Honest Tune Features Editor Tim Newby’s new book, Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin’ Sound and its Legacy has recently been published by McFarland Books.
With an influx of Appalachian migrants who came looking for work in the 1940s and 1950s, Baltimore found itself populated by some extraordinary mountain musicians and was for a brief time the center of the bluegrass world. Life in Baltimore for these musicians was not easy. There were missed opportunities, personal demons and always the up-hill battle with prejudice against their hillbilly origins. Based upon interviews with legendary players from the golden age of Baltimore bluegrass, Bluegrass in Baltimore provides the first in-depth coverage of this transplanted-roots music and its broader influence, detailing the struggles Appalachian musicians faced in a big city that viewed the music they made as the “poorest example of poor man’s music.
Bluegrass in Baltimore examines the highly-influential scene in Baltimore that produced such key figures as Del McCoury, Earl Taylor, Walt Hensley, Alice Gerrard, Hazel Dickens, Mike Seeger, and Mike Munford and explores the impact the music they made had on a wide-range of musical luminaries including Jerry Garcia, Jorma Kaukonen, Sandy Rothman, Pete Wernick, Sam Bush, and many others.
The book is available for purchase now: McFarland Books
(Excerpted from Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin’ Sound and its Legacy by Tim Newby, published by McFarland Books, June 2015.)
On a cold night in early February 1963, in a small nondescript neighborhood in Southeastern Baltimore, on the corner of Pratt and Chapel Streets, in the shadow of Johns Hopkins Hospital there was a small bar that you would have been hard pressed to find then, and does not exist now. Called the Chapel Café, it had a much too low ceiling with bad lights that seemed to do nothing but provide a ghostly haze that gave life to the heavy cigarette smoke lingering in the dank air. This served to make the ill-mannered, boorish disposition of the locals hunched over the bar even more menacing as they seemed to revel in yelling “play or get out” at the band perched on the small stage every time there was a lull in the music. The fourteen-year-old bassist on stage that night remembers it as “nothing but cigarette smoke and spilled beer, one of them rough places, the kind of place where the bouncer would have to throw out at least one guy a night.” Into this atmosphere, across the sticky beer-splattered floor, beyond the bar area that was just to the right of the door and over towards the stage tucked into the corner on the opposite wall walked a man.
This bar was much like countless other bars that were littered across Baltimore; Jazz City just a couple blocks away on Pratt street in Fells Point, the 79 Club in Federal Hill, the legendary Cozy Inn, and the chicken wire-covered stage at Oleta’s and Marty’s Bar KY. They were all tough beer-and-a-shot joints that were small, worn down, reeking of stale beer, and teetering on the edge of violence each night.
But the man who walked into the Chapel Café that night was not like the countless other patrons who inhabited them. He was a tall man who cut an imposing figure and known to be of few words. He was often referred to as an “ornery old cuss” by those that did not know him, though in reality he was a much more complex man than that simple, limiting description. He also had started a band that lent its name to a still developing sound that had its roots in the mountains of Appalachia, found its way to the city streets, and was now being played in this poorly-lit bar, much like it was at similar other bars around Baltimore. This sound was still shaking off its earlier label of hillbilly, so-named for the migrants who brought this music with them when they came down from the mountains or moved from the south to the cities to find work and a better life, and was beginning to be recognized by another, less derogatory name: Bluegrass.
The man who walked into that small corner bar was Bill Monroe, who with his band Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys had first given shape and life to this new exciting style of music. Bluegrass was born from the old time string band music that Monroe learned in his youth back in his rural home in Rosine, Kentucky, and from the fiddle of his favorite uncle, Pendleton Vandiver, who Monroe went to live with after his parents died when he was a teenager. Uncle Pen would become a role model for Monroe in all aspects of life, but it was through music that he would have his greatest impact on the young budding musician. Years later, after Monroe’s musical genius was widely recognized, he would give credit to his Uncle Pen referring to him as “the fellow I learned how to play from.” Monroe would later immortalize his Uncle in one of his most famous songs, “Uncle Pen,” in which he sang about the late night hoedowns and dances he played at as a teenager with his Uncle.
Monroe mixed his Uncle Pen’s fiddle sound with the country, gospel, and blues that was in the air at the time, and ratcheted it up to a breakneck speed with his distinctive trademark mandolin to create what famed folklorist and musicologist Alan Lomax called “Folk music with overdrive” in a 1959 article for Esquire Magazine. Levon Helm from Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Famers The Band saw Monroe as a six-year-old and says this new style of music “really tattooed my brain.” He recalled how Monroe had taken, “that old hillbilly music, sped it up and basically invented what is now known as bluegrass music: the bass in its place, the mandolin above it, the guitar tying the two together, and the violin on top, playing the long notes to make it all sing. The banjo backed the whole thing up, answering everybody.” Country music-outlaw Waylon Jennings would echo Helms’ sentiment about the impact of Monroe and this new style of music he was playing. “In my house, in Littlefield, Texas, it was the bible on the table, the flag on the wall, and Bill Monroe’s picture beside it. That’s the way I was raised.” And for a brief time nowhere was this new style of hillbilly music, this folk music with overdrive, played better, faster, or in such a way that it would leave as permanent a footprint on the history and development of bluegrass than in Baltimore.
The teenaged bassist, Jerry McCoury, who was on stage that cold February night at the Chapel Café in 1963, recalled with a laugh when Monroe walked into the tiny Baltimore bar, “I actually didn’t recognize him at first. He was wearing his glasses and he had a hat on. Then I realized who it was and I was in total awe.” With admiration and high praise in his voice he continues, “It was like meeting God.”
Monroe’s stop in Baltimore was no accident. He had stopped by to see a former member of his band, Jack Cooke, who was playing that evening. Monroe needed a couple of players to fill out his band for an upcoming gig at New York University in New York City for the Friends of Old Time Music on February 8, just a few days later. He was hoping Cooke would join him on guitar, and he wanted to check out the older brother of McCoury who was a banjo player Cooke had recommended.
McCoury’s 22-year-old banjo playing older brother, remembers that same evening when the man rightly called the “Father of Bluegrass” walked in during their set:
We were playing the Chapel Café in Fells Point one night in 1963, when Bill Monroe walked in front of us. I could have fallen over right then and there. The purpose of him stopping by was to take Jack [Cooke] with him up there to play a show in New York City. He didn’t have a guitar player or lead singer at the time. Whoever it was had quit and he thought Jack would do it. He also didn’t have a banjo player either so they took me up there to play.
The banjo player, Jerry’s older brother Delano, joined Monroe’s band, which at the time included Kenny Baker on fiddle and Monroe’s longtime partner Bessie Lee Mauldin on bass. After the show in New York City Delano joined the band full-time, and at the request of Monroe he switched from banjo to guitar and took over lead vocals as well. It proved to be a career-defining break for the young banjo player turned guitarist/singer. Though his time with Monroe was short, it was an influential time as the bluegrass legend helped introduce the world to the voice of Del McCoury, a voice which might be the most perfect in bluegrass, a voice that is the living embodiment of the “high and lonesome” sound, a voice about which country music superstar Vince Gill declares, “I would rather hear Del McCoury sing ‘Are You Teasin’ Me?’ than just about anything.”
Since his brief time with Monroe, McCoury has gone onto establish himself as one of the truly legendary figures in the genre. He was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Hall of Fame in 2011, has released over thirty albums, won fifteen IBMA awards – including being named entertainer of the year nine times (with four straight wins from 1997-2000) – and won two Grammy Awards in 2006 and 2014 for his albums, The Company We Keep and Streets of Baltimore. He is a man whose roots stretch back to the earliest days, but who stands firmly in the now. A man who is not afraid to collaborate with any number of bands who might be assumed to be outside the normal wheelhouse and comfort zone of an aging bluegrass legend, mixing it up with younger bands like Phish, Yonder Mountain String Band, The String Cheese Incident, Old Crow Medicine Show, Leftover Salmon, and Steve Earle. Bands that are pushing the sound his one-time mentor Bill Monroe first created so many years ago into new and bold directions.
For Monroe to stumble upon such an absurdly talented player in Baltimore was no lucky break. During the fifties and sixties Baltimore was teeming with talent and a rare convergence of people. In addition to Del McCoury, a host of other influential pickers and musicians all would emerge from Baltimore during this time, including Mike Seeger, Bill Clifton, Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys (the first bluegrass band to grace the stage at Carnegie Hall), the pioneering duets of Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard, and the groundbreaking banjo wizardry of Walt Hensley. They would all help to introduce the hard-driving style that was best found in its most pure form in those rough, corner bars on the streets of Baltimore, and bring this energetic style to the music world at large.
Baltimore was one of the few places in the United States where musicians from the mountains and the South could meet and play with folks likely outside of their normal social strata. College-educated city folk and hillbilly migrants from Appalachia mingled easily in Baltimore over the common-ground of music, and in particular string-band and early bluegrass music. Seeger provides the best explanation of Baltimore’s unique personality as a city:
We were quite conscious in Baltimore of being a place where the city and the country met. You’d have tough bluegrass bars, where the city people were the outsiders. You’d have bohemian parties, where the country people were the outsiders. It was a place where different classes and different cultures were meeting. It was a time of curiosity and discovery and friction and exhilaration.
Much of the focus on bluegrass as it relates to its growth in cities tends to revolve around Nashville, with its well-deserved Music City title, and the bluegrass scene that eventually developed in Washington D.C. around such genre-defining bands as the Country Gentleman and The Seldom Scene. While there were many other urban settings at the time with a large population of Appalachian migrants and that also had important urban hillbilly scenes, it can be argued that none of them had the lasting impact that Baltimore did. During those early years that saw the identity of bluegrass truly formed, it was the vibrant, special scene a short drive north of D.C. on I-295 in Baltimore that Seeger recalled which truly laid the foundation. With his trademark chuckle Del McCoury agrees:
There was Nashville, and then there was Baltimore. There were other places, Detroit was pretty big, and Cincinnati, there was a big bluegrass scene in those two cities, and Washington [D.C.] as well, but Baltimore was the hot town for this kind of music back in the fifties and sixties.
In the years following World War II, as the factories and industries boomed there was an exodus from the mountains and the South into the cities and Baltimore found itself the recipient of an extraordinarily talented crop of musicians who settled into an area ripe with possibilities and opportunities. In a house on Eager Street that held weekly gatherings of like-minded urban folk-music people and hillbillies, in neighborhoods across Baltimore called “Little Appalachia,” in “hillbilly ghettos” where migrants clustered in the cramped row houses that hosted nightly pickin’ parties, and in the working-class bars that could just as easily erupt in a brawl as they could in live music, the sound of hillbilly or bluegrass music was not only being played, but redefined and pushed in new directions.
These sounds soon started reaching the ears of young, impressionable musicians across the country who were just beginning to find their way musically. Sam Bush, one of the originators of the modern bluegrass sound that began developing in the 1970s, was a teenager in Bowling Green, Kentucky, and one of those young impressionable musicians in the late 1960s when he first came across the “hard-driving Baltimore-style.” His band, New Grass Revival, was a revelatory shot in the arm to bluegrass music when they burst on to the scene in 1971. They were a bunch of young hot-shot pickers breaking the normal restrained bluegrass mold at the time with their long hair, jeans, and t-shirts; who, with their psychedelic-influenced take on bluegrass fused everything from jazz, funk, blues and rock together. They shook off the shackles that had tethered the genre for too long and changed the face of modern bluegrass. It was an album Bush came across by Baltimore banjo-picker Walt Hensley that proved to be the first time Bush would discover the spark that would ignite his passion to move bluegrass into new realms and hear a term that would go on to define those early years of Bush’s long, storied career. Bush heard Hensley’s groundbreaking 1969 album Pickin’ on New Grass, and it blew away the young artist, instigating the formation of the band, New Grass Revival, and was part of the birth of a new style, “Newgrass.” With his mind fully-blown he explained, “He [Hensley] was stretching the boundaries there.”
Many of those early Baltimore musicians who inspired that young impressionable talent, like Sam Bush, and helped provide such a unique voice to this still developing musical style, would seem to have been within arm’s reach of making it big, of reaching that musical summit, only to fall short due to a litany of reasons. With a scene built around a large influx of poor migrants with limited education, it is not surprising to hear McCoury say that the bands in Baltimore “were less professional” than those in other cities, and to find so many players who were so talented on the music side fail so easily on the business side. This lack of business acumen or professionalism proved to be the biggest hindrance for many musicians from Baltimore.
For every Del McCoury or Hazel Dickens that clawed their way out of Baltimore and achieved that lofty legendary status there are countless stories of those who could not quite obtain what their seemingly unlimited talent placed within their grasp. Whether due to lack of education, poor business sense, too much drink, a lack of faith in one’s abilities, or quite simply bad luck, many of these Baltimore pickers found that instead of etching their name in big letters on the roll call of greats they were more often than not resigned to the overlooked role of early innovator or forgotten influence. The scope of these musicians’ influence was wide and far-reaching, but unfortunately as bluegrass musician Artie Werner (who years later played with many of the early pioneers from Baltimore in Cincinnati) says, “People don’t realize how much bluegrass was influenced by Baltimore-area musicians.” It seems with the passage of time, this has come close to being forgotten, as Baltimore is often overshadowed by their big brother to the south, Washington D.C., and the impact of these pioneering musicians is relegated to a passing memory or a simple mention in a lyric. But Baltimore’s story is the story of early bluegrass. Without it and the musicians who lived and played there, what we know and hear today would not be the same.