Happy New Year 2021. I don’t think anyone could have predicted this past year back at the 2020 New Years celebrations.
To start on a bright note, last week WXRL radio featured a tribute to Hank Williams. For years this was hosted by Ramblin’ Lou, but since passed the show is hosted by Carl Eddy, local singer, songwriter and music historian. It will be rebroadcast from 1 to 2 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 2, 2021, on WXRL 1300 AM and streaming on the internet on WWW.WXRL.com. Carl explores the bluegrass connection to Hank Williams band and music.
The summer made it seem like the ominous head of Covid was laying low. Some music venues opened up on a limited basis this past summer and fall but now in the winter, it has reared up it’s head with a vengeance. As I write this article, Erie County is in level Orange meaning no indoor dining or bands.
The good local folks that run the monthly bluegrass jam at Bennington Lanes gave it a great go right up until the December jam. Unfortunately the lack of attendance has forced it to suspend future jams until further notice.
As we approach 2021 let us reflect on some of those bluegrass connected individuals that will remain in our hearts and some in our ears for many years to come.
Eric Weissberg from New York city died in March 2020. He was a banjo player and multi-instrumentalist who might be best remembered for playing the banjo in the song “Dueling Banjos” for the movie “Deliverance.”
Joe Diffie, a former and occasional bluegrass artist and highly successful country singer, died of Covid in March.
In May, we lost a very good friend to the local bluegrass concert scene in Buffalo. Tony de Boer, called the grandfather of Canadian bluegrass, would book national touring bands for neighboring Ontario and coordinate with Ted Lambert, Rich Schaefer, Keith Zehr, Randy Keller and Doug Yeomans so we could have them perform the night before in Buffalo. Tony helped us stage bands like the Johnson Mountain Boys, Doyle Lawson and Bill Monroe, concerts and cooperation spanning over 50 concerts and several decades.
In July, the powerhouse, multi instrumentalist Charlie Daniels left us. A talent too big for one genre of music.
Also in July, we lost the banjo virtuoso, Kenny Ingram. He played banjo with Lester Flatt, Jimmy Martin, Larry Stephenson and Rhonda Vincent. He was featured on countless other projects as a guest musician.
In August we lost Steve Gulley. The extraordinary singer, guitarist and songwriter. Steve played with Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, Mountain Heart, Grasstowne, Dale Ann Bradley and, more recently, his own band, New Pinnacle.
We lost William McEuen in September. He was the brother of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band original member John McEuen. Bill managed, wrote songs for and served as producer and recording engineer for the band, including their ground breaking album set, “Will the Circle be Unbroken.”
Then on Christmas day 2020, there was Tony Rice. For banjo, there was Earl Scruggs; for dobro, there is Jerry Douglas; for mandolin, of course, Bill Monroe; for fiddle, perhaps arguably, it was Vasser Clemens or now Mark O’Connor; but for guitar, it was Tony Rice. Certainly his voice and choice of material also set him apart, carrying bluegrass to Gordon Lightfoot smoothness and bluegrass timing to the highly syncopated and groove of Stephane Grappelli. Rich Schaefer comments: “his vocal style, like John Starling w/the Seldom Scene, brought many listeners to the our genre who ‘Didn’t think they liked bluegrass!'”
The tributes have continued pouring in by those who knew him, played with him and were changed forever by his playing. I encourage you to read more about Tony Rice. The New York Times has caught up to the story, Tim Stafford from the band Blue Highway has cowritten the authorized biography about Tony and,if you are a friend of Dave Ruch, local folk singer and music historian, please read about Dave’s Tony Rice connection. Tony would crash at Dave’s apartment in Washington, D.C., and they would talk music and share rides to gigs.
This week a terribly tragic event literally rocked downtown Nashville. destroying virtually a whole block of the city but thankfully taking no lives except that of the bomber. Our hearts go out to those who have suffered loss of property, livelihoods and peace of mind. I went to Facebook the following day to check in with my friends living in and around Nashville, but it wasn’t the bombing that sprang up on most those news feeds: it was the news that Tony Rice had died.
Tony Rice was the voice and innovative guitar playing that shaped a generation of bluegrass pickers and fans. He brought bluegrass guitar playing from its primary job of holding down the rhythm in most bands to the fully equal position of soloist in post ’70s bluegrass bands.
One day in the 1980s, our band, Creek Bend, needed a new guitar player. A talented non-bluegrass player at the time, Doug Yeomans, answered our ad in The Buffalo News. I handed a Tony Rice cassette tape to him and said this is all you need to know. Years later he told me that he wore that tape out. That tape was the “Manzanita” album by Tony. I also highly recommend the series of albums that Tony sang and played on known as the Bluegrass Album Band. I believe there were five or six of these released. If you are going to search one song after reading this, I would suggest you would listen to “Me and My Guitar” by Tony Rice.
In 2020 we learned that music goes on. Even without the stages, the bars, the festivals, music camps, it goes on (kind of like the Whos down in Whoville). We learned about the power of YouTube and Facebook for virtual concerts. I especially like the POV (point of view) videos from Russ Carson, the banjo super picker with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. He wears a camera on his head and it makes you feel like you are seeing the banjo neck through his eyes!
I spent time ordering many of the latest recordings from my fellow musicians this year. I look forward to listening and reviewing a few of them in the months to come. We are loving the success of our beloved Buffalo Bills and looking with guarded optimism to a world where live music again heals the players and the listeners.
Join me in raising our virtual glasses to those who have passed but left us so much, the health care professionals and essential area workers that provide for us heroically and our brave men and women of our military past and present. Salute! And here’s to 2021.