Life as a country musician has never been easy and Earl Scruggs spent grueling years on the road in the late 1940s pioneering the bluegrass sound with fellow road warriors Bill Monroe, Chubby Wise, Howard Watts, and Lester Flatt. After Flatt and Scruggs left the Blue Grass Boys in 1948, the popularity of Bluegrass music began to grow and through the resourceful management of Louise Certain, soon to be Louise Scruggs, the band secured the sponsorship of Martha White Flour and what was hopefully a more comfortable means of transportation. Still between radio performances, recording sessions, and live shows, the band often performed multiple times per day. The image below features The Foggy Mountain Boys on an unknown stage in the 1950s.
One of the great things about archives is that you can run across interesting information in places you’d never expect. For example, the Mike Seeger tape logs in the Southern Folklife Collection Field Notes (30025) are largely comprised of long lists of the song titles and performers which make up the track listings of his numerous field recordings. But hidden among the pages and pages of track listings are occasional gems of personal musings, background stories, or random anecdotes like the following:
In August 1988, I spoke with Bud Reed about the Monroe Brothers engagement in the 1950s at the New River Ranch. . . He said that they booked them separately for the same day, then somehow they sang together on stage. . . Bud said that some of the public attended because of the widely circulated folklore that they had fought and broken up – and that the big scar on Charlie’s neck was from a knife wound from Bill. These people wanted to see them fight again. I’ve heard many such stories about these two.”
Listen below to a clip from the brothers’ (fratricide-free) collaboration that day:
The entire concert is recorded on SFC field tape FT-12917.
With the rise of Rock and Roll and Nashville’s turn towards hyper-stylized Countrypolitan, country music parks and campgrounds of the 1950s and 1960s acted as catch-all venues for performers and fans in the still very active hillbilly and honky-tonk music scenes. Located just across the Pennsylvania border in Rising Sun, Maryland, New River Ranch welcomed everyone: old-time legends, honky-tonk heroes, and homegrown fiddle bands.
With an open-air stage and wooden planks for seats, picnic suppers and rudimentary PA, what New River Ranch lacked in amenities, it made up tenfold with the music. On the urging of Mike Seeger, Ralph Rinzler first visited New River Ranch in 1954 to see Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys; an experience that profoundly affected the future of not only Rinzler and Monroe, but also the future of folk and country music in ways that continue to resonate today.
The Eugene Earle Collection holds a treasure trove of live recordings from New River Ranch and countless other parks and venues across the U. S. A. Digitized for the project Fiddles, Banjos, and Mountain Music: Preserving Audio Collections of Southern Traditional Music, these clips come from a reel-to-reel tape likely recorded by Gerald Mills on May 8, 1955, featuring a rare 1950s reunion by The Monroe Brothers, Charlie and Bill, whose bands both performed regularly at the park, just two years before Charlie’s retirement from music in 1957. The raw beauty of the setting and the enthusiasm of the audience and the performers shine through on these recordings. “Nine Pound Hammer” is the brothers’ classic rendition of the Merle Travis tune, including the ferocious first licks of Bill’s chiming mandolin solo. “This World is Not My Home” is their rendition of the gospel tune popularized by the Carter Family. The vocal harmonies are stunning. Please enjoy.
Both clips from SFC field tape FT-12917 in the Eugene Earle Collection.
The ongoing digitization project Fiddles, Banjos and Mountain Music: Preserving Audio Collections of Southern Traditional Music, is made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Bill Monroe performing with Doc Watson, 1963. Some highlights from their performances together are collected on the excellent Smithsonian Folkways CD Live Duet Recordings 1963-1980.