Red Cravens passes

Red Cravens with The Boys from Martinsville

Early bluegrass music pioneer Robert ‘Red’ Cravens passed away “about a week ago” (around January 11, 2021), reports his former bandmate Harley Bray. He was 88 years old and had spent his last few years in Santee, located in San Diego County, California.

Born on July 4, 1932, he spent most of his early life in and around Tuscola, Illinois, and grew up listening to country music on the radio.

Having learned to play the banjo initially – he could be heard picking on an early morning show on a radio station in Urbana, Illinois, from about 1951 – Cravens switched to the guitar, his thumb-style being influenced by ‘Bluegrass’ Roy Freeman. He admired Red Smiley’s guitar work as well. 

Recently Bray said of his friend, “Red Cravens was the best rhythm guitarist I ever played with.”

Having been already aware of them beforehand, Cravens met the Bray brothers – Francis, Harley and Nate – at a square dance about the fall of 1954 – they even played a little show together the following day – and with the aid of his big collection of bluegrass records Red showed them some of the finer points of the genre. 

In 1955 they had put together a band, and by March 1956 were a feature on The WBLN Hillbilly Jamboree in Bloomington, but they disbanded during the following year when two of the brothers enlisted in the army. 

For a while Cravens and Francis Bray would attend jam sessions at the Brown County Jamboree park, Bean Blossom, Indiana. During some visits Cravens would provide rhythm support at fiddle contests. He would assist Birch Monroe in some management duties and helped financially also. Cravens, Birch Monroe, Jerry Waller (banjo), and another acquaintance, Kyle Wells, would combine as the house band, sometimes using a group name such as The Boys From Martinsville.  

This led to Cravens befriending Bill Monroe, and from July 1958 he, along with the brothers, would continue their bluegrass apprenticeship, sometimes even accompanying the Father of Bluegrass Music on a few of his shows. 

From there they became a fixture on WHOW in Clinton on the Cornbelt Country Style show, hosted by Uncle Johnny Barton, and left behind a large body of tapes done for radio. Some of these, recorded at their apartment at 419 West Main Street, Urbana, were saved by Cravens and issued on two Rounder LPs. On six of these tracks John Hartford played fiddle. 

During this period Red Cravens & the Bray Brothers recorded two sides for Jim Ludwig’s Five Strings Records based in Eola, Illinois. One of these was Harbor of Love …. 

This single led to a Grand Ole Opry appearance (July 1961) and in turn, The Bluegrass Gentlemen, as they were dubbed by Nashville talent broker Jim Denny, were signed by Liberty Records of Los Angeles where they recorded their only studio album, The Blue Grass Gentlemen. 

In another venture using The Bluegrass Gentlemen name, Red Cravens and the Bray brothers produced a ‘folky’ single, Barbara Allen, recorded at a Peoria radio station and issued on the obscure Independence label. 

Afterwards their progress stalled and in the mid-1960s Cravens moved to southern California, and although Cravens encouraged the brothers to join him, they remained in the Midwest.

Following Hartford’s moved to Los Angeles in 1968, he would frequently get together with Cravens and listen to the tapes from the WHOW era. Consequently, Hartford produced the first of the Rounder releases.

Reviewing those tapes prompted Cravens to try again to re-unite with the Brays, but as Nate was seriously ill at the time it was doomed to failure. 

More often than not, Red Cravens would sing the tenor part. However, this rendition of Toy Heart features him singing lead on the verses …..

Red Cravens (guitar and vocals), Nate Bray (mandolin and tenor vocals), Harley Bray (banjo), and Francis Bray (bass) – with an unknown fiddle player.  

Although his most significant involvement in bluegrass music lasted only about 15 years, Cravens made an important contribution to its development during the early days.  

R.I.P., Red Cravens

A Discography 

Red Cravens and The Bray Brothers

  • Harbor Of Love / John Henry (Five Strings 101, released in 1961)
  • 419 W. Main (Rounder 0015, 1972) (also on Trio PA 3071 in Japan, reissued on Rounder CD-0015 in 1997)

The Bluegrass Gentlemen

  • The Blue Grass Gentlemen (Liberty LRP 3214, January 1962)
  • Barbara Allen / When First Unto This Country (Independence 2306) 

The Bray Brothers with Red Cravens

  • Prairie Bluegrass (Rounder 0053, 1976)

This, along with the Independence and Five Strings sides, was released as Prairie Bluegrass — Early Days of Bluegrass (Rounder CD-1011, 2000). 

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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.