. Music, small letters; business ALL BOLD CAPS.
KD: So the Gazette went on in that configuration – Byron, Kenny Wertz, Roger Bush and you for a while. Then Kenny left and Roland came in. Bryon left next. Suffice it to say over the years there were lots of personnel changes. Let me mention what a great emcee Roger Bush was.
AM: Both Roger and Joe Carr were really good emcees. Roger loved talking to people. He was good to have in the group and to travel with. I learned a lot from him about how to travel. I learned just how to be from him. Roger was a machinist by trade. He always respected machinery. When we rented cars, which we did a lot, he would always take care of them and treated them well. He couldn’t stand to see machinery being abused. He was a real sweetheart of a guy and a lot of fun.
KD: At what point did you decide you were going to get off the road and go be – oddly enough, what you rejected when you get out of college – a teacher? You went to Levelland, Texas, which is the most appropriately named town in the world. At what point did you decide this is what you were going to do?
AM: As you said, Byron left and Roger left. We got Joe Carr and Mike Anderson. Mike left and then Joe left. It still went on but it didn’t seem as if we were making enough progress. In bluegrass you sometimes see a band that’s going real strong and then they break up and people are shocked. In my mind, and I don’t know if this is true or not, is if the band’s at the very, very top. They were playing as many places as they could and making as much money as they could possible get. And after it’s all said and done, it wasn’t enough.
Bluegrass is hard – at the time it was, anyway – to break through to any other level. So even if you did the best in bluegrass that you could do, in a lot of ways it’s not enough. If you have a four-piece band and in some cases a five-piece band, it’s hard to make a living doing that. So at some point everybody figured it out or at least I figured it out. I looked around at what my options were. I’m married now and have a six or seven year old daughter. Joe Carr had left the band and got a job at South Plains College music program. I called them up and asked if they would be interested in me and they were. They made a space for me in 1986. I moved out there in August and was there for the next 20 years.
KD: Some of the bluegrass musicians who came out of there are Jeremy Garrett, Mike Bub, Nolan Lawrence and Mark Cassidy. Who were some others?
AM: Stuart Duncan had been there before me and also Ron Block, Ashley Brown, Lee Ann Womack all attended South Plains. There were quite a few graduates who went into the business side of music.
KD: You also added the Camp Bluegrass program that’s been going on for 30+ years.
AM: Joe Carr and I, with the help of our boss, John Hardin, started this back in 1987. After Joe died a few years ago, his wife Paula and I continued to carry the flag.
KD: You continue to do a lot of workshops and camps.
AM: Yes. Banjo Camp North west of Boston, I do Bluegrass Camp Germany. I’m also doing the Suwanee Banjo Camp in Florida and the Midwest Banjo Camp in Michigan, Walker Creek Music Camp in California and the American Banjo Camp near Seattle.
KD: You’re keeping busy with that. Your last album was one you did with Billy Bright on the mandolin and you on banjo. I want to mention that your back-up playing is as interesting as your lead. Will you be back in the studio with Billy Bright anytime soon?
AM: Yes, our people have demanded it. We’re back in the studio and adding a bass player this time. Some people have told us it’s a little too high ended. So we’re going to try it with a bass. We may use it on some and not on others. Billy is in a group called Wood and Wire and they have a bass player named Dom Fisher. He’s fun to play with. We haven’t gotten too far in the recording as of yet. Probably out in 2018.
KD: I know one thing we haven’t mentioned is your writing. You’ve written 6 banjo instruction books for Mel Bay and you’re a columnist for Banjo NewsLetter . You and Joe Carr wrote Prairie Nights to Neon Lights, about some West Texas music.
AM: Right. It was for the Texas Tech University Press. It was the history of country music in West Texas. I think it took us about 5 years to get it all together and get it written up and gather up pictures and stuff. I very proud of it and it won a Belmont University award in 1995.
KD: What I’m wondering is if the shipping clerk at Texas Tech reads it on his 15 minute breaks. (laughter) That would be the ultimate compliment.
AM: I have a new book coming out with Beth Mead Sullivan called The Great American Banjo Songbook. It’s the banjo arrangements of songs from The Great American Songbook. It cover songs like All of Me, Embraceable You, All the Things You Are, Heartaches and I Could Have Danced All Night. It’s from Hal Leonard Publishing.
KD: One more thing: Would you like to wax poetic on Stelling Banjo since you’ve been playing one exclusively since 1975? Stelling has a distinctive sound. Is that why you went with it?
AM: When I moved to Nashville almost one of the first persons I met was Geoff Stelling. I met him at Bobby Green’s Dusty Roads Tavern. He was a student at Vanderbilt. He was in the Navy and they had him in school as a math or engineering major. He was interested in the banjo and bluegrass and was a fun-loving guy. The whole time I was in Nashville, I hung out with him. We both moved away.
The next time I ran into him, he was living in San Diego. He was still in the Navy and he told me he was going to get out of the Navy and go into building banjos. He asked if I was interested in looking at one of his. He had a new idea for mounting the tone ring which he got from how they mount propellers on a shaft of an airplane engine. I played it and I enjoyed it. He’s enough of an engineer that he understands how to change things around to make them work better. It felt real good to my left hand. The sound felt a lot more immediate than any of the Gibson style banjos that I had played before. It had a clarity that seemed to make the melodic style sparkle. I’ve played them exclusively since 1974. Over the years I’ve played a Staghorn which was fancy walnut and right now I’m playing a Crusader which is mahogany.
KD: You served two terms on the IBMA Board of Directors (1993-1996 and 2002-2008). In 2008 you and Joe Carr were honored with a IBMA’s Distinguished Achievement Award.
AM: The Distinguished Achievement Award was for educating and fostering the next generation of bluegrass players and music business people. Joe and I had about 50 years of teaching between us and we taught a lot of students who went through the program. There are several bluegrass programs in colleges now but South Plains was a pioneer. It was nice to be honored for something we liked doing.
KD: Alan, I’ve been a fan of your music and you personally since the mid-’70s, so I’ve particularly loved having this long chat with you. I feel like we’ve just barely scratched the surface of all you’ve done for bluegrass. If folks need to find out more, they can visit you online. Thanks for taking the time. I appreciate you.