Charlie Waller was a country singer – a fan of Hank Snow with the same kind of smooth, sweet delivery. Then, he was exposed to the music of Reno & Smiley and later, Ralph Stanley. As he told Doug Tuchman in an interview for the March 1974 issue of Pickin’, “That door opened, man, and that’s when I really started digging bluegrass.”
Waller was working for Washington, D.C. bluegrass fixture, Buzz Busby, when Busby was in a car accident. Banjoist, Bill Emerson didn’t want to lose the steady gig they had, so he called a few musicians, including Waller and vocalist/mandolinist John Duffey, to fill in. These three were the nucleus of The Country Gentlemen, which officially formed on July 4, 1957, and is still going strong today, six years after Waller’s death.
Charlie Waller was the longest-serving member of The Country Gentlemen. Here, for the uninitiated, is a list of his essential recordings.
The Country Gentlemen and the Folk Boom
The Gents were different right from the start. Waller’s mellow baritone had more in common with the singers of the early 60s folk boom than the high lonesome mountain singers that first enticed him to bluegrass.
This and an eclectic taste in material brought The Country Gentlemen — and bluegrass music in general — a dedicated group of new fans in the college students who were also listening to The Kingston Trio and Bob Dylan. These recordings are some of Waller’s most inventive works from that period.
“Dark as a Dungeon”: This fatalistic account the coal miner’s life came from the pen of guitar virtuoso Merle Travis, but Waller transformed it into a folk-flavored tour de force and bluegrass standard.
“Legend of the Brown Mountain Light”: A song from the Kingston Trio’s songbook, Waller freed it of its stiff, folkie formality.
“Electricity”: Compared to most bluegrass guitarists of the day, Waller worked with blinding speed and accuracy, all while delivering equally pristine lead vocals, here, with a dose of good humor and logic to explain the science of faith.
“Going Back to the Blue Ridge Mountains”: Waller’s voice may have been naturally suited to folk, but he could sing straight-ahead bluegrass with equal facility, as he proves here.
“The Double Eagle”: Unlike most bluegrass guitarists, who stuck to basic rhythm playing and a few bass runs, Waller was a skilled flatpicker. He demonstrated his chops and his instinct for daring repertoire in this arrangement of the John Phillip Sousa march.
“Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight”: Waller’s choices in lyrics could be just as innovative as his musical choices. As he did so often, he took a song that combined a strong melody with the atypical subject matter and made it a bluegrass standard.
“Girl Behind the Bar”: Waller borrowed this from the Stanley Brothers, giving it a refreshing modern bluegrass treatment.
Charlie Waller and a New Country Gentlemen Lineup
Tired of life on the road, John Duffey left The Country Gentlemen in 1969, followed by the group’s innovative banjoist, Eddie Adcock.Tom Gray, whose jazzy, technically dazzling bass playing had helped define the group’s progressive sound, had left in 1964.
This had been the best-known Gents lineup, and the defections would have killed lesser bands. But Waller regrouped, coming back as strong as ever, with some of his most classic performances.
“Circuit Rider”: A minor-key folk melody gets a lift from Bill Emerson’s driving banjo, and evokes stormy weather and the urgency that a circuit-riding preacher feels to take the gospel to his isolated flock, deep in the mountains.
“One Morning in May”: A folk song of far earlier origins than the 60s folk boom gets traditional bluegrass instrumental backing. It’s a beautiful contrast to Waller’s sweet vocal. The lyrics, in which a soldier’s tender courtship of a young woman is not as innocent as it seems, add still more interesting layers to the song.
“Fox on the Run”: This was not the hit by glitter rockers, Sweet, but an earlier song by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band. Waller’s compelling lead vocal helped turn it into a bluegrass standard.
“Take Me in a Lifeboat”: This gospel quartet is as remarkable for the ensemble singing as it is for Waller’s rich vocal and crisp guitar backup.
“Heavenward Bound”: Waller and Co. have an uncharacteristically bluesy interpretation of this gospel tale of a self-centered wanderer’s redemption.
“Matterhorn”: As unlikely a subject for a bluegrass song as ever was, this song concerned an ill-fated climb of the titular mountain. The drama is heightened by Waller’s heartfelt vocal.
“Bringing Mary Home”: Rebel Records’ first hit, based on an urban legend. The Gents first recorded it with John Duffey on lead vocal, then re-recorded it with Waller’s mellow lead vocal.
“Where I’m Bound”: A mainstay of folk boom repertoire by Tom Paxton, here it’s the perfect fusion of folk and bluegrass. The wind beneath the sails comes courtesy of a brisk bluegrass tempo.
Charlie Waller and The Country Gentlemen – Fathers of Modern Bluegrass
It’s a title that the National Observer once bestowed on John Duffey, but Charlie Waller could lay equal claim to the sobriquet “the father of modern bluegrass.” With their excursions into folk, pop, rock, and jazz — all anchored by a solid grounding in bluegrass basics — The Country Gentlemen, under Waller’s inspired leadership, ushered bluegrass into the modern era.
· Artis, Bob. “Bluegrass. New York. Hawthorne Books, Inc. 1975.
· Tuchman, Doug. “The Country Gentlemen” from Pickin’ 1. March, 1974. Reprinted in The Bluegrass Reader. Thomas Goldsmith, Ed. Urbana and Chicago. University of Illinois Press.
· The Memorial Website of Charlie Waller & the Country Gentlemen. Randy Waller & the Country Gentlemen – http://www.charliewaller.net
Here is the classic most of us probably know by heart: