The School of Bluegrass with Doyle Lawson – tell us about Bill Emerson and The Gents

Hard to believe but chat time is here already!

Having lived my life in the DC area I saw the County Gentlemen many times and was a life long fan. I feel that Charlie Waller did  not always get the recognition he deserved.  Can you talk about Charlie’s singing and his under-appreciated guitar playing?

Thank you,

Les Abernathy

Les Abernathy, thank you for being a life long fan of The Country Gentlemen and a great admirer of Charlie Waller. Regarding your comment about Charlie not always getting the recognition he deserved, I have to disagree, and here’s why. I worked alongside Charlie for almost eight years, and witnessed first hand the appreciation of his vocal and guitar work from the fans and his peers alike. Charlie possessed a warm vocal ability that caught one’s ear in how relaxed he seemed while singing.

Charlie played some lead guitar but was more about the rhythm and guitar runs that the lead work. His precise runs were on point and his tone impeccable. No he didn’t play lead guitar like those who came on later and sort of created a broader role for the guitar in bluegrass BUT,  he was Charlie Waller playing Charlie Waller guitar and there was no mistaking him for anyone.

Thanks so much Doyle for this School of Bluegrass column here at Bluegrass Today. I would love to hear your thoughts about your days with the Country Gentlemen in regard to how the band selected material. Was everyone involved in that process? And I’d love to hear more about your friendship with Bill Emerson during the days in which you were both in the Gentlemen. Thank you!


Bill Evans

I’ve always said that getting the opportunity to become a member of the “Gents” was a big career move in advancing my musical endeavors. I suppose about everyone knows how much I enjoyed working in J.D. Crowe’s band, but at the the Gentlemen were on a roll with lots of things in the works to move up even more. So the first day of September 1971, I climbed on board and, yes it was quite a run!

Although Charlie Waller was a Texan by birth, and spent some of his early youth in Louisiana, he moved to the Washington, DC area at a fairly young age, so his accent was more attuned to that area than Texas or Louisiana. Truthfully, I was a bit apprehensive when asked to join them because of my Tennessee accent being a bit different, but to my surprise the phrasing and blend came much easier than I anticipated.

I always enjoyed searching for new and old songs and arranging the music to fit the particular band I was with at the time. Bill Emerson shared the same passion and it was a natural thing for us to collaborate in exploring music. Bill had the ability to hear the potential of a song as well as anyone I ever worked with, and seemed to know that the listeners would really like the particular piece of music we presented to them. When Bill left to go to the US Navy Band Country Current, for the most part, it was left up to me to find and arrange the songs we were to record. I then started centering the focus on Charlie’s voice, and intentionally lowered the keys to insure that folks would hear the richness and warmth of the beautiful baritone Charlie possessed.

Hi Doyle:

I spent many nights listening to fine music from your band, as you were a regular on the winter concert series up in Canada, I also caught you at a few northern festivals. Best wishes on the off the road portion of your career, but don’t retire totally… we need you to keep your hand in as long as possible. You and I are the same age.

You played as a Sunny Mountain boy at 18, which must have been a very tough learning curve. I read that Jimmy didn’t play banjo, but that he would grab the instrument and show his guy what he wanted. That is hard to imagine. I understand he didn’t tell guys to play like J.D., but surely he would have been over the moon had anyone been able to. What were your experiences in this Martin music academy?

Did Jimmy play any other instrument?  How did he convey his ideas of time and rhythm which all his graduates certainly retain. Did you find the experience helpful in shaping a host of musicians to your own sound.


Dick Richards

Dick Richards, of the many fans of bluegrass up Canada who remembers the winter concert series that Tony Deboer would put together in those days. I always enjoyed the series in spite of the sometimes bitter cold. For me, I’d be happy if winter was for one week only!

And yes, playing banjo for Jimmy Martin was quite a challenge because he knew what he wanted the role of the banjo to be like. No, Jimmy was not a banjo player, but he would use his thumb and index finger to show you what he wanted, and he would verbally try and explain what he wanted. It worked pretty well, but not always because I had to try and transpose what he’d demonstrated or said to the banjo roll or lick, or both. It could, and did, get frustrating at times.

So far as playing other instruments, he picked the mandolin pretty good, and in fact when I met him for the first time in 1958, he showed me how to use my right wrist properly and to keep my fingers on my left hand close to the fingerboard to avoid playing behind the beat.

Jimmy’s guitar rhythm and vocal phrasing was like a magnet that drew you to him and his timing. Listen to his recording in that time frame of his career, and you’ll see what I mean. My time with him, J.D., and the Gentlemen served me well in my 42 plus years as a band leader!

Hello Doyle, your fan from the Czech Republic here. You were the reason for me to become interested in quartet singing myself (next to playing banjo and guitar) in the ’80s and later to work with four different vocal quartets. Can you share what was the moment for you to realize, I know how quartet singing works, and I want to do it myself?

Thank you, looking forward to reading your posts here.

Michal, aka Karel Bombicka

Hello Karel Bombicka from the Czech Republic. It’s good to hear from you, and I want to personally tell you just much I enjoyed the concerts the band and I did in Prague. It is such a beautiful city.

I can’t remember not loving the sound of music, and especially vocal harmony. And too, the fact that my father sang lead in an a cappella quartet was a plus for me because I was always watching and listening when they would rehearse. Hearing and singing the different vocal parts was something that came easy for me, even before I listened more closely to the quartet dad sang with. Truth is, when I heard and became aware of who Bill Monroe was after hearing him performing on the Grand Ole Opr’y via WSM radio, I decided then and there that my call in life was to play and sing bluegrass music. I have to say that I was blessed to be able to do just that for almost 60 years.

Well well well… my stomach and my wife tells me that it’s about time sit and dine! And I must be getting my calluses on my fingers tougher as they haven’t screamed, “STOP!!” But we’ll call this a wrap.

Stay tuned…

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About the Author

Doyle Lawson

Doyle Lawson, a legend in bluegrass music, has recently retired after 42 years of full time touring with his band, Quicksilver. But he's not done yet! Doyle will remain active in the music business, just as he has done since joining Jimmy Martin in 1963. Lawson also had important stints with J.D. Crowe and The Country Gentlemen before launching Quicksilver in 1980.