Remembrances of Bill Wells (1927-2011)

This remembrance of South Carolina bluegrass icon Bill Wells comes from Larry Klein, co-host of The Bluegrass Sound on ETV Radio.

The bluegrass family lost a great friend and supporter when Bill Wells passed away November 8th after a prolonged illness. The legendary owner of Bill’s Music Shop and Picking Parlor in West Columbia, SC and the leader of The Blue Ridge Mountain Grass, Bill was a leading advocate of traditional style bluegrass music in the Carolinas.

His music shop and picking parlor was known far and wide as a place to hear great bluegrass music, and to learn how to play. And his concert series drew the top names in bluegrass music performers, many coming back each year for a show.

As a resonator guitar player with Bill’s group for over 20 years, some of my fondest musical memories were traveling up to the Carter Family Fold and performing, because that was home turf for Bill who grew up in the neighborhood of the Carter Family and The Stanley Brothers.

Bill knew the music from the unique perspective of a youngster who used to visit AP Carter in the store and learned firsthand from the music greats of Southwestern Virginia and neighboring Tennessee. Although Bill’s love of music, friendship to so many, and influence on the bluegrass scene will be sorely missed, his family will continue to run the store, concerts and jam sessions, and the band will continue under the leadership of Bill’s son Wilford, so the tradition will continue as it has for over 20 years.

Noted author and bluegrass historian, Pat Ahrens, wrote this in her book about Bill Wells (Bill Wells: Bluegrass Ambassador):

“Few people have had the positive impact on the bluegrass music scene in this state that Bill Wells has. Celebrating over two decades of managing his music store in 2007, Bill almost single handedly gave the music a home.”

Pat delivered the following remembrances at Bill’s funeral:

“Though born in Kentucky, Bill Wells grew up in Virginia in a part of the country where singing and playing traditional music was a way of life. He was always proud of the fact that The Carters, the first family of country music, were his neighbors and schoolmates. Even as a child he knew that he wanted to play and sing and his excitement grew when he got his first instrument, a harmonica, ordered from a catalog.

Even as a young boy, Bill just couldn’t stay away from music. His family told stories of how follow local street musicians all around the big park to hear them play and sing when his family went to town on Saturdays.

Bill was a Navy man and he served his country during the Second World War on ships in the Pacific. He bought his first guitar with Navy pay and proceeded to teach himself how to play it.

Bill moved to Columbia in 1984. He wanted to open a music store. There were other music stores in town at the time, but Bill wanted to be different. His dream was to have a place where musicians could come and play on a regular basis. His first State Street store soon became too cramped so he moved to Meeting Street. Well, after a few years, those “musician meetings on Meeting” started to become legend.

Along with running the store, which was a full time job, he also ran his band The Blue Ridge Mountain Grass. Bill was a lead singer and rhythm guitarist. Trust me when I tell you… it’s a hard job! Lead singers have to memorize a lot of words! They have to know how many verses a song has, where the breaks come, and what key the band plays the song in.

Mr. Bill was a staunch traditionalist who believed in and played only acoustic music. His band worked a single mike in the old time way. Their concerts were as choreographed as any fine dance, when the banjo, the fiddle or the dobro stepped in to play their break. It was great audience fun to watch those five musicians, weaving in and out, working that mike.

Bluegrass was Bill’s music and he had a huge repertoire. He could sing close to a hundred songs from memory and his memory was phenomenal. He could remember not just the first, but also the last name of the people who came to his store for the Friday nights Open Stage and jam sessions. He enjoyed his store and he enjoyed greeting the people who came each week. He did what he did simply for the love of it!

Bill knew and counted as friends, many musicians of the first generation who created the music. They were his heroes, the industry’s gold standard, and the model he followed. Mr. Bill was the first in the state to bring professional bluegrass musicians to his stage on a regular basis. Some of the biggest names in the business played at Bills.

Through the years Bill was honored in a number of ways for his work as a bluegrass music advocate. He was voted the 1984 “Traditional Male Vocalist of the Year” by SPBGMA. He became the first musician the SC Bluegrass and Traditional Music Association recognized in 1996. He was presented the South Carolina Folk Heritage Award in 1998.

Bill was also a businessman and was recognized as such with the West Metro Small Business Award in 2006, and this year, the West Columbia Chamber of Commerce presented him their Lifetime Achievement Award. On September 9, Bill was presented with the Order of the Palmetto, the highest civilian honor awarded by the Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley. It was presented to Bill in a ceremony at The Pickin’ Parlor by Ted McGee on behalf of the Governor. The Order of the Palmetto is given to recognize persons who make contributions of statewide significance.

Bluegrass music was the passion of Bill’s life and, most of all, he wanted to share it with others. We here, in this state, are all the richer for it, the kind of riches not measured in money, but the kind that puts a song in your heart. He was a generous man, he was a kind man, and he always seemed to have the time to talk to children. In fact, he adopted a lot of us.

In many ways, we too were his children.

Thanks you, Mr. Bill. Thanks you so much.

We will miss Bill greatly down here, but I feel certain that he would be thrilled with the countless people that have come out to vow to continue to keep the music alive at Bills Music Shop and Picking Parlor.

Thank you Bill for giving us so much.