Ron Spears passes

Utah born bluegrass musician and ace songwriter Ron Spears passed away on March 22, 2023, from complications following surgery for cancer last year. He was 69 years of age, and suffering with other health issues as well. 

He was a multi-instrumentalist – adept on all the bluegrass instruments and pedal steel guitar – he could sing all the parts, was a champion “yo-yo man” (won Utah State Grand Championship), a comedian and a ventriloquist, in sum, a complete entertainer.  

Ronald Spears was born on July 28, 1953, in West Valley City, Utah. His musical career began at age 12 playing rock ‘n’ roll. He was bitten by the bluegrass bug at the age of 16, and traded his electric guitar for a banjo. He worked in several local bands including Obadiah’s Organic Bluegrass Band, the Kentucky Mountain Clan, Bluegrass Express, and the Canyon Band. 

From 1976 through to 1993 he played rock and country music, although in 1990 had a band called Bluegrass Conspiracy.

Robin (Roller) Thixton, once of Petticoat Junction and now with Ida Clare, remembers Spears in those early days …. 

“I first met Ron when I was probably 17. He was playing in a band from Salt Lake City, Utah called the Kentucky Mountain Clan. The following year I moved to Salt Lake City to join the band because their banjo player left. Two weeks after I got there the band broke up, but Ron and I managed to stay in touch from that point on.

Years later when I was living in Nashville, Ron hadn’t moved there yet, but he was coming to Nashville quite frequently to pitch his music to all the bluegrass artists out in the southeast. He would stay at my house for a few days at a time every once in a while. There was one night when he was there my toilet stopped up and I didn’t have a toilet plunger. The water was coming up and I was scared that it was going to overflow and take over the floor. Ron was at my place at that time. He asked me if I had a hard to go cup from a fast-food joint. I had one laying around and I gave it to him, and he reached down into the commode and used that hard plastic cup to unplug it. I was amazed when it worked. After it was all over, he stood up and handed the cup to me and said, “You’re probably not going to want to use this.” It just struck me as funny, and I laughed forever over that. Ron was that kind of guy. He literally let nothing stand in his way. He had a relentless attitude. Everyone is aware of his talent, but I don’t know how many people know what a great human being he was. He was just a good man. 

His fans and friends are really going to miss him, but our hearts go out to his wife Brenda and their family. The only thing Ron loved more than music was his family.

I really want to shed tears right now, but it’s kind of hard to do that because when I think of Ron Spears, every memory was a good time, or a good laugh, or a good song.”

In 1995 he started Within Tradition, a band which broke up after one year, but was re-formed in 1999. 

Spears remained in the Beehive State until 1998 when he ventured east and recorded the aptly titled My Time Has Come album, released during the following year. It was his key to a national audience ..  

Ron Spears and Within Tradition with Britney Bailey – Mama’s Tattered Bible

Keith Arneson, USN, Senior Chief Musician, retired, banjo player with Country Current had several enjoyable visits with Spears …

“I first met Ron Spears in 1994, my first trip and performance at IBMA when it was still held in Owensboro, KY. The layout of the hotel was rooms all around a huge open area in the center of the building. After we had checked in, I went looking for a jam to join in and I heard this HUGE voice singing Once More! I could not believe the resonance coming from a man who would turn out to be my friend for almost 30 years! That was my first introduction to Ron. When I finally located his jam, he invited me to join in with his group and I asked him, “do you know Once More?”, to which he immediately responded, “what are you, some kind of smart ass?” I liked him instantly! We jammed that night until about 2:00 a.m. and we had a Navy Band showcase in the morning! But I didn’t care, picking with Ron felt natural, comfortable and the hours melted by.

The next time I ran into him was at the Wintergrass Festival in Tacoma, Washington. The band was checking in and he yelled to me across the entire, crowded hotel lobby, “Hey you **** (expletive deleted),” and he rushed over and gave me a huge bear hug! Man, did we pick that weekend! We repeated this scenario many, many times over the years. I have so many fond memories of Ron. He had a strong solid right arm and was a master at backing up banjo breaks on rhythm guitar, one of the many instruments he played and played well.

When I got the news from his former bandmate and friend, Tom Mullen, it took the wind out of my sails, and I was flooded with fond memories of my friend. He leaves a hole in my heart and to all who knew him and picked with him. 

Fair Winds and Following Seas my friend. I will never forget you. Rest in Peace brother, ’til we meet again, over in the Glory Land.”

Also during 1999, Spears worked briefly with Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, joining just in time to help with the recording of one track by playing guitar on Little Angels.     

In 2004, when Carolina Rain, the last of his three Copper Creek projects was released, Within Tradition was disbanded and Spears joined Special Consensus, replacing Josh Williams on mandolin. He remained with that band until about April 2007, when he joined Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver briefly. Later in the year, he joined David Parmley and Continental Divide, later called Cardinal Tradition when Parmley resumed performing and touring in 2015. 

Special C founder Greg Cahill feels the loss very significantly …. 

“Special C has had 52 band members (counting me) since 1975. We basically live together as we travel the USA and foreign lands, we stand on stage together countless times, and eat, sleep, and drink bluegrass music together. We become family. 

Today [March 22], for the first time in our 48-year history, we lost a member of this Special C family – Ron Spears passed away early this morning.

Ron was a fabulous songwriter, singer, multi-instrumentalist, yo-yo champion, ventriloquist, and most importantly, a great human being. He shared some pretty bad jokes, but he was always the first one under the little Snowball bus when we were on the side of the road, first to carry gear from the bus to the stage, first to say hello to friends and fans. Words cannot express how much Ron will be missed by the bluegrass community and all who knew him. 

He was not only a ventriloquist, he could also ‘throw’ his voice, so we definitely had some fun moments on stage when he would make it look like one of us said something but it was actually him talking – without his lips moving – making it look like one of us made the comment.

He will be sorely missed by our bluegrass community.

Rest in peace old friend – hope you are in a mighty fine jam session up there.”

The Old Swinging Bridge – James King, whose band Spears joined in the Summer of 2009

Galax, Virginia, September 2010

In 2013 Spears joined the Reno and Harrell band – Don Wayne Reno (banjo), Dale Reno (mandolin), and Mitch Harrell (guitar) – playing bass. While with them he helped with the recording of their CD, Reno Bound, and participated in the 2014 Banjo Jamboree, Čáslav, Czech Republic (aka Czechia).

Reno and Harrell  – Mr Bottle ….  

with Robbie Wells (fiddle)

The Prisoner’s Song – David Parmley & Cardinal Tradition featuring Ron Spears

David Parmley & The Cardinal Tradition at Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival, Tunbridge, Vermont, June 24, 2017

David Parmley & Cardinal Tradition, Fair And Tender Ladies 

When Parmley disbanded Cardinal Tradition in 2019, several members of the group, Spears included, formed the group Fast Track. 

Fast Track – Through Earthly Life – from Good News 

Jesse Brock was a member of Fast Track for about two years from 2019-2021 ….. 

“It is with heavy heart that I write these words about an ex-bandmate whom has passed on. Ron Spears impressed me with his expanse of talent. Whether you heard his recognizable voice, or his comedy of ventriloquism and mastery of the yo-yo, you were entertained. Along with said talents, he also enjoyed the steel guitar, mandolin, guitar, electric guitar, and songwriting. The latter is probably his most-notable quality, as can be heard throughout the industry.

We have lost a great entertainer and friend, and I am truly honored to have spent a brief period of my career on stage with Ron as a former member of Fast Track. God bless Ron ‘Captain America’ Spears.”

As Brock has noted, Spears was a prolific songwriter, having songs recorded by many of the top artists in bluegrass, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, IIIrd Tyme Out, Lou Reid, the Bluegrass Cardinals, and Special Consensus, among others. 

The Spears catalog includes The Last To Know (recorded by Lou Reid, Terry Baucom & Carolina); Carolina Rain (David Parmley); God Reached Down (David Parmley); River Of RegretI’d Like To Wander Back (To The Old Home) (Fast Track); The Lonesome Wind; Mama’s Tattered Bible; Jenny Lynn (Lou Reid and Carolina, and Becky Schlegel); You No Longer Believe In Me; Virginia from Kentucky; Blue And Lonesome Again (Fast Track); Another Last Goodbye; Girl from Boulder; Grandpa Loved The Carolina Mountains; Dreams About The Hills of Home; Poor Old Monroe; Never See Mama Or Papa Again; Trail Of The Old Lonesome Pine; Ocean of Teardrops (Doyle Lawson); Darling, Please Don’t Let Our Sweet Love Die (Dailey & Vincent); Back To Honky Tonkin’ Again; Billsville (Hand-Picked Bluegrass); Dreams of Rosemary; The Sweetest Place on Earth; Cold Virginia Rain (Josh Williams); Blue Ridge Mountain Memories (IIIrd Tyme Out); Please Don’t Leave (Bluegrass Cardinals); all of the following were recorded by Special Consensus – How Many Times; The Lights Are Out (But Somebody’s Home); Lord Show Me The Righteous Pathway; Carolina Smokey Mountain Home; I’d Like To Wander Back To The Old Home; and Lift Your Voice In Prayer.

All were published by CriBob-JacKer Music which Spears formed in January 1982. 

He was a SPBGMA nominee for the Songwriter of the Year (and for Bass Player of the Year) award in 2017.  

R.I.P., Ron Spears 

A Discography 

Ron Spears

  • Bluegrass With The Heart And Soul Of Yesterday (independent release / CriBob-JacKer Music No #, 1997) 
  • My Time Has Come (Copper Creek CCCD 0169, 1999) 

Ron Spears & Within Tradition

  • Grandpa Loved The Carolina Mountains (Copper Creek CCCD 0192, July 17, 2001)   
  • Carolina Rain (Copper Creek CCCD 0219, April 27, 2004) 

The Special Consensus

  • Everything’s Alright (Pinecastle Records PRC 1142, 2004) 
  • The Trail Of Aching Hearts (Pinecastle Records PRC 1156, May 15, 2007) 

David Parmley & Continental Divide

  • 3 Silver Dollars (Pinecastle Record PRC 1168, 2008) 

Reno and Harrell

  • Reno Bound (JohnBoy & Billy, No #, 2013)

David Parmley & Cardinal Tradition

  • David Parmley & Cardinal Tradition (self-released, 2016)

Fast Track

  • Fast Track (Engelhardt Music Group EMG 10370, 2020) 
  • Blue And Lonesome Again (Engelhardt Music Group EMG 10371, January 24, 2020), a CD single
  • Good News (Engelhardt Music Group EMG 10616, June 18, 2021) 
  • Heartache And Trouble (Engelhardt Music Group EMG 10830, June 3, 2022)

Rhonda Vincent

  • Back Home Again (Rounder Records – Rounder 11661-0460-2, 2000-01-11) 

Robbie Fulks

  • Gone Away Backward (Bloodshot Records BS 211, August 27, 2013) 

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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.