Reprinted from Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine
November 1972, Volume 7, Number 5
With few established roots in the hierarchy of bluegrass music, The Country Gazette have entered the scene with the commercial clout to make a difference. Byron Berline never had much time to absorb the fiddle styles of any one person whether it be Chubby Wise, Benny Martin or Howdy Forrester. Byron once remarked, “I just was not with Bill (Monroe) that long to be able to sink my teeth into that much bluegrass fiddle.” Alan Munde spent only a short year with Jimmy Martin, and for Al, it never seemed the right road to take. And as for Roger Bush and Kenny Wertz…well they are Californians and thus marked with some kind of unknown bluegrass stigma.
The story of the Country Gazette goes back a few years and several groups. Roger Bush was the first to enter the bluegrass scene with the now legendary Kentucky Colonels. Roger became the bass man and spokesman for the group replacing Eric White, the brother of Roland and Clarence. Those struggling years ended after two albums, a 1964 east coast tour and very little money to show for it all. From 1965 to 1967, the Colonels tried to change to a more commercial sound by plugging in a country rock sound that was to be the forerunner of the “Byrds” and the “Flying Burrito Bros.” In the Spring of 1967, Clarence White was doing a good amount of studio work and Roland joined Bill Monroe. The fiddler with the Blue Grass Boys was a young Oklahoman, Byron Berline. Billy Ray Lathum went back to Arkansas and Roger decided that he could make more money as a machinist. Until 1969, Roger Bush disappeared from the music scene.
Byron Berline gained national prominence in 1965 with an album on Elektra records “Picking and Fiddlin’’ with the Dillards. The album was produced by Jim Dickson who produced many of the Dillards albums and was later to influence the present sound of the Country Gazette. Byron and his dad, Lue, travelled around to fiddle contests with Byron winning the Weiser contest in 1964 and 1965. He was on a football scholarship at Oklahoma University and playing in local bluegrass bands before his meeting with the Dillards in ‘64. There he started playing with another Okie, Alan Munde and appeared at local music events. Lue Berline and his son played the 1965 Newport Folk Festival. Byron was invited to replace Richard Greene as Bill Monroe’s fiddler in early 1967. He proceeded to record with Monroe, “Sally Goodin,” “Virginia Darling,” and “The Gold Rush” and appeared on the cover of Monroe’s Bluegrass Time album. “I remember those days and nights travelling with Bill…he would spend hours playing Uncle Pen’s fiddle tunes on the mandolin.” At this time, Byron’s playing was going through a conflict between three distinct styles of playing, Old-Time, Texas and Bluegrass. As a friend pointed out once, “He (Byron) was trying to convert or adapt his impeccable Texas Style to Bluegrass. While he didn’t quite have the bluegrass down, he was losing the Texas.” However, before he could clear this conflict up he had to finish his military service and was replaced by Kenny Baker.
His military life was composed of playing the fiddle and throwing the javelin. While stationed at Fort Polk, he often played with one of his favorite bands, “The Stone Mountain Boys” of Dallas, Texas which often included Alan Munde who would be filling in for Ed Shelton.
With the military behind him, Byron decided that studio work in LA might be worthwhile what with the Dillards, Byrds and the Flying Burrito Bros, and in 1969 Byron and his wife Betty made the move to the West Coast.
He began to get that studio work with various artists but the real shot in the arm for Byron was his appearance on the Rolling Stones album “Let It Bleed” where he provided a fiddle backup for the song “Country Honk”. “The Rolling Stones needed a fiddle on that track and asked Chris Hillman if he knew of any fiddlers . . . Chris was quick to get me to do it and so down to A&M Studios in Hollywood I went. Not in the studio-but in the street. They set up a microphone and gave me a pair of headphones and I overdubbed the fiddle part with street noises!!” Byron today says that this was the beginning of more studio work which would include movie soundtracks and commercials for Boones Farm Wines with Doug Dillard on banjo.
In September 1969, at the banjo and fiddle contest of the San Gabriel Valley Bluegrass Association, he met Roger Bush who came out of retirement and they were joined by Doug Dillard for a new union of musicians, Doug Dillard and the Expedition. Gene Clark left the Expedition followed by Donna Washburn, Don Beck and others. Billy Ray Lathum came back from Arkansas and thus the Expedition was doing straight bluegrass material with work in Las Vegas and LA. The Dillards traded Herb Pederson for Billy Ray, for Billy was more willing to travel than Herb. The Expedition at this time provided some of the best bluegrass to date on the West Coast. Old friends often joined them on stage and all-night picking sessions were not uncommon with such people as Clarence White, Skip Conover (Golden State Boys), Don Parmley (Hillmen) and others. But Doug Dillard was to leave all this and so Byron, Roger and Herb were to bring a halt to their Expedition.
Alan Munde got the bug to play banjo from Doug Dillard during a concert at Oklahoma University. There he met Byron and together they began playing in local bands. It was here that Alan developed is incredible ability to play fiddle tunes on the banjo note-for-note. Alan is quick today to point out that his biggest influence was Ed Shelton of the Stone Mountain Boys.
Around late 1968 or early 1969, Al met up with Courtney Johnson, now of the New Grass Revival which led to his joining Sam Bush and Wayne Stewart in Poor Richards Almanac. This union of avant garde bluegrass musicians was cut short by Alan’s being drafted into the Army. But before he left for service, the Almanac was able to cut one album with really no plans for it ever being released, but American Heritage thought otherwise. Alan’s stay in the Army was a short one and he went to Nashville joining Jimmy Martin.
Alan completely changed his style of banjo playing to fit the Martin sound. After a year, Alan left Jimmy Martin in September of 1971 and did some teaching until he got a call from Byron Berline to join the Country Gazette.
Kenny Wertz had the least professional experience of any of the band. He played in folk groups with Dave Crosby in the early sixties and banjo for the Scottsville Squirrel Barkers which also included Chris Hillman on mandolin. Their album on Crown records was a favorite at the local drug stores and packaged in all different forms. But after dying along with the other bluegrass bands in the area, he too disappeared like Roger Bush occasionally surfacing with bands like Scott Hambly and the Bluegrass Ramblers. (Bluegrass Unlimited, Vol. 4, No. 2, 8-69).
Around the spring of 1971, Kenny Wertz was persuaded to join the reconstituted band called the Country Gazette. The Flying Burrito Bros, were getting into country material and recruited Byron and Kenny into the band. Most often, Byron would get Roger in the act and thus they did concert tours during the summer of ‘71 including the Philadelphia Folk Festival. By this time, Chris Hillman and Bemie Leadon had left the Burrito Bros, for Steve Stills’ Manassas and the Eagles respectively. Byron and Roger kept up the studio work which included more soundtracks like the one for Vanishing Point, back up for Steve Stills, Linda Ronstadt and Jerry Lee Lewis.
In November 1971, the Flying Burrito Bros, were to do a concert tour of Europe which was to be kicked off by a live recording session produced by Jim Dickson and included several bluegrass cuts with Byron on fiddle, Roger on bass, Kenny Wertz on banjo and Don Beck on guitar. Then off to Europe, but not before they picked up Alan Munde leaving Kenny free to play guitar and Don Beck, pedal steel. They were, the last of the Red Hot Burrito Bros., Byron on electric fiddle; Roger Bush, electric bass; Kenny Wertz, acoustic guitar- tenor vocal; Rick Roberts, guitar and lead vocal; Don Beck, pedal steel and Alan Munde, lead electric guitar and banjo. The tour included England, Holland and Denmark.
After playing New York City they returned to Los Angeles in late February of 1972 for one last concert. It was quite a show. The first part of their set was hard country-rock with Alan playing some fine electric guitar. The Sunny Mountain Boys were never like this. The second part of their act was straight bluegrass with no electricity, ending with another strong country-rock set.
Then came the choice to either join Steve Stills on a concert tour or work on a Country Gazette album with United Artists records. “It was a hard decision for it meant a loss of good money working for Stills but we needed the album out.” as Byron is quick to point out. Old friend Jim Dickson was to produce it and Dino Lappas was to engineer. “We wanted a sound that had strong vocals something like the Osborne Bros, but with equal importance also on the instruments.” said Roger. They gave Jim Dickson examples of what they wanted and in two months or more had their album.
It was cut at the Old World Pacific studios on 16 tracks with Herb Pederson doing some vocals and Skip Conover on Dobro for the slower songs. “We at first were going to have Clarence (White) overdub lead guitar but Jim (Dickson) felt that it was not needed and Clarence felt the same way,” Alan points out. Now it came time for the cover. UA was behind the band all the way sinking lots of money into the album so for them the cover had to sell. “The X-rated cover and inside was not my idea,” Kenny is quick to say. But all of them deep down inside enjoyed doing it. “We are taking a wait and see attitude about it. If it sells, I guess UA will have been right but if it backfires …”
The songs range from two Kentucky Colonels songs to Louvin Bros, to Gene Clark’s “Tried So Hard.” One of the outstanding performances is Roger’s bass playing. Much of the credit for the sound goes to Jim Dickson and Dino Lappas.
The summer for the Gazette was spent playing at Disneyland. They played outside a new ride entitled Bear Country providing bluegrass music for the patrons. “The gig was financially worthwhile but a real drag, emotionally.” Kenny relates today, “We are glad we did it, but never again!” The album is out now and they just finished a week in Denver, played the National Flatpick Guitar contest and Festival in Winfred, Kansas, a concert in Cleveland, Ohio and Minneapolis.
“I am real happy with the band we got.” Byron said, “Alan has provided the drive and punch we needed and I agree with Jimmy Martin that Alan can really pick!” Roger is now doing the MC work and really brings back the days with the Colonels. Kenny is enjoying the success the group has had. And for Byron the long road from fiddlers contests to Monroe’s band to studio sessions is leading to a band that he really digs. “It’s almost complete, I’m just waiting for my first child to be born and teaching him to fiddle.”