Bluegrass 45: 50 Years Ago this Week – Week 13


All the Bluegrass 45 Rebel recordings were done at the Roy Homer Studio in Clinton, Maryland.  Roy recorded many of Rebel albums including Ralph Stanley, Country Gentlemen, Emerson & Waldron, Cliff Waldron, Seldom Scene (Act I).  It was pre-digital era and everything was analog—meaning the band would play a song, Roy would mix all the vocals and instruments, and record the mixed sound onto 1/4” open reel tapes in stereo.  No multi-track, cut & paste, auto-tune or auto-mix…none of them.

Dick Freeland produced our first Rebel album and it came out very nicely.  However, he felt we could use a little more help, so he asked John Duffey to produce the second album, Caravan, and John agreed to do it.  Dick knew that all of the Bluegrass 45 members respected John and of course we had no objection.  If you had ever recorded in a studio, you know how intense and/or stressful it can be.  Especially back in those days, if you messed up your part (vocal or instrumental), the whole band had to re-start from the beginning while a studio clock was running.  That’s nerve wracking enough but you have to image how frightening it was for us to see John Duffey, our idol for many years, sitting in the control room and listening to every single note we were recording!!

I can’t remember which song it was but I remember this clearly.  We just recorded a track and Roy was rewinding the tape.  I was saying I messed up my break and Liao was saying the same.  What was annoying was that Roy, John and Dick were listening back to that track in the control room but they didn’t feed it back to our headsets or to the speaker on our side.  We could see the three of them discussing something, but we had no idea what they were saying.  Eventually John came out, went straight to Josh and asked him “Say weary.”  Josh replied “weary” and John said “That’s it, let’s do it again.”  John didn’t care about my mandolin or Liao’s fiddle glitches, but cared about one word Josh did not pronounce clearly.

9/9 (Thu) session:

  1. “Smile All The Way”: An original song by Josh.  He sung lead and I joined on the chorus.
  2. “Someday Soon”:  Written by Ian Tyson, but at that time we had no idea Ian had something to do with our US trip.  I heard Judy Collins’ version first, which was a big hit, and then by Ian and Sylvia.
  3. “Kiso”:  An old Japanese song about Mount Ontake in the Kiso district.  Our arrangement had banjo, fiddle and mandolin interlacing and it was too confusing for Roy to mix.  Also, I’m sure the fact that Josh was singing in Japanese didn’t help, either.  So, Roy gave up and asked us to mix by stepping in and out just like on stage.  I thought we did a good job on the mix.  Josh sung lead and Liao and I joined on the chorus, but there was a shouting part “Ha” by Sab.  He was a little shy and tentative.  John came out from the control room and asked if that “Ha” should be with more force and he demonstrated what he thought it should be.  Well, he nailed it.  We should have asked him to record it instead of Sab.  We should have…
  4. “Pray For the Boys”: John recommended this song.  We had heard it by Flatt & Scruggs.  We tried in key of G but it didn’t sound good, so we tried in G# and it sounded great—but it was rejected.
  5. “Come Home, My Dear One”: Another one of Josh’s originals.  We recorded it on our Run Mountain album that we released in Japan but decided to record it again here.  Toshio played an auto-harp, which gave this song a little Carter Family flavor.

9/14 (Tue) session:

  1. “Blues Stay Away From Me”: A classic country song from the Delmore Brothers repertoire.  Josh, Liao and I took turns singing lead.
  2. “Last Call For Glory”: An original by John Duffey.  We were honored that he gave us one of his songs.  John also recorded this on Seldom Scene’s 1993 Scenic Roots album.  It was rejected—we re-cut it the next day.
  3. “Lonesome Valley”:  An old gospel song.  Rejected.
  4. “What Am I Doing Hanging Around”:  Written by Michael Martin Murphey and recorded by the Monkees.  This is another song John recommended us to do.  Looking back now, John produced this album but he was also an AR man (Artists and Repertoire).  John left the Country Gentlemen in March of 1969 and at the time of this recording he was working as an instrument repairman at Arlington Music (I believe he was the first Martin authorized repairman) and was not playing music.  However, less than 3 months after he produced our album, he formed the Seldom Scene and this is one of the songs he sang on their Act I album.  When you have great musicians like John Starling, Mike Auldridge, Ben Eldridge and Tom Gray, I can see why John jumped right back into playing again.  However, for many years I have been wondering maybe producing this Bluegrass 45 Caravan album got him interested in playing music again..…just maybe.

9/15 (Wed) session:

  1. “O.M.I.” (it was renamed “Ronnie Bucke” later):  An instrumental written by Sab but it features mandolin.  Ronnie was Dick’s son and he was 12 years old at that time.  Being young and open-minded, he could understand our broken English much better than anybody else around so often he was our translator.  Later on, he became an excellent recording engineer and recorded artists like Ralph Stanley, Country Gentlemen, Seldom Scene, Tony Trischka, Longview, Hazel Dickens, Kenny & Amanda Smith, Nils Lofgren and he co-produced and engineered Epilogue: A Tribute to John Duffey.
  2. “Caravan”: The famous Duke Ellington tune.  There were not too many bluegrass groups playing jazz tunes back in 1971 and it was exciting for us to explore a new genre because it added a unique character to Bluegrass 45.  John decided to play a symbol on this cut and I believe he was having fun.  I mentioned this last week, but Sab was a big Scruggs fan.  However, on this tune he decided to play it in Eddie Adcock’s style.  
  3. “Hana”:  A song written by Rentaro Taki and a popular song in Japan.  “Hana” usually means flowers but in this case, cherry blossom.  We recorded this as an instrumental number on our Run Mountain album and called it “Cherry Blossom Special” but here we sung the lyrics.  
  4. “Last Call For Glory”:  We recorded another take of this John’s composition and this is the one that appeared on the album.
  5. “Build a Better Home”:  I have no recollection of this song.  Rejected.
  6. “Apartment 1101”:  A guitar instrumental Josh wrote.  That was our apartment number in Hyattsville.  

The pictures shown here were taken outside of the Roy Homer Studio after the session was over one day and we were waiting for Dick and John to come out.  The station wagon with a Virginia tag was John’s Oldsmobile.

The Bus:

A cover of Country Gentlemen’s 1969 Play It Like It Is album shows their members (Charlie Waller, John Duffey, Eddie Adcock and Ed Ferris) in front of a bus.  By the time BG45 arrived in 1971, Dick Freeland had bought this bus and he drove it to take us to festivals and gigs.  However, it broke down frequently and that’s why we used a picture of us pushing it on a back cover of Caravan album.

Dick kept it at his home in West Virginia for a long time but eventually he donated it to a church.  Then the church sold it at an auction to Mark Boggs of Troutville, Virginia who collects and restores old vehicles.  One day Mark was looking behind a glove compartment and noticed some writing there “Kobe – Bluegrass 45 – Japan” (Kobe & Japan were in Japanese).  So he went to Google and found Bluegrass 45!  He has been restoring it and we had a chance to visit him & the bus in 2017.  Mark had to replace its battery, but he had it running when we arrived.  The irony of this is that the bus is now sitting less than 10 miles from Fincastle where Mr. Carlton Haney held the very first bluegrass festival in 1965.  

“45 Smile” by Josh: 

Our conversation during one rehearsal:

Dick:  You have to smile while on stage!

45 boys:  That’s impossible.  We are on a big stage with large audience and we’re trying to play our complicated arrangement.  Besides we are so nervous and there’s no way we can afford to smile.

Dick:  Hmmm.  I see.  But that’s a problem….  OK, this is what you can do.  Just show your teeth the whole time on stage.  That’ll make you look like you’re smiling from distance.

45 boys:  ?!?!

So we had to show our teeth and fake smiles for three months. 

Long after we came back to Japan, somebody came up to us after the show and said “You guys perform with such a big smile.  Just watching you makes me happy.”  It started as a forced smile but now it’s for real and natural!  During our 1996 tour, we were lucky to have famous Kosei Yoshida to film us. On the last night of the tour he was interviewing us at the Takarazuka festival when he asked this.  “I have a question that has been bugging me the whole time.  I’m a cameraman and I have looked at many faces thru my lens and it puzzles me.  How come all of you always have a big smile except Mr. Lee?”  We looked at each other and busted out laughing.  Mr. Lee is one of the original members but he was studying in Taiwan in 1971 and couldn’t join our tour, therefore he didn’t get Dick’s special training.

It started out as a forced smile but now it’s for real – it’s making the audience happy and the band is having a great time.

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  1. Fascinating article. Three years ago, I stumbled across a copy of the self-titled Bluegrass 45 album at a local record store and bought it, simply because I was intrigued by this band I had never heard of. It’s a killer album, and it has become one of my treasures. I should put it on when I get home from work tonight. 🙂

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