Charlie Waller was born in Jointerville, Texas in 1935 but spent his childhood in Louisiana. He started playing music at the age of 10. In the early part of his career, he appeared on television with George Jones, Jimmy Newman, Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and others. Charlie Waller, along with mandolin player John Duffey, banjo player Bill Emerson, and bass player Larry Lahey, formed The Country Gentlemen in 1957 in Washington, D.C. The band originally served as a replacement group for Buzz Busby and he Bayou Boys after several of their members were injured in an automobile accident. Shortly after the band’s creation, the semi-permanent lineup consisted of Charlie Waller on guitar and lead vocals, John Duffey on mandolin, Eddie Adcock on banjo, and Tom Gray on bass. This line-up is considered the “classic” one:
The Country Gentlemen toured bluegrass and folk arenas throughout the ’50s and ’60s. Other line-ups ensued, including Doyle Lawson, Bill Yates, and Ricky Skaggs at one point. While more than 100 musicians have been members of the band, Charlie Waller has remained constant and the band continued to perform until Waller’s death in 2004. Some say that he was one of the best flat pickers in Bluegrass and that his rhythm guitar playing was unmatched.
The following songs, “Doin’ My Time” and “Less of Me,” are from the Country Gentlemen’s earlier recordings:
Listening to their concert from 1972 helps one hear variation and evolution in their sound over time:
The following song, “A Miner’s Life,” is from their album “Songs of the American Spirit, released in 2004, very shortly after Charlie’s death:
Cantwell reminds us that “it is always a bit of a shock to realize that the human career, which seems so brief from within, can embrace spans of time which have become historical.” He relates this notion specifically to Monroe’s recordings, asserting that they “represent what we now regard as the high-water marks of old-time music, the best achievements of what is often called the ‘golden age’ of hillbilly recording” (Cantwell, p.51).
“The Monroe Brothers stood squarely at the center of that tradition, not by virtue of the retrospect that we enjoy, but by virtue of the unique convergence in their lives of rural background, radical dislocation, still widespread social change, and the entrepreneurial energy of the early record companies” (Cantwell, p.52).
Cantrell parallels the emergence of the Chicago style of Jazz as a result of Louis Armstrong’s brilliance with the emergence of the bluegrass style due to Bill Monroe’s innovative mandolin playing.
He says that many bands emphasized certain aspects of hillbilly music. For example, the short-lived Georgia string band, The Skillet Lickers, exploited the new medium of radio to make lively southern mountain dance music a personal experience for listeners. Here is Gid Tanner & His Skillet Lickers performing “Cripple Creek”:
While Cantwell emphasizes that Bill Monroe provided hillbilly music with stabilization, it is important to consider that the numerous bands that the Monroe Brothers listened to were extremely influential to their development. “Elements of instrumental technique, aesthetic posture, rhythm, and even the moral position Monroe would adopt for his music” is evident in those records (Cantwell, p.56).
The Monroe Brothers as an Attestant to the “Binding Influence” of Radio
Cantwell asserts that radio allows people to transmit diverse messages across various geographical and cultural boundaries. He also says that live radio stations served the social function of informing communities of local activities and is more accessible than other forms of media. It also brought rural music and voices into urban cities just as it brought urban life into rural homes (Cantwell, p.43). Additionally, he says that “the structure of live broadcasting and personal appearances built on the radio provided the hillbilly musician with a haven-not, admittedly, a perfectly secure one-from the Great Depression, while at the same time bringing him into regular and immediate contact with audiences far more demanding than the old rural society” (Cantwell, p.48).
Cantwell suggests that the distinguishing factor between the Monroe brothers’ music and others of that time was that they fully utilized radio and excelled by finding ways around radio’s “auditory confines” (Cantwell, p.49). He also proclaims that the Monroe Brothers simplified Appalachian music. I wonder what made the Monroe Brothers’ music identify “more closely with the southern mountain tradition” than other hillbilly and old time artists? (Cantwell, p.58).
Additionally, what specifically allows the Monroe Brothers to stand out as the ones whose music resonates more with listeners and their experiences? In contemplating this question, I’ve considered Cantwell’s opinions regarding Monroe and the Monroe Brothers:
“Monroe’s personal experience repeated the experience of thousands of people like him, his audiences, who had left Appalachia for the industrial North, an experience which literally reiterated what in effect was a kind of national myth, expressed in popular music, of an expulsion from an idyllic South into an urban and technological wilderness in the North…Monroe entered professional music, too, at a time when the hillbilly musician was valued for his power to represent and evoke the past, so that the musician’s very purpose was to explore and in some measure recover his own tradition; in Monroe’s cause, that recovery extended years later to his personal experience, particularly that of his early youth, transfigured by time and distance, and especially to his earliest musical influences, which became for him quasi-sacred prototypes” (Cantwell, p.47-48).
Cantwell, Robert. “Ch.2, Hillbilly Music: The Commercial Background.” Bluegrass Breakdown: The Making of the Old Southern Sound. Urbana: U of Illinois, 1984. N. pag. Print.
The New Lost City Ramblers are an old-time string band, originally formed in New York City by John Cohen (left), Mike Seeger (right), and Tom Paley (center) in 1958.
However, Paley left the band in 1962 and was replaced by Tracy Schwarz (left).
Nevertheless, the group proved to be extremely influential during the folk and old-time revivals. Folkways Records released five of their albums in the early ’60s and their high degree of popularity led to their performing at countless colleges, as well as many folk festivals and various other venues.
The NLCR strove to stay true to the traditional, old-time styles of the 1920s and 1930s. However, listeners discovered that while the NLCR were guided by the styles and techniques of past old-time and folk music, they also made the songs their own and could captivate wide audiences. People say that they really brought the old 78RPM records back to life.
The NLCR’s cover of “Stackerlee,” originally named “Stagger Lee” and written by Lloyd Price and Harold Logan:
The New Lost City Ramblers’ influence can also be seen indirectly through their impact on musicians who followed in their footsteps…
“I listened to The New Lost City Ramblers. Everything about them appealed to me — their style, their singing, their sound. I liked the way they looked, the way they dressed and especially I liked their name. Their songs ran the gamut in styles, everything from from mountain ballads to fiddle tunes and railroad blues. All their songs vibrated with some dizzy, portentous truth. I’d stay with The Ramblers for days. At the time, I didn’t know that they were replicating everything they did off old 78 records, but what would it have mattered anyway? It wouldn’t have mattered at all. For me, they had originality in spades, were men of mystery on all counts. I couldn’t listen to them enough.”–Bob Dylan from “Chronicles”