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Vern Williams Band

Posted by corcoran on Tuesday, May 21, 2024

I was lucky enough in the 1970s to be a member of an excellent bluegrass band in Vancouver, British Columbia, on Canada's West Coast. We called ourselves Silver Spring, after the lager beer we drank at practices that was from the Silver Spring Brewery in Victoria. Parenthetically, the brewery was eventually bought by Labatt’s, who changed the lager’s name to Lucky Lager, a beer decidedly inferior to Silver Spring. But that is a discussion for another day.


Silver Spring played a lot of gigs in the 5 or 6 years we were together. An example: Every Halloween, the Commodore Ballroom on Granville staged the Halloween Hoedown, wherein people in costume drank copiously or consumed other pharmaceuticals  and danced to several bands. For a number of years Silver Spring opened the Hoedown — we were the token acoustic group — and were then followed by a very good rock band named Brain Damage. I don’t remember too much about those gigs, proof that I had a good time (or perhaps suffered some brain damage). We also played at the 100-foot bar at Habitat Forum in 1976, an artistic offshoot of the U.N.’s International Conference on Human Settlements, and had numerous other gigs at bars, country dances, and parties. All this led to our developing a reputation as a crackerjack bluegrass band, and this in turn led our being invited to perform at the First Annual Black Mountain Bluegrass Festival, in Kelowna, BC, 1977, to be held at the rodeo grounds on Black Mountain.


We were pretty excited about landing a paying gig at what looked to be an excellent bluegrass festival. We were excited, that is, until word subsequently came down that were had been bumped from the roster for a professional band from the United States, a band we had never heard of. We had been supplanted by the Vern Williams Band. Vern Williams? Who the hell is Vern Williams? Our consolation prize was that we were invited to compete in the amateur band contest, with the substantial entry fee waived. Although we were pretty choked about getting bumped, my bandmates and I reluctantly decided to accept the consolation prize. 


We made the journey to Kelowna and got established in a motel. (In adjacent rooms were members of a band from Darrington, Washington, and those dudes had Budweiser for breakfast). We then went to the festival site for the first concerts. When the Vern Williams Band came on the perform, we were gobsmacked. Vern was a high tenor singer and mandolin player of the Bill Monroe school, and his voice was incredibly powerful and intense. Plus he had assembled an outstanding band comprising his son Delbert on guitar and vocals, Keith Little on banjo and vocals, Ed Neff on fiddle, and Kevin Thompson on bass. Although Vern was originally from Arkansas, a strong hint of the band’s eventual origin was that we knew that Ed Neff was a stalwart of the California bluegrass scene. In fact, Vern had been stationed in southern California when he was drafted into the military, and he remained there to raise his family and form a band. He too was a stalwart of California bluegrass, and luminaries such as Laurie Lewis had apprenticed with him.


Williams’s vocal style has been characterized as raw and unfiltered, and he could peel paint off the outhouse door when he got cranked up. The band’s harmonies were crisp and soulful, with Vern of course singing lead as well as high tenor over Delbert and Keith’s lead and harmony vocals. Their repertoire included a lot of early bluegrass as well as pre-bluegrass string band music, all played in an outstanding bluegrass style. I imagine that people exposed to Bill Monroe’s band in the seminal days of bluegrass, in the 1940s and early 1950s, would have experienced the same kind of stunned reaction that I and my bandmates experienced on hearing Vern Williams. And we immediately understood why he and his band had supplanted us at the festival.


If you want to hear VW’s striking and unvarnished lead and tenor singing, great harmonies, and excellent picking by a solid band, listen to their CDs available on Amazon, as well as on the usual streaming services. You can also find recordings by Rose Maddox, another hillbilly singer from California, who did several albums in collaboration with the Vern Williams Band. I recommend listening to every recording by Vern Williams that you can get your hands on.


But wait, I hear you asking, what was the outcome of the band contest that Silver Spring was invited to compete in, a contest judged by Sylvia Tyson and Al Cherney (who played fiddle for Tommy Hunter, “Canada’s Country Gentleman”). Well, we of course won it, hands down, and ended up making more money than if we had remained a booked act. When I talked to her some years ago, Sylvia remembered the festival but not Silver Spring’s outstanding performance in the band contest. Sic transit gloria mundi.


And what about subsequent Black Mountain Festivals? It turns out that it was a once-off, and there were no more Black Mountain Bluegrass Festivals. Either the promoters decided they could not make enough money to stage another festival, or else they concluded that Silver Spring had set the bar too high ever to be reached again by anybody else — to say nothing of the even higher bar set by Vern Williams. You be the judge. Personally I think that low profit is the far more likely explanation! Incidentally, I regret never getting back to Black Mountain, to see what it is like now. I suspect it has evolved into a gaggle of suburban neighbourhoods full of houses with 3-car garages and swimming pools. Ah, Kelowna!

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