Author Tim Newby recently published Bluegrass in Baltimore: The Hard Drivin’ Sound And Its Legacy. The work takes an in-depth look at the way bluegrass and Baltimore’s histories coincided, as musicians relied on Americana music to bring people together during the tough, post-War times. We asked Newby to give L4LM readers a taste of his new work, and he responded by sharing this personal account of his inspiration and motivation for the novel. You can find out more about Bluegrass in Baltimore here.
“There was Nashville and then there was Baltimore,” explained bluegrass legend Del McCoury, “and Baltimore was really the hot town for bluegrass music back in the ‘50s and ‘60s.” I was interviewing Del in January 2011 about his upcoming album with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Legacies, for an article that I was writing for Honest Tune Magazine. During our conversation, he became sidetracked and began to talk in length about his formative years as a musician playing in the rough and tumble bar scene in Baltimore in the 1950s and 60s. As a Baltimore resident I was vaguely aware of the scene that had first flourished in the city as migrants from the Appalachian region moved north looking for work and had always been fascinated by this often overlooked musical scene that proved to be highly influential over the years. The story of this Baltimore scene was one that I felt needed to be told.
Baltimore was a prime destination for Appalachian migrants looking for work following World War II, as it was the sixth largest city in the country at the time, and home to a number of large factories. Upon their arrival, these migrants were confronted daily with prejudice against their hillbilly background. Pioneering singer Hazel Dickens remembers being confronted by signs that proclaimed, “No Dogs or Hillbillies” around town. These migrants clustered in neighborhoods around the city and relied on music to bond them together and remind them of their old-home place. At all night picking parties in the row, homes that lined the streets or in the dingy, beer and a shot bars that were on every corner in the city, the sounds of hillbilly and bluegrass emulated throughout the night.
[Bob Baker and the Pike County Boys, one of the first working bands in Baltimore]
Out of those corner bars and house parties, Baltimore fostered a scene that produced many key figures, including the pioneering duets of Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys, who in 1959 became the first Bluegrass band to play Carnegie Hall, Bluegrass Hall of Famer Russ Hooper, who over the years would turn down multiple invitations to join both Flatt & Scruggs and the Country Gentlemen, Walt Hensley who recorded the first full-length banjo album, 5-String Banjo Today, on a major label, Mike Seeger (Pete’s half-brother) who produced the first full-length bluegrass album and was instrumental in preserving, recording, and keeping alive roots music, and the legendary Del McCoury who has established himself as one of the most important bluegrass musicians over the last fifty years.
The influence of this hard drivin’ scene, while a dominate force in the Mid-Atlantic region and especially on the burgeoning Washington D.C. scene, was also far-reaching and extended well beyond simple bluegrass boundaries. Everyone from Jorma Kaukonen (Jefferson Airplane, Hot Tuna), Chris Hillman (The Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers), Pete Wernick (Hot Rize), Vince Herman (Leftover Salmon), Trey Anastasio (Phish), David Grisman, and countless others have spoken of the influence of Baltimore and the musicians the city helped produce. Sam Bush would sing about one the Baltimore scene’s most revered figures, banjo-picker Walt Hensley, on his 2006 album, Laps in Seven. The Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia, a long-time fan of Hensley and many of the other bands that emerged from Baltimore, would regularly include songs from those bands in his acoustic and bluegrass sets.
[The All Vue Inn May 14, 1966 (l to r): Kimball Blair, Chris Warner, Frankie Short, Hoppy Ledford]
Over the years, Baltimore would serve as a proving ground, a place for many young musicians to apprentice. It was similar to many other Midwestern cities that supported their own bluegrass scenes. But Baltimore separated itself from those cities with its unmatched talent- talent that, unfortunately, is not always as well-known as it should be, and that has been lost to the ravages of time over the years. And that is the story of Baltimore. The talented musicians who played their hearts out for a couple of bucks at some of the worst dive bars that the city has ever known, the influence they wielded, and the folks who regularly packed those places to see them play.
The celebration and influence of the music created in Baltimore still exists to this day. Entering its fourth year, the Charm City Folk and Bluegrass Festival has already established itself as one of the premier bluegrass festivals. Also a crop of new musicians have begun to emerge from the city including Mike Munford, who was named the 2013 IBMA banjo player of the year, Patrick McAvinue who recently was awarded the 2015 IBMA Momentum award and is one of the best young fiddlers in the country, singer/songwriter Cris Jacobs who is one of the most versatile guitarists around, Caleb Stine who is quietly simply one of the most engaging songwriters today, and a host of other young bands including Grand Ole Ditch, Letitia Vansant, and Charm City Junction, who all carry the torch of Baltimore’s rich history forward.
[Cover photo: (l to r) Frankie Short, Del McCoury, Dee Gunter at unknown Baltimore bar, circa 1970]