The Country Gentlemen
The Country Gentlemen
The Country Gentlemen, in the eyes of many critics, have done more to popularize bluegrass music than almost any other modern band. At a time when bluegrass was all but disappearing from radio and stage, the members of the band infused the genre with an innovative energy and gave it a whole new direction, prompting its new label, “newgrass.” In his book Bluegrass, Bob Artis wrote, “Except, possibly, for [Lester] Flatt and [Earl] Scruggs, the Country Gentlemen made more bluegrass converts than anyone. In terms of bringing in new fans who had always been disdainful of the raw hillbilly aspects of bluegrass, they undoubtedly did as much as Flatt and Scruggs. In 1969 they were the only name act at the festivals who could consistently bring the audience to its feet.”
One might say the Country Gentlemen were part of the second generation of bluegrass music—men who grew up imitating such pioneers as Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs, but who also responded to the folk music revival and the rock and roll scene. Artis noted that the Gentlemen “were one of the first bands to have two
Group formed July 4, 1957, in Washington, DC. Original members include John Duffey (madolin), Bill Emerson (banjo), Earl Taylor (bass), and Charlie Waller (guitar); Eddie Adcock replaced Emerson on banjo, and band was named the Country Gentlemen. Group has had numerous personnel changes over the years and has included Mike Auldridge, Jimmy Bowen, Kevin Church, Jerry Douglas, Jimmy Gaudreau, Tom Gray, Doyle Lawson, Keith Little, Ricky Skaggs, Norman Wright, and Bill Yates. Band has toured the United States, Canada, and the Far East.
Selected awards: Named contemporary bluegrass band of the year at the Bluegrass Music Award Convention, 1986.
Addresses: Record company —Rebel Records, Box 3057, Roanoke, VA 24015.
sources of ideas. One, of course, was the world of straight bluegrass. The other was the then-hip world of folk music. They were transition-oriented enough to seek out some of the best and least-known songs of traditional bands like the Stanley Brothers and give that material a sophisticated rearranging. But they also had an ear for the trends of popular music, much of it thoroughly adaptable to bluegrass.”
The Washington, D.C., area has always been an important hub for bluegrass music. Its urban and suburban population includes large numbers of former Appalachian dwellers who moved north and east to find jobs. Bluegrass flourished in the bars of Washington and Baltimore, Maryland, when it seemed to be all but dying out elsewhere, and the Country Gentlemen’s members learned their craft in the region’s rowdier night spots.
Ironically, an automobile accident led to the formation of the Country Gentlemen. The collision injured Buzz Busby, a well-known bluegrass musician who was a regular entertainer at Washington’s Admiral Grill. Busby’s banjoist, Bill Emerson, tried to keep the Admiral gig by phoning some of his musician friends, notably a Louisiana-born guitarist named Charlie Waller and a young local mandolin player named John Duffey. Together with some of Busby’s other sidemen, the trio managed to hold down the job, and after a few weeks they realized that they were clicking as a group.
The official date for the beginning of the Country Gentlemen is cited as the fourth of July, 1957. From its beginning the band underwent numerous personnel changes, but its fledgling membership included Duffey on mandolin, Waller on guitar, and Eddie Adcock on banjo. All three were talented instrumentalists, but they brought more than just their musical proficiency to the group. Both Duffey and Adcock enjoyed clowning around and improvising onstage; the performers were creative, spontaneous, and even silly at times.
Artis observed, however, that the outstanding characteristic of the Country Gentlemen was the vocal harmonies the trio of Duffey, Adcock, and Waller achieved. “The Country Gentlemen has been a uniformly superb band since the first,” commented the critic. “[The] trio was sterling, and it was not the bluegrass trio almost everyone had been accustomed to. Theirs were three thoroughly unique voices that happened to mesh into one of the two or three best bluegrass trios ever assembled. Waller had a voice that was technically better than the average bluegrass singer.… Duffey, possibly the loudest tenor in bluegrass, had little of that high, nasal quality to his voice. It wasn’t operatic, but it was full and rich, not the flat, twangy sound so many associate with the tenor singing of bluegrass. Adcock’s warbling baritone was hushed and breathy, complimenting Duffey’s unique voice and making their trio truly one of a kind.”
The Gentlemen picked up a following in the Washington, D.C., area and soon began playing the college and festival circuit as well. Theirs was a bluegrass band with a difference—all of them, especially Waller, had been influenced by early rock and roll. As a result, they began to adapt rock and folk songs to the bluegrass style. The group was among the first to play and sing bluegrass renditions of songs by such varied artists as Harry Belafonte, Simon and Garfunkle, the Kingston Trio, and Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. This tactic earned the disdain of many bluegrass purists, but it attracted a whole new generation of bluegrass fans—young listeners who eventually gained an appreciation for the musical style as a whole.
In addition to their rather daring playlist, the Country Gentlemen became renowned for their boisterous performances. Artis noted that “in a field where the musicians were almost universally depicted as sullen and soulful, the effect [of the Gentlemen] was more than funny. It was irreverent, and the irreverence was part of what the Country Gentlemen were.” The group sang riotous takeoff songs and launched into long, dueling riffs that generally ended with everyone—even the string bass player—picking his instrument behind his back. Joking onstage had also been frowned upon in bluegrass circles, but most considered this aspect of the Gentlemen’s work a refreshing change from more formal bluegrass performances.
By 1969 the Country Gentlemen had ascended to the first ranks in bluegrass. That same year, Duffey left the group. Adcock followed soon after, but Waller persevered, filling the vacant positions with other talented artists. Since then the band has counted among its members some of the finest bluegrass musicians, including Ricky Skaggs, Doyle Lawson, Jerry Douglas, and Jimmy Gaudreau. When it entered its third decade in the late 1980s, the group had only one original member—Charlie Waller—but it persisted. Chicago Tribune contributor Jack Hurst called the Country Gentlemen “a veritable incubator for the development of bluegrass and country stars.”
The group has also recorded some of the biggest hits in modern bluegrass music. One of the most frequently requested bluegrass tunes is a Country Gentlemen number, “The Rebel Soldier,” a tear-jerker about the dying moments of an American Civil War infantryman. Another is the equally touching “Bringin’ Mary Home,” in which a ghostly little girl visits her home. The Gentlemen have also made hits of two semi-religious numbers, “God’s Coloring Book” and “The In Crowd.”
Critics have remarked that the Country Gentlemen have always been able to perform both traditional and progressive bluegrass numbers with equal finesse, so their style has never become dated or obsolete. Waller told the Chicago Tribune in 1989 that the band—and bluegrass in general—endure because the sound is “as American as apple pie.” The artist added, “I’ve always thought of bluegrass as being the real country music. I don’t go for what Nashville’s doing right now, the cry-in-your-beer kind of stuff. Bluegrass deals with a lot of sad songs, too, but they’re real tragedy songs, not just ‘Let’s get a six-pack and split up.’”
Over the years various incarnations of the Country Gentlemen have reunited for special concerts or recording sessions. While they were once considered bluegrass mavericks, Waller, Adcock, and Duffey continue to be venerated for their contributions to a stagnating genre. Artis declared in 1975 that the Country Gentlemen may well be the “fathers of modern bluegrass”—musicians who “were a big push behind the progressive bluegrass movement, which in turn will have an effect on the directions bluegrass might take tomorrow.”
New Look, New Sound: The Country Gentlemen, Rebel.
Play It Like It Is, Rebel.
The Award-Winning Country Gentlemen, Rebel.
Bringin’ Mary Home, Rebel.
Sound Off, Rebel.
Yesterday & Today, Rebel.
Young Fisher Woman, Rebel.
The Country Gentlemen, four volumes, Folkways.
The Country Gentlemen Featuring Ricky Skaggs on Fiddle (reissue), Vanguard, 1985.
Good As Gold!, Sugar Hill, 1984.
Gospel Album, Rebel.
River Bottom, Sugar Hill.
Sit Down Young Stranger, Sugar Hill.
Classic Country Gents Reunion, Sugar Hill.
Return Engagement, Rebel, 1988.
Live in Japan, Rebel, 1989.
25 Years, Rebel, 1989.
Country Songs Old and New (reissue), Smithsonian/Folkways, 1990.
Folksongs and Bluegrass, Smithsonian/Folkways.
Artis, Bob, Bluegrass, Hawthorn, 1975.
Chicago Tribune, March 30, 1989.
Country Music, November/December 1991.
Los Angeles Magazine, December 1984.
Stereo Review, June 1984; June 1986.
—Anne Janette Johnson
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