A personal account by Phil Williams
Monroe, Scruggs, 1930s & ‘40s
The following is what I know from my own experience about bluegrass coming to Western Washington and parts of the Pacific Northwest. There are a lot of things I don’t know, such as the development of bluegrass in parts of the Northwest in which we weren’t involved. Perhaps someone with a knowledge of the history of another region in the Pacific Northwest could write up what they know and post it to supplement what is discussed here. This article is from a presentation made at the 2010 Northwest Folklife Festival by me, Vivian Williams, and Barry Brower.
The genre of music called “bluegrass” today was developed by Bill Monroe in the late 1930’s as an outgrowth of the old time music that had been played primarily in the mountain regions of the Central South since colonial times, and was widely played in that region on an amateur basis as the music of the community, both before and after radio. Monroe had a new twist on the performance of this traditional music, and went on the air on the Grand Ole Opry with it in 1939. At that time he did not use a banjo in the band, or used more old time type banjo, such as played by Stringbean. In the early 1940s, Earl Scruggs developed his own twist on finger picking the banjo. Finger picking was the predominant banjo style in the country since the early 19th century, but Scruggs put a type of syncopation and drive into it that had not been heard before. When he joined Monroe’s band in 1945, the sound of bluegrass as we know it today really came into being.
Monroe’s new twist on old time music, along with other early bands developing at the same time as Monroe – the Stanley Brothers, Reno & Smiley, etc. were on the radio and were touring, primarily in the East and Middle South. Their sound was soon picked up and imitated by folks who already had a historic background in the music from which bluegrass was derived, and to which it was a logical extension of a sound they already knew. This was primarily in the Middle South – Kentucky, West Virgina, Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, with several musicians coming from the Ozarks region of northern Arkansas and southern Missouri, as well as along the Ohio River and the southern part of Illinois and Indiana, and became a part of “the music” of these people.
Bluegrass hit early in Western North Carolina, where there was a traditional of what we might call “old time traditional and country music” since the region was settled. One hotbed of this of great importance to bluegrass in the Northwest was the area around Waynesboro and Silva, North Carolina. Two musicians from Silva – Fred McFalls and Ben Bryson – performed live on the radio out of Waynesboro, playing old time tunes and gospel music on mandolin and guitar, and also with McFalls playing “Scruggs” style banjo in the way that it had been picked up in this region. They incorporated the “new” bluegrass material into their repertoire. The folks in this area worked in the timber industry. After WWII, there was a big downturn in the timber industry in this region, and many were out of work, or knew they would not have work soon. Folks from North Carolina had been coming to Western Washington to work in the timber industry since the late 19th century, but had not put their musical stamp on the region before the migration after WWII. Some tarheels from Western North Carolina found work in the mill and timber industry in Darrington, Washington, and let that be known back home. Soon there was a large migration of folks from this part of North Carolina to Darrington, and Darrington became a “tarheel” community. These folks brought their traditions from North Carolina to Darrington and lived there substantially in the way they did back at “home,” which to them always was North Carolina, to which they made frequent vacation pilgrimages, always saying “I’m goin’ back to Tarheel.” “Tarheel” was a term given to North Carolinians for their tenacity during the Civil War in resisting attacks. It was said that they fought “like their feet were stuck in tar,” didn’t budge an inch.
So, a lot of folks in Darrington were musicians, playing the old time music and the new “bluegrass,” just as they had back in Tarheel. This was the music of a cohesive community, as they were not seeking commercial fame and fortune, but rather just entertaining themselves and their neighbors. Darrington had an annual civic event to commemorate the timber industry there call the “Timber Bowl.” The logging trucks would parade through town, and the local bands would play in the community center. Their music was virtually unknown to anyone else in the Northwest. In the 1950s the Stanley Brothers did a concert in Darrington.
Tracie’s Folklore Center
In the early 1950s, Gordon Tracie, the founder of the Skandia Folkdance Club, started a music and record store in the Pike Place Market, Seattle, called “The Folklore Center.” Gordon had a broad range of interest in traditional music throughout the world. He started carrying bluegrass records – probably the only place in the Northwest where bluegrass records could be obtained at that time. The folks in Darrington found about this and came to the Folklore Center to purchase bluegrass recordings. Gordon got to know them fairly well, especially Fred McFalls, who was the de facto leader in the Darrington bluegrass scene. When Gordon moved the Folklore Center from the Pike Place Market to 41st Street NE, just off University Way, in the mid 1950s, he had Fred McFalls and his Carolina Mountain Boys perform for the grand opening. This is likely the first time that anyone in the urban areas of the Northwest heard live bluegrass from a local band.
Seattle Area Bluegrass in the 1950s
There were bluegrass musicians in the Seattle area in the 1950s, but we know of no public performances by any of them in a Seattle venue. What we now know as bluegrass was being played on regular “country” radio as just another form of country music. In 1954, Dick Marvin of Kent, Washington, was driving down the road listening to country music on his car radio and heard Bill Monroe performing “Footprints in the Snow.” He said he was so entranced by this that he pulled to the side of the road so he could listen better. Then he went right down to the music store and bought a new 1954 Martin D28 and started learning the bluegrass repertoire. Soon, he was playing with a couple of other musicians, and they had a regular live radio show out of a station in Kent, Washington. This is the first bluegrass radio program we know of in this region featuring a local band. Some of the musicians around Seattle in this period included, besides Dick, Roger Wheeler (who had taken banjo lessons from Earl Scruggs in the 1940s), Conrad Stoneburner, Myron Johnson, Don Perry, and Chuck Green.
Some of us from Seattle started to go to Darrington regularly starting in 1960 to learn and play music with the Tarheels. We were accepted into their community. Vivian Williams was accepted as a fiddler, and Phil Williams started learning bluegrass banjo from Fred McFalls and played bass with the Carolina Mountain Boys. Fred McFalls and Ben Bryson were the heart of the Darrington tarheel music community during this period. They had a show on a radio station in North Carolina before moving to Darrington. Fred put together one of the first performing bluegrass bands in the area, the “Carolina Mountain Boys.” The Darrington Timber Bowl event moved to the new, large community center, and by 1962 the band and fiddle contest in connection with the Timber Bowl was a well known and well attended event in that local area. The string band contest and show was an impetus in getting the musicians to form impromptu bands, which later performed in grange halls, schools, churches, etc. in the area as an informal bluegrass “circuit” put together by the musicians. Some of the musicians who performed in the Darrington area in the early 1960s included Fred McFalls, Ben Bryson, Ed Blanton, Roy Morgan, Earl Jones, Chuck Martin, Sam and Bertha Nations, Gladys Lewis, Grady, Don and Lulubell Mills, Roy Caudill, Henry Vanoy, all from North Carolina; Harley Worthington and Hank English, from Tennessee; Ellis Cowan, a fiddler, and Ivan Hart, guitar and vocals, originally from Missouri; Paul Wiley, from Kentucky; and Roger Wheeler, and our band, the “Turkey Pluckers,” – Vivian & Phil Williams, Ron Ginther, and Mike Nelson, from Seattle.
Until 1962 there was still no local bluegrass being performed publicly in Seattle that we know of. Every summer, however, the “Tarheel Picnic” was held at Forest Park in Everett, Washington. A flatbed truck was the stage, we furnished a simple PA system, and lots of bluegrassers from this region performed informally, ate soup beans and the like, and had a great time. The park would be packed for this event.
The 1960s Coffeehouse and Folk Scene
“Folk music,” a name given to a genre of musicians singing and playing “folk songs” became the popular music of young folks starting in the late 1950s and early 1960s. The rise of such groups as the Kingston Trio, Brothers Four, Lime Lighters, and the increased acceptance of Pete Seeger and the Weavers set the stage for the introduction of bluegrass to urban audiences. The principal venue in most cities, including Seattle, was the coffeehouse. By 1962 there were more coffeehouses in Seattle than I can remember, all featuring “folk” performers. Most of the performers were singing “folk” songs learned from books or records, accompanying themselves on nylon strung guitars. An exception to this in the early 1960s was “The Cascades,” – John and Sally Ashford and Ron Ginther. They used oldtime banjo, and sang a lot of the early “country” songs, and were quite popular in the Seattle area.
In 1962, during the World’s Fair, a club in the basement of a building on the corner of First Avenue and Yesler Way in Seattle – (“92 Yesler”) – had a regular “hootenanny,” as the folk gatherings were called, with an “open mike.” Vivian and I had been playing in our livingroom with Mike Nelson, who was in the Navy, stationed at Sand Point. Mike knew a lot of old time country and newer bluegrass songs, Vivian was already an established fiddler, and I was holding my own on bluegrass banjo. We showed up at the “open mike.” The Cascades were there to perform, and when Ron Ginther saw us with a banjo and fiddle, he asked if we played “hillbilly” music and if he could join us. The four of us did an impromptu bluegrass set, ending with “Orange Blossom Special,” and were hired on the spot to start playing at the “Place Next Door,” a coffeehouse on 45th Avenue next to the Guild Theater. We played there every Friday and Saturday night for the next thirteen weeks, not repeating a tune we had done before on Friday nights, and putting together sets of the tunes that worked for Saturday. A lot of the bluegrass musicians in the area came down and joined in – Dick Marvin, Roger Wheeler, Conrad Stoneburner, Harley Worthington, Hank English, Chuck Green, Barbara Hug (who was learning bluegrass banjo, unheard of for women at that time), and others I can’t remember. The place was mobbed. Almost immediately the nylon string guitars started disappearing and folks got Martin D28s, banjos, mandolins, dobros, fiddles, etc., and the rush to form bluegrass bands to play in the coffeehouses was on. One of the first band to form in this period, that was one of the longest running bluegrass bands in the Pacific Northwest, was the “Willow Creek Ramblers,” – Paul Gillingham, Phil Poth and Don McAllister.
After the World’s Fair, a televised “Northwest Hootenanny” program was broadcast from the Horiuchi Mural at the Seattle Center. Our band, the “Turkey Pluckers,” was a regular on that show, became very popular, and we had to join the Musicians Union as a part of the quota of Union performers required of the Seattle Center.
In 1963, Harley Worthington and Hank English, originally from Tennessee, started “The Tennesseans,” playing bluegrass “Tennessee style.”
In 1964, we finally persuaded Fred McFalls and his Carolina Mountain Boys to perform at a coffeehouse in Seattle. They were somewhat reluctant to come to this type of venue to perform as this was the hippie era and not a part of their culture. They were presented at the Queequeg, one of the best performance coffeehouses on University Way, Seattle, and one of their shows was broadcast on Seattle radio. The band at that time had Fred McFalls, banjo; Ben Bryson, guitar; Ed Blanton, guitar; Chuck Martin, mandolin; and Phil Williams, bass. This gave further impetus to bluegrass in this region.
Roy Caudill, an old time banjo player from North Carolina, then in his ’70s, started having picking parties at his home in North Seattle. The tarheels came down from Darrington, and emerging players from Seattle also came. Roy’s parties became a cultural mixing place between the tarheels and the urban Seattlites being introduced to bluegrass.
Another major push for bluegrass in the Seattle area in the 1960s was the start of the Bluegrass Show Saturday nights on KRAB radio. The show was hosted by Tiny Freeman, who had a great line of gab and could pick well what he played. From time to time he had local musicians perform live and quite informally in the KRAB studio, which had just one Neumann U87 microphone hanging from the ceiling. Most of the time an informal agglomeration of musician who wanted to party as well as share their music with a large listening audience, rather than a formal band, provided the music, laced with inordinate amounts of beer. Listeners would call in with requests, which the musicians usually felt obligated to play whether they knew the tune well or not. During the KRAB “pledge week,” Tiny would “auction off” popular tunes, such as “Orange Blossom Special,” to be performed only when he had received a specified pledge contribution. The quality of this program and the informality of these presentations helped create a feeling that folks did not have to play bluegrass to be included in a very friendly “bluegrass community.”
In 1965, bluegrass was first introduced to the National Old Time Fiddle Contest in Weiser, Idaho. This was the first year Vivian and I attended. Right away we met Barney Munger who had come up from California. The previous year my brother, Bob, and I had backed up Byron Berline in his first national fiddle contest win in Montana, and he showed up at Weiser. We decided to put together a bluegrass band and do entertainment sets at the contest. Vivian fiddled, Byron played mandolin, Barney, banjo, and I played guitar. It was very well received and started a regular pattern of having bluegrass bands provide part of the entertainment at the contest, which still is the case to this day. In 1966, we put together another band at Weiser with Vivian, Bud Meridith and Lonnie Pierce on triple fiddles, Sam Bush on mandolin, Barney Munger on banjo, Loren Wohlgemuth, guitar, and Phil Williams, bass. A lot of bluegrass bands started showing up at Weiser to jam in the campgrounds. I can only remember a few: the Moore Family from Montana, Fickle Hill from California, Tall Timber, Ron Trammel’s band from Fresno, Ed Neff from California, the Sawtooth Mountain Boys from Oregon, and others I can’t remember..
By the mid-1960s bluegrass was coming into its own as an urban musical form in this region. Unfortunately, the City of Seattle, thinking that the coffeehouses were dens of iniquity – drugs, sex, etc. – adopted an ordinance requiring a person to be at least 21 years of age to go to a coffeehouse. This, essentially and probably by design, killed off the coffeehouses and soon there were no more regular venues for bluegrass or folk music in Seattle. In Portland, however, it was a different story. Paul Hebb had started the “13th Avenue Gallery” in the early 1960s. He would rent a warehouse, fill it up with chairs, put in a crude stage, install an espresso machine, and open for business, featuring primarily folk performers, including bluegrass. He would not bother with a license. When the city closed down a location, he would move to another. Our band, the “Turkey Pluckers,” played there, and also in some taverns in Portland. The presence of this kind of venue and of clubs conducive to bluegrass in the Portland area greatly spurred the development of Portland based bluegrass bands.
In 1967, the Seattle Folklore Society brought Bill Monroe in to do concerts in Seattle and Centralia. His bus was being repaired, so he asked for some local musicians to be “bluegrass boys.” He ended up with Vivian on fiddle, Paul Wiley on banjo, and Phil Williams on bass. He brought Doug Green (later “Ranger Doug”) to play guitar and sing lead. Monroe was at our house for around a week. During this time we had several gatherings. One notable one was a Barney Munger’s house in the Phinney Ridge neighborhood. Monroe jammed with a wide variety of local bluegrassers. He also recorded several fiddle tunes for Vivian to learn. There was another memorable gathering at Paul Wiley’s house in Lynnwood, where Monroe met and jammed with many of the Darrington bluegrassers and Ivan Hart. Monroe and the Darrington folks hit it off immediately, and he was so taken with Ivan Hart’s singing that he had Ivan come on stage and sing a couple songs with him at the Seattle concert. Monroe also played a well attended concert in a school gymnasium in Centralia, and then met his regular band in Eugene, Oregon, and performed in a hall at the University of Oregon. Later, when Monroe was touring the Northwest with his band, he was told about the regular Darrington Sunday bluegrass jam that happened to be in the afternoon of the Sunday he was to perform in Bellingham at night. On Sunday morning he got the band on the bus, went to Darrington, and did a 45 minute set at the Darrington jam. Kenny Baker said that this was the only time he had seen Monroe do something like this for no compensation whatsoever, except a good sharing time with folks he knew would appreciate it. The Bellingham concert was opened by a fine performance by Bellingham’s “South Fork Bluegrass Band.”
In 1969, the Seattle Folklore Society brought Ralph Stanley to Seattle. At that time bluegrass was in a slump on the national market. Stanley drove up to our door in a station wagon with Larry Sparks, guitar and vocals, and Curley Ray Cline, fiddle. He asked us to find him a bass player for the concert, and we recruited Barney Munger, who played bass and banjo with Tall Timber. Stanley turned in a dynamic performance before a full audience at the Hub Auditorium, University of Washington.
The 1970s saw a real turning point in bluegrass in the Pacific Northwest. In Seattle, bluegrass started to be featured at the “Inside Passage” tavern in Pioneer Square. The performance room was separate from the bar, and would hold around 250 people. The tavern turned this room over to an informal co-op of bands who wanted to perform there regularly. “Gordon, Mitchell, Scott,” – Dick Gordon, Thane Mitchell, and Bill Scott – took Thursday nights. Tall Timber – Vivian Williams, Barney Munger, Phil Williams, Dick Marvin, and Lou Harrington – split Fridays with the Willow Creek Ramblers, each band playing every other Friday. The Southfork Bluegrass Band held the Saturday night spot. A little later, Peter Langson brought his “Puddle City” bluegrass band up from Olympia and Portland for Wednesday nights. Then Sherry Nevins asked for a night to start a square dance, and was given her night. This was the start of the regular contradance scene in Seattle. The Inside Passage attracted large audiences and the bands playing there became well known throughout the region. Barbara Lamb also emerged during this period as a great fiddler and was playing with bands such as The Tennesseans, Tall Timber, and other bluegrass bands while in her teens.
In Oregon, George Rellis, who played with Eugene band Good ‘n Country, started a circuit of summer bluegrass festivals held in major facilities and fairgrounds. These festivals featured primarily performers from the Pacific Northwest and Northern California. They were held at the Portland Civic Auditorium, and fairgrounds in Salem, Eugene, and Roseburg, and at Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood. Blitz beer was the major sponsor of these festivals. Some of the bands presented at these festivals which I can remember included Tall Timber, the Old Hat Band, Willow Creek Ramblers, the Tennesseans, Frank Ferrel and his Irish American String Band, and others from Washington; The Muddy Bottom Boys, the Sawtooth Mountain Boys, Dr. Corn’s Bluegrass Remedy, Good ‘n Country, and Sunny South bands from Oregon; High Country, Shubb Wilson & Shubb, Vern & Ray, and Any Old Time, from Northern California. There were many others whom I don’t remember. The colleges in Oregon also featured a lot of bluegrass concerts by local bands.
Other bluegrass festivals were held at various locations in the Pacific Northwest. These include one at Clark College, Vancouver, Washington; Sue Murphy’s festival near Woodinville in 1972, The Tumwater Bluegrass Festival, the Black Mountain Bluegrass Festival at Kelowna, B.C., and a bunch of others I can’t remember.
In 1970, the “Tenino Old Time Music Festival” was started in Tenino, Washington by Neil Johnston and the local Lion’s Club as an answer to the scandal of the 1969 “Sky River Rock Festival” held on a farm just out of town. This festival featured a number of local bluegrass bands, including Rural Delivery from Bremerton, Washington, the Curley Creek String Band from the Carbonado, Washington, area, Tall Timber, the Round Town Girls from Evergreen State College in Olympia, and many more.
At that time Tom Foote was teaching a bluegrass class at Evergreen State College, and his bands, as well as some of his students performed at Tenino in the early years. Tom’s class taught a lot of good players who are still performing today, and who recruited other folks, who were young at the time, to learn the music and play with them.
In 1972, the first Northwest Folklife Festival was held. A lot of local bluegrass bands were featured. At that time, the Seattle Center had the large stage North of the fountain, and this was devoted to bluegrass and similar music most of the day.
Darrington Bluegrass Festival
In 1976, Harley Worthington, who was back from a stint in Viet Nam, out of the military, and performing with Hank English as the Tennesseans, thought that a bluegrass festival was needed in the Puget Sound region. He called a meeting at his house to discuss this concept, inviting Grover and Ernestine Jones, Sam and Bertha Nations, Roy Morgan, Hank English, Harley Worthington, and Phil and Vivian Williams. It was there decided to put together an organization to launch a bluegrass festival in Darrington. The Darrington folks put together the “Whitehorse Mountaineers,” a non-profit organization to be the sponsor, and talked O. C. Helton and the horse association that ran it, to let them use the Darrington rodeo grounds for the festival. The first festival was in 1977, and presented a broad cross section of Tarheel as well as city type bluegrass, country, and oldtime music performers. The Darrington festival is going to this day and is a major gathering place for bluegrassers.
In the late 1970’s a young fiddler named Mark O’Connor started playing in the Tennesseans with Hank English and Harley Worthington.
This brief “history” will end here at the end of the 1970s. The bluegrass scene in the Pacific Northwest developed considerably more in the 1980s and to the present day with the founding of state bluegrass associations and the start of many more bluegrass festivals, perhaps the most notable of which is “Wintergrass,” which is still going today, though it has moved to Bellevue, Washington from Tacoma, Washington, where it was started. I will leave it to others who were more involved in the Northwest bluegrass scene to carry the history forward from here.