Bluegrass Cardinals reunite to honor Randall Hylton at IBMA Bluegrass Live ’23 – photo © Frank Baker
Randall Hylton is known as a prolific bluegrass songwriter. His songs have been recorded by Lester Flatt, Mac Wiseman, The Osborne Brothers, The Lewis Family, The Country Gentlemen, Ralph Stanley, Larry Sparks, and many more in the genre. Some of his tunes include Country Poor and Country Proud, Slippers With Wings, Room At The Top of The Stairs, and Sawmill Road. Though he passed away in 2003, his music lives on through the bands that play it still. Contemporary songwriter Rick Lang orchestrated a wonderful Friday morning session at World of Bluegrass 2023 to pay homage to the late Hylton.
The session began with a reunion of former Bluegrass Cardinals that included David Parmley, Randy Graham, Larry Stephenson, and Ben Greene, with Nathan Aldridge sitting in on fiddle. The band performed several Hylton tunes of the 25 that they recorded including Mountain Laurel and 32 Acres.
Nick Chandler & Delivered played Hylton’s I’m Slowly Getting You Out of the Way and Tree that Stands Alone.
“Coming from a singer, Randall’s songs were easy to remember. They’re always easy to play, and his songs had so many variations,” stated Chandler.
Next, Larry Stephenson returned to the stage with guitar in hand. “Randall was the best. I’ve probably got enough demos of Randall Hylton at home to record another whole bluegrass CD, and a gospel CD. That’s how much stuff he’s got that has never been recorded. Randall also did our taxes. He understood what we did.”
Stephenson then did Hylton’s song, She’s Come Too Far.
Following his performance, Jeff Dalton, Randall’s nephew, shared memories of his late uncle.
“Remember Randall and his music. We are blessed to share this moment,” he began, then launched into a brief history.
“Randall learned to play from listening to the radio. He started by singing in churches, playing his yellow and blue ukulele.
Randall was a thinker. You tell by his music. He was also mischievous. He wrote a song, Beulah’s Café, about a local restaurant and beer joint. There’s a lot of truth in it. People prayed it would burn down. There were lots of fights in it. It’s our song of Floyd County (VA) that we cherish.
He also wrote a song, The Deputy and the Mayor’s Wife, based on an officer that would go by a lady’s house, blow the horn, she would come out and they would rendezvous.
When I was little I had a Roy Rogers guitar. Randall made me a capo for it. He was a great musician and could play a piano by ear.
He moved to Nashville. He understood there wasn’t a lot of money in songwriting. He had his own way of writing songs. He said what he wanted to say in songs. He wrote about relationships with God. He wrote a lot of songs for the Lewis Family like I’m Gonna Be Moving and I’ll be No Stranger.
“Randall died (at age 58) of a massive brain aneurysm. Keep his music alive and keep singing his songs,” he concluded.
Darin & Brooke Aldridge came next. Darin recalled meeting Hylton at the Bluegrass Inn in Shelby, NC.
“He knew how to hold a crowd,” Darin fondly recalled.
The duet sang Hylton’s Don’t Stop Being You, accompanied by songwriter Jerry Salley on the third harmony part.
Next, Special Consensus performed The Sky is Weeping.
“I loved his music, said Special C’s Greg Blake, newly named Male Vocalist of the Year. “He was a massive presence. He was tall and wore a big tall top hat. I ran into him at Silver Dollar City looking like a skyscraper.”
Master of ceremonies, Lang shared, “I teared up on some of those songs. When I came up with the idea to do this tribute, I called Lewis Phillips. He brought his mom, Janis.”
Janis Lewis Phillips and her son, Lewis, then took the stage
Lewis said of the honoree…
“We are thrilled and honored. Randall was blessed with talent. He displayed it everywhere he went. You knew the songs that he wrote. He was a wonderful singer and a killer guitar player. He was a one man band.
He wrote his first song for us when he was 16. The Lewis Family recorded 70 or 80 of his songs. We were working on an album and I called him and said I was looking for a song with a 6 chord followed by a 4 chord. The next day he called and said, ‘I throwed this together last night.’ It was What a Savior, What a Friend. It became one of my most requested songs. To throw that together the day I asked him was the mark of a genius.”
Mother and son then performed another famous Hylton/Lewis Family song, Slippers with Wings.
Lewis noted, “In 1979, Randall wrote the title song for our album and a mural was painted on the bus with his words, Hallelujah Turnpike. We closed most of our shows with it.”
Then 84-year-old Janis concluded, “I’m so proud that I could come.”
They closed their portion with Hallelujah Turnpike.
Troy Engle and Rick Lang ended the session by singing a song they wrote about Hylton, Randall and His Songs.
Lang declared, “He’s the reason I’m a songwriter.”
The words to their song included these lines from the chorus:
He wrote extraordinary songs about ordinary people
Stories about people like you and me,
He was my hero back then
With just paper and pen
Pretty words and melodies
That mean so much to me.