Bill Emerson: Forging New Trails

Reprinted from Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine

May 2008, Volume 42, Number 11

Bill Emerson is back. To the delight of his many fans and peers, he has recently returned to the bluegrass music scene and, this time around, playing in his own band—Bill Emerson & the Sweet Dixie Band. Debuting at the 2007 World Of Bluegrass convention, Bill Emerson & the Sweet Dixie Band performed to a standing-room-only crowd of fans happy to see Bill playing again. The show featured more than eight artists as Bill’s band showcased a veritable bluegrass variety show of talent with guests such as Randy Waller, Mark Newton, and Gary Ferguson.

“We wanted to duplicate our new CD as much as possible at that showcase,” reveals Bill. “The CD has ten guest artists on it, and many of them performed there. We won’t have all of the artists with us, but some, including new ones, will be joining us at various festivals, concerts, and new records. So, the idea for our CD was to be diverse.”

There will also be lots of variety for his many fans as the new “Bill Emerson & The Sweet Dixie Band” CD features 12 lead singers, five original tunes, two gospel songs, two country tunes, three traditional, three contemporary, and one instrumental. “There’s a little something for everyone, I don’t think anyone will get easily bored with it,” surmises Bill.

Bill’s impressive career that has spanned almost five decades includes playing with Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys (1962-1965), Cliff Waldron & the New Shades Of Grass (1967-1969), the Country Gentlemen (from its founding in 1957 through 1958, then again in 1970 to early 1973), and, in late 1973, he founded Country Current, the U.S. Navy Bluegrass Band. In 1993, Bill retired from the Navy and left Country Current. He has a multitude of recorded projects to his credit. He was the owner and president of Webco Records in 1991, which was eventually sold to Pinecastle Records in 1994. Then, in 1999, he retired from music altogether to concentrate on being a grandparent and to enjoy fishing at his favorite lake in Virginia.

Some of Bill’s accolades include winning the National Banjo Championship in 1959, Muleskinner News Banjo Player Of The Year in 1972 and 1973. He was also elected to the Virginia Folk Music Hall Of Fame in 1984, and June 10th was proclaimed Bill Emerson Day by Virginia’s governor. In 1993, Bill was a final nominee for Recorded Event Of The Year with “Reunion.” Then in 1995, he was nominated for IBMA’s Album Of The Year with Emerson & Taylor’s “Appaloosa,” and that same year the title song from that album was also nominated for IBMA’s Song Of The Year. This last year, Bill was a 2007 winner of IBMA’s Recorded Event Of The Year with his participation in Tony Trischka’s “Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectacular” project on Rounder Records.

Bill’s inspiration to come out of retirement and front his own band came to him in a couple of ways. In 2004, Bill performed with Jimmy Martin at the Bean Blossom, Ind., festival, not long before Jimmy passed away. Bill, retired at that time, recalled a pivotal conversation with Jimmy at Bean Blossom. “Jimmy said to me, ‘Big E (he always called me that), you need to be out here playing, because you have too much to offer to let it slip away. Why don’t you get your own band and call them the Sweet Dixie Band?’ Sweet Dixie is a tune I wrote and recorded with Jimmy in the ’60s. It sounded like a good idea, so, I thought about it.”

Then, in 2006, Tony Trischka contacted Bill to be part of Trischka’s award-winning double banjo project. “I greatly admire Tony, and it was such an honor to be a part of Tony’s CD,” recalls Bill. “At first, I declined to be on the project because I had been out of the business awhile. But Tony wouldn’t give up and then offered to let me do any tune I’d like, so I chose ‘Old Cane Pole.’” Bill remembers their trip to the studio to record. “I asked Tony who else was going to be on the CD and then he mentioned Earl Scruggs, Steve Martin, Bela Fleck, Alison Brown, and a long list of banjo greats. I remember thinking, ‘The pressure is on.’”

That recording experience also reunited Bill with many of his old musician friends from the past, such as Tony Rice and Rickie Simpkins. Looking back. Bill realized, “Jimmy’s idea for me to have my own band, and then recording my tune with Tony inspired me to begin the Sweet Dixie Band project.”

Tony also recalls that day he and Bill went into the studio to record. “I came down to his house early, we tightened up the harmony parts, and then went in to record it. I didn’t realize at the time that he looked at it as coming out of retirement, but boy I’m glad he did. It’s a huge honor that he let it be my CD he came out of retirement to do. I’m so grateful. Bill has always been a big hero of mine. I first heard him with Jimmy Martin at Fincastle in 1965, back when I had hair down to my shoulders. And then I heard his recording of ‘Little Maggie’ with Jimmy Martin. His playing was staggering on there— perfectly clean and his tone was remarkable. Then he really blew me away when I heard him with Cliff Waldron & the New Shades Of Grass, particularly with ‘Fox On The Run’ and ‘Proud Mary.’ This was the first time anyone had done these songs in a bluegrass setting. It really ignited my affection for his playing.”

The original band lineup for the Sweet Dixie Band consisted of Wayne Taylor on guitar and vocals. Con Burch on vocals, Pat White on fiddle and mandolin, and Joe Wheatley on bass. Currently, the Sweet Dixie Band is comprised of Bill, Wayne, Con, and newest members, Wayne Lanham on mandolin and fiddle and Teri Chism on bass.

“Wayne Lanham and Teri Chism are both excellent musicians and singers,” notes Bill. “We’ll also have a revolving list of artists who will be performing with the band as circumstances allow.” Wayne Taylor will be the permanent lead singer, guitarist, and writer for the band. In March 2008, he retired from the U.S. Navy Bluegrass Band, Country Current. Taylor states, “I’m very excited to play music with Bill again. He’s a good friend, and we have a good combination of great musicians and fun people to work with.” On the changing guest lineup with the band, Taylor feels, “It’s great! It will keep things fresh and interesting. Con Burch is a great singer who is such an extraordinary talent. I look forward to each configuration Bill puts together.”

Taylor has released several successful CDs, including “Appaloosa,” a project both he and Bill recorded together. Wayne recalls an amusing tale during that time. “I really enjoyed working with Bill as Unit Leader of Country Current. Every fall, we made a national tour for thirty to thirty-five days, and we traveled two per car. Bill and I were car mates, and once on a tour through Texas, we decided to stop off and find us a few rattlesnakes to have some boots made. We walked out in the plains and found a huge pile of old tree limbs and brush which seemed like the perfect spot for a rattler. I grabbed this large tree branch, lifted it up to look underneath, when all of a sudden a very large jackrabbit took off right at my feet! We decided to leave the rattlesnakes to Texas and left.”

Taylor has written such recognizable tunes as “Appaloosa,” “On That Rainy Day,” “Heart Of Caroline,” and “Buffalo Shoals,” the title cut from his latest CD.

He also has a new project coming out this year. “My new CD was recorded at three different studios: Blue Hyacinth Studio in May, Miss.; Greg Luck’s studio in Albemarle, N.C.; and Big MO Studio in Kensington, Md. And, I have some great talent on this project that includes Ron Stewart, Keith Ameson, Bill Emerson, Emory Lester, Kip Martin, Rickie Simpkins, Wyatt Rice, Dan Tyminski, Jimmy Gaudreau, Mike Auldridge, and Robert Sullivan. The focus is to present a wide variety of songs and styles from traditional to contemporary and contains five originals, a gospel, a traditional Irish hymn, and some of my old-time favorites.” His self-penned songs on this effort include “Golden Hair,” “Lord Take Me Home,” “Dreamin’ Of The Sea,” “Dear Mom,” and “Smoky Mountain Home.”

Con Burch’s first professional recording is the band’s new CD. She is now working on her own solo project due out this year. She remembers first meeting Bill through the recommendation of George Hodgkiss, a mutual friend who owns a studio, Phoenix Productions. “George got Bill to listen to one of my songs when Bill was in George’s studio. Bill liked what he heard so they called me to come in. I was shopping when I got the call, so I dropped my bags and made record time getting there!”

Bill describes Con as a “remarkable talent who writes songs and possesses an extraordinary voice. She has a bright future ahead of her.” Con has written two songs on Bill’s new CD. “Maybe Someday” is her very first song and expresses her feelings of the personal loss of someone she deeply cared about. “Sweet Dixie Girl” started out to be about herself but ended up being about her grandmother.

As a young girl, Con sang in her church choirs. After teaching herself piano, she became the church choir director and organist. Later, she studied vocal performance and piano in college and became the lead singer in a country rock band in West Virginia. “The mic hasn’t left my lips since. I’ve performed with a wide variety of bands and sung pop, rock, country, big band, blues, jazz, folk, and now entering the incredible world of bluegrass. I’m looking forward to working with these excellent musicians. I can’t wait to see what’s ahead.”

With an eye for what lies ahead. Bill sees that his band’s versatile format is what makes their future exciting. “Our goal is to carry our diverse concept of featuring guest artists into the future. I want people to hear and enjoy new singers like Con, Brad Corbin, Scott Linton, and others.” It’s an innovative new band that combines the legendary Bill Emerson and seasoned performers with promising new talent. And, eager fans are enthused to hear them. Yes, bluegrass fans. Bill is back, and the banjo gods are smiling.

Yvonne Talar is a freelance writer and does publicity for the San Diego Bluegrass Society and Summergrass Bluegrass Music Festival. She also facilitates children’s bluegrass music education programs through concerts and workshops in California.

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