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Remembering Some of the Pioneers of Bluegrass & Banjo

Posted by Paul Bock on Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Sometimes I think back to when I first started trying to figure out how to play a 5-string banjo - in April, 1956, with a cheap Sears & Roebuck resonator instrument  - and the motivation I got from the handful of better-known bands that I got to see live and in person.  During the mid-late 1950s, at the old Lyric Theater in downtown Richmond, VA, I watched Don Reno, Red Smiley, and the Tennessee Cutups live on stage at least twice and live on TV several times.  Other live stage-show favorites of that time were Bill Clifton & the Dixie Mt. Boys (Johnny Clark on banjo); Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper and the Clinch Mt. Clan (Joe Drumwright on banjo); and local favorites The Bent Mt. Boys and whatever "stage band" Harlan Bumgardner was in (I liked Harlan's banjo playing a lot).  In 1960 I saw Jimmy Dean and the Texas Wildcats at the championships in Warrenton, VA, and thrilled to Smitty Irwin on banjo - I also saw them a lot on TV during that era - and of course Don & Red were at that event as well (and Red Smiley actually spoke to us!).  In 1962, I was in Raleigh, NC, and saw a live show of Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs (what a great show!) and also watched them numerous times on TV with their live show (where I once saw Earl completely blow the run/lick in the middle of the 2nd break to "Bugle Call Rag" on live TV!).

And now I listen to Bela Fleck and wonder how in the world anyone can get that many notes out of a banjo in so many different genres of music!  65 years of fooling with the banjo, and counting!

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