Notes & Queries – October 2021

Notes

In response to a query in the August 2021 “Notes & Queries” concerning bluegrass artists who have received honorary doctorate degrees, Larry Stidom wrote that “I seem to remember Ricky Skaggs and Larry Cordle getting some kind of honorary degrees from Morehead State University. Maybe just recognition.”

It turns out that Ricky Skaggs did, indeed, receive an honorary doctor of musical arts degree from Morehead State University in the spring of 1997, bringing his total number of degrees to four. Band leader and songwriter Larry Cordle was inducted into Morehead State’s Alumni Hall of Fame in October 2011.

On the same subject, we also heard from Victor Evdokimoff who wrote that “in my Bluegrass Unlimited article on Ola Belle Reed in 2001, I mentioned that Ola Belle received an honorary doctorate of letters from the University of Maryland in 1978. Thought you might want to add number 22 to your list as mentioned in the August issue of Bluegrass Unlimited.”

It has come to our attention that there were several other important omissions:

• William S. “Bill” Monroe, Honorary Doctor of Letters, University of Kentucky, 1985

• Doyle Lawson, Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts, King University, Bristol, Tennessee, 2007

• Marc Pruett, Honorary Doctorate of Arts, Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, North Carolina, 2010

Queries

Murphy Henry, long-time proprietor of Bluegrass Unlimited’s “General Store” column, reached out with a query. Many readers are, no doubt, familiar with her excellent, milestone book Pretty Good for a Girl – Women in Bluegrass. Murphy has since focused her investigative skills on one woman in particular, Maybelle Carter. (Anyone with interesting stories or trivia about Mother Maybelle, be sure to drop a note to Murphy at the General Store.) Murphy’s query concerned a notice that she found in the June 3, 1950, issue of Billboard magazine:

“Brown brothers have opened a new branch of their agency in Springfield, Mo., which is headed by Charley Brown. They have a new open-end e. t. show, starring Charley Akerson, who is going with KMOX, St. Louis, and co-starring June Carter and the Carter Sisters with Chet Atkins.”

The question: What is an “open-end e. t. show”?

Trying to decipher 1950s industry lingo seventy years after the fact was a little challenging, but we determined that “e. t.” was short for “electrical transcription.” In the days before satellites beamed radio broadcasts from coast to coast, transcription discs were used to physically send programs out to various radio stations. Typically, these were 16” discs that contained fifteen to twenty minutes worth of music per side. For programs that were mass distributed, the discs were pressed up in the same manner that vinyl LPs were. In reference to the programs by the Carter Sisters, there were at least three dozen fifteen-minute programs that were produced and distributed.

As far as the term “open-end,” this referenced the fact that the programs were generic in nature, in terms of not being tied to a particular sponsor. Space would be left for the insertion of local advertisements by each individual station that aired the programs. An insertion point could be prompted by a performer who announced, “And now a word from our sponsor . . .” at which point a local advertisement could be played.

A. L. Wood and the Smokey Ridge Boys with Tommy Malboeuf (second from left). Photo courtesy of Lew Stern.
A. L. Wood and the Smokey Ridge Boys with Tommy Malboeuf (second from left). Photo courtesy of Lew Stern.

Transcription discs also served another purpose. In the heyday of early bluegrass when many bands performed daily live radio broadcasts. On occasions when a distant personal appearance prevented a band from returning to the station in time for their live broadcast, a pre-recorded transcription of the band could be played. These were custom-recorded, one-off discs, as opposed to mass produced discs. In the days before magnetic tape, most radio stations had disc cutting machines that allowed them to make their own one-off transcription discs. The blank discs usually consisted of a layer of lacquer that had been applied to a metal base. When placed on a disc cutting machine, grooves of music (again, much like a long-play album) were etched into the lacquer. Often times, complete fifteen-minute programs were recorded to simulate an actual, live broadcast. Unlike the mass-produced transcriptions described earlier, these lacquer one-offs deteriorated with use and were usually discarded after several plays.

Q: I have a photo fiddle player Tommy Malboeuf in the midst of a bunch of musicians I don’t recognize.  Comparing it to some other photos of Tommy in the years after he got out of the Navy, the photo might be from the late 1950s or early 1960s. His son, David, who sent the photo, did not know who the others were. Do you recognize the band or individual musicians in the attached photo? Many thanks. Lew Stern, Reston, VA

A: Tommy Malboeuf was a North Carolina fiddler who, after service in the Navy in the middle 1950s, worked with several groups including the Border Mountain Boys and A. L. Wood and the Smokey Ridge Boys. He later befriended fiddler/cartoonist Jim Scancarelli. Banjo picker/instructor Lew Stern (who supplied the photo) is currently working on a biography of Tommy Malboeuf and would appreciate any information about him. 

After consulting with several bluegrass detectives, our query landed with Mike Wood, who in turn showed it to his father, North Carolina band leader A. L. Wood. The photo dates from around 1966 and was taken at a jam/practice session at A. L.’s home. The musicians are, from left to right: Ralph Compton, mandolin; Tommy Malboeuf, fiddle; Darrell Smith, guitar; A. L. Wood, banjo; and Ray Kennedy, bass.

Over Jordan

Margaret Archer Bailey with the Cluster Pluckers. Clockwise from lower left: Kris Ballinger, Dale Ballinger, Mark Howard, and Margaret.

Margaret Archer Bailey (September 15, 1953 – August 15, 2021) is best-known for her work as the lead singer for the Cluster Pluckers, a Nashville-based band that was popular in the 1990s. Margaret and future bandmate Kris Ballinger met in 1979 and started singing together and working up songs that fit their voices. In May of 1980 the two met up with old-time fiddler Frazier Moss, as well as Dale Ballinger, who was playing bass with Frazier at the time, at a pickin party. Frazier asked Margaret and Kris to join his band and that was the beginning of The Frazier Moss String Band, which also included Jack Sallee on banjo and Jerry Pickle on piano. They played together for eight years, touring around the southeast and making several appearances at the Folk Life Festival at the 1982 World’s Fair in Knoxville. Also in the mid-1980s Margaret and Kris recorded two albums and toured with Vassar Clements as part of his Hillbilly Jazz Band. 

By day in the middle 1980s, Margaret worked at The Nashville Network (TNN), doing cue cards for Ralph Emery’s show, Nashville Now. In 1987, she collaborated with guitarist/producer Chet Atkins to write a spoof on television evangelists called “Would Jesus Wear a Rolex.” The song, as recorded by Ray Stevens, was a minor hit and even received a Grammy nomination. Margaret liked to tell that she was even getting royalty checks in the mail and “decided to carpet her bathroom and she liked it so much she ran it all the way up to the house!”

Around that time, Music Row picker Mark Howard was added to the still-un-named trio of Margaret, Kris, and Dale and things began to come together. They added Richard Bailey on banjo, Blaine Sprouse on fiddle and Brent Truitt on mandolin to fill out the line-up. Songwriter Billy Edd Wheeler observed that the group clustered together when they played, and that they liked to pluck their instruments. Consequently, the group was christened The Cluster Pluckers.

The Pluckers, by choice, were never a full-time touring band because some of them had children to raise, but nevertheless racked up some impressive achievements. In 1991, the band appeared on Austin City Limits with Chet Atkins. They also were featured with Hoyt Axton on the Ken Burns PBS show Songs of the Civil War. The Cluster Pluckers recorded A Cluster Plucker Christmas video, which aired on PBS for three years in a row in the early 1990s. In 1995 the band did a sold-out ten-day, eight-city tour in Japan and in 2001, they toured The Netherlands and Norway. The Cluster Pluckers toured around the eastern half of the United States and when home in Nashville were regulars at the World Famous Station Inn.

A 1990s Bluegrass Unlimited record review opined that “the blend between Kris and Margaret essentially defines the Pluckers’ sound; folk-spirited with the ability branch convincingly out into pure traditional country.” Margaret was described as having a “warm, expressive contralto voice.” In all, the Cluster Pluckers recorded five projects together. The 1992 disc Just Pluck It! featured Margaret’s “Would Jesus Wear a Rolex.” The 1994 Unplucked paired Margaret with Johnny Cash on the gospel favorite “Where the Soul Never Dies.”

Facts and lists of accomplishments, while informative, fail to convey the spirit of a person, and how they touched the lives of those around them. Kris Ballinger is one person who was so affected. She wrote that “Margaret was beautiful, talented, quick-witted, funny and a fantastic singer. She was my music partner, my sister from another mother, my fellow band-mate in several different bands. I loved singing with her and spending time with her. We had over 40 years of music and friendship, adventures and laughter, and life will never be the same without her. Our hearts are broken. I like to think that Margaret decided to join the group of great music friends that have passed on before her and be their lead singer. No one could do it better than her!”

Dennis Caplinger
Dennis Caplinger

Dennis Fulton Caplinger (May 10, 1963 – August 14, 2021) was a talented West Coast multi-instrumentalist who is known for his work as a member of the group Bluegrass Etc. His bluegrass career got underway with the group while still a teenager in the 1970s. With them, Dennis worked a lot of California tourist attractions including Disneyland, Sea World, Knotts Berry Farm, and the Palomino Club; he credits those venues with teaching him the art of not only playing for, but entertaining an audience. He noted once, “If we didn’t have a crowd when the supervisor walked by, we’d get fired.”

In time, Dennis branched out to become an in-demand player for recording sessions and also provided soundtracks for movies (Back to the Future III, El Diablo, and Rio Diablo); television programs (HBO series Deadwood, The Simpsons, cartoons Pinky and the Brain and Histeria, and for various programs on PBS, TNN, and The History Channel); and commercials (New York Life, Subway, Home Depot, Applebee’s, Discover Card – with John Lithgow). 

Dennis used his talents to teach others how to play. For fifteen years, he gave one-on-one lessons on banjo, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, and more. Gradually, he shifted over to teaching at workshops and music camps where he could reach a greater number of students. The one thing he stressed most to help musicians advance to the next level was music theory. He also authored at least a half dozen instruction books including Gospel Banjo, Bluegrass Banjo Basics, Bluegrass Banjo Basics & Beyond, Bluegrass Guitar Basics & Beyond, Bluegrass Mandolin Basics, Bluegrass Guitar Basics, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Bluegrass Banjo Favorites, and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Bluegrass Mandolin Favorites.

Throughout the early 2000s, Dennis stayed busy producing and recording several series of CD releases for CMH Records. Notably, these included the Pickin’ On series and the Lullabye series, both of which featured bluegrass renditions of songs made popular by well-known pop and country artists. CMH president David Haerle related that “Dennis played on many, many CMH Pickin’ On albums. With his amazing banjo, fiddle, guitar playing, his arrangement and recording skills, and his creativity, he lent so much to the sound and to the quality of the series. He was a rock-solid producer/musician who always delivered first-class recordings for CMH.  Dennis really is part of, and helped create, the heart and soul of the CMH Pickin’ On series.”

In putting the Pickin’ On projects together, Dennis noted that “I try to approach all the records with a reverence toward the original artist.” Among the dozen and a half (or more) collections that Dennis “picked on” were ones featuring a Who’s Who list of popular entertainers including Van Morrison, REM, Rolling Stones, Keith Urban, Idigo Girls, LeAnn Rimes, Counting Crows, Nancy Sinatra, Garth Brooks, Carrie Underwood, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses, Elvis Presley, Journey, and Taylor Swift.

Urban Haglund with the Stanley Brothers, March 14, 1966. Left to right: Ralph Stanley, Rune Krongårdh (publisher of Western Songs magazine), Carter Stanley, and Urban.
Urban Haglund with the Stanley Brothers, March 14, 1966. Left to right: Ralph Stanley, Rune Krongårdh (publisher of Western Songs magazine), Carter Stanley, and Urban.

Urban Haglund (October 10, 1947 – July 26, 2021) was one of the prime movers and shakers in the world of Swedish bluegrass. His involvement with the music dated back to 1962 when he heard a recording of “Jesse James” on the radio. Not hearing the name of the artist, he sent an inquiry to the station. It turned out to be the Osborne Brothers. 

Soon afterwards, Urban began building a bluegrass record and magazine collection. He noted that “I collected all bluegrass albums until [the middle 1980s] when so many hybrid albums started to appear.” He put his knowledge of bluegrass albums to good use in 1971 when, with co-editor Lillies Ohlsson, he published the comprehensive A Listing of Bluegrass LP’s. The seventy-page booklet became a bluegrass album collector’s bible world-wide.

In addition to his record collecting, Urban also played in several bands, the earliest of which was a mid-1960s trio with his brothers Thomas and Mats. By 1971, Urban associated himself with the Tennessee Travelers with whom he played guitar; the group appeared on one side of an album that was issued on the Kountry Korral label. The following year, the Haglund brothers joined forces with the Blom brothers to form the Bluegrass Swedes. One side of their 45-rpm release, “Thanks For Everything,” attained some degree of publicity for the group. Towards the end of the 1970s, Urban played bass with Country Comfort and a group that had been around for nearly a decade called Rank Strangers.

While he gleaned a lot of his bluegrass knowledge from recordings and magazines, Urban made at least five visits to the United States and attended numerous bluegrass festivals as well as the first IBMA Trade Show in 1987.

A lasting bluegrass memory for Urban was his attendance at the Stanley Brothers’ 1966 appearance in Stockholm as part of the American Folk and Country Music Tour; he even appeared in several back-stage photos with Carter and Ralph Stanley. As recently as 2020, Urban was active in contacting other attendees to obtain and share their memories and photos of the event.

Flavil Reed “Flannels” Miller (December 27, 1927 – May 7, 2021) was known primarily as a fiddle player who was active in a number of hillbilly bands in the 1940s. One bit of publicity noted that he also played “banjo, bass, guitar, and almost any musical instrument in the old-time band.” 

Hailing from Beech Grove, Ohio, Flavil is reported to have begun a career in radio in 1944 on WWVA in Wheeling, West Virginia. One of his earliest jobs was with “Mac Weisman [sic] and His Buck Eye Buckle Busters” when that group appeared on WFMD in Frederick, Maryland, in August of 1945. By October, he was back at WWVA, working as a member of Doc Williams’ Border Riders. His stay with the group lasted for about six months and ended when Cy Williams returned from military service. While working with Doc Williams, Flannels was frequently billed as the “Van Johnson of the Border Riders.” (Johnson was a major movie star in the late 1940s and early ‘50s who sported a “boy-next-door wholesomeness.”)

Flavil Miller,  ca. 1945
Flavil Miller, ca. 1945

Following the stint with the Border Riders, Flannels moved on to Toby Stroud and the Blue Mountain Boys, another WWVA act (that later featured Don Reno and Red Smiley). Lasting only four months with Stroud, Miller departed in July 1946 and moved next to Gay Schwings’ Boys From The Hills. The group was featured on two stations: WHJB, which was located in the Pittsburgh outlier of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, and WMMN in Fairmont, West Virginia. Advertisements for the band’s personal appearances lauded Miller for his “talking fiddle.” One happy benefit of his time with the group, Flavil married the bandleader’s daughter, Ramona.

Miller’s longest stint with any band during this period ran from 1948 until 1951, during which time he appeared in the service of Dallas Bond and his Musical Farmers. They had the distinction of being the first musical outfit to be based on newly-opened WILE radio in Cambridge, Ohio. Flavil’s by-line now read that he was one “who has been heard on many radio stations with his trick fiddle.”

Starting in 1951, Miller’s focus shifted from music to evangelism. For the next sixty-plus years, he preached for a half-dozen Church of Christ congregations in central eastern Ohio.

During the 1970s, Flavil competed in a number of local fiddle contests where he routinely placed first, second, or third. In 1983, he formed a group called the Get-Along Gang which performed for senior citizen groups and other events. From 2011 to 2016, he performed with a band called Salt Creek at the Amish Theater in Walnut Creek, Ohio. At some point during this latter stage of his career, he recorded and released two cassette tapes of his music, including one that was called simply Old Time Fiddle Tunes, and a CD called 50 Years of Fiddle.

Not only was Flannels a versatile musician, he was also a skilled craftsman who built twenty-one violins, one viola, one mandolin, one cello, and two guitars.

Donald Lee “Don” Wilson (December 5, 1949 – August 1, 2021) was known as a first-class builder of guitars. He is reported to have made over 150 of them. Not only was he an excellent craftsman, he also made tools and forms that were used by other instrument builders.

Despite being born and spending his entire life in Jacksonville, Florida, he had a long-running connection to southwestern Virginia; specifically, the areas including Galax and the Mouth of Wilson home of guitar builder Wayne Henderson. Their meeting was a chance encounter at the Galax Old Fiddler’s Convention in the middle 1960s, when Don was about sixteen. 

Don’s professional life was spent in the mobile home business and later in construction with his own firm, Don Wilson Builders. But it wasn’t until 1994 that Don built his first guitar. He brought his engineering and mechanical skills from his previous endeavors and put them to good use in guitar construction. His guitars were the result of a mix of technical know-how, hands-on experience, and the selection of exactly the right materials. On frequent trips to Virginia, Don visited with Wayne Henderson, for socialization and to help out in the shop. Don was only person Wayne ever bestowed the title of “helper.”

Don Wilson (left) and Brazilian luthier Max Rosa in Don’s Jacksonville shop. Photo courtesy of Bailey Wall.
Don Wilson (left) and Brazilian luthier Max Rosa in Don’s Jacksonville shop. Photo courtesy of Bailey Wall.

A hobby of Don’s that started when he converted an old potato chip delivery truck into a camper turned into a lucrative sideline. A self-proclaimed “bus nut,” he retrofitted busses for Little Roy & Lizzy and the Lonesome River Band. He also did van conversions for Balsam Range and Sideline. One of his crowning achievements was the renovation of his own forty-five-foot Prevost bus, which he cut in half proceeded to meticulously rebuild.

Perhaps more than anything, it was Don’s character that seemed to resonate most with people who knew him. From an outpouring of remembrances and condolences that have sprung forth from the bluegrass community, a most fitting one comes from his granddaughter, Bailey Wall. She remembered her Pawpaw best as an angel that “walked this earth as a guardian of family and strangers alike. And, as a man whose heart, knowledge, and grit has created an eternal wake of generosity that transcends generations, cultures, countries, and, of course, instruments. It is not with a heavy heart that I recall my own memories and soak up all of the ones being shared by each of you who knew him. Seeing the same wake reiterated by people and places I have never known, feels like a song. The same feeling you get at a bluegrass jam. One by one, we take our turn and give our best rendition of the thing we are so passionate about. But this time, it’s not ‘Fox on The Run’ or ‘Blue Moon of Kentucky, it is in honor of my Pawpaw, Don Wilson.”

In keeping with Don’s legacy love and support for bluegrass and old-time music, a “Don Wilson Memorial Youth Music Fund” GoFundMe page was recently established. Although the fund is in its infancy, a $2,000 scholarship was awarded to a deserving youth picker at the Galax Old Fiddler’s Convention this past August.  

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