2012 (aged 76)
Liner notes by Tina Aridas from the self-titled 2003 CD release, James Reams, Walter Hensley & The Barons of Bluegrass:
That night back in April of 1959 when Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys played Carnegie Hall (along with Muddy Waters and Memphis Slim, Jimmy Driftwood and Mike and Pete Seeger, among others), Curtis Cody, who was guesting on fiddle for the Baltimore-based bluegrass band, peeked out through the curtains before the start of the show. The elegant hall was packed with Northern folk-music fans, as the first bluegrass group ever to perform at the elegant and historic concert hall – more accustomed to playing in bars in and around Baltimore – paced nervously backstage. Curtis turned to banjo player Walter Hensley and said, “Walt, I don’t think they’ll like us a bit.” Walt recalls that his legs “were like Jell-O – and we had to play the fastest song we knew.” But when Walt, with legs shaking, stepped out onto the stage before the assembled audience at Alan Lomax’s Folksong ’59 concert, Curtis recalls that “he played something on the banjo, and they tore that place up.”
Curtis Cody wasn’t alone in his assessment of the band’s performance and the crowd’s reaction. “There is true folk magic in every note Walt plays,” according to Alan Lomax. Neil V. Rosenberg, in his book Bluegrass: A History, reports that “all agreed that of the various groups in the concert, Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys were the hit of the evening.” Years later in an article in Bluegrass Unlimited by Tom Ewing, Earl Taylor recalled, “when we would end a number, I knew that it would take five minutes before we could go into another one – that’s how much rarin’ and screamin’ and hair-pullin' there was.” The recording of that concert, release as an LP later that year on United Artists (see discography), influenced a generation of young musicians and new fans, many from urban areas in the North who were exposed to bluegrass for the first time.
Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys’ hard-driving “Baltimore-style” bluegrass – the sound that whipped the audience into a frenzy that one evening in NYC and regularly in clubs in and around Baltimore – was “right up there with Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs,” according to Del McCoury, who at the time lived in nearby York County, Pennsylvania, and was a frequent visitor to the vibrant Baltimore scene.
Walter Hensley was – and still is – one of the finest practitioners of that Baltimore style of bluegrass and some say one of the greatest banjo pickers ever. Indeed, he has been called the “Banjo Baron of Baltimore.” His driving banjo and inventive licks earned him the first solo banjo LP ever to be recorded on a major label and has elevated his name to the status of cult legend among banjo players and aficionados of that high-wire style of banjo playing. If there was a roster of influential and innovative banjo players, Walt would be on it, but his name is unfamiliar to many bluegrass musicians and fans. He is a stylistic pioneer, but, as bluegrass writer Jon Weisberger writes, “Walt has been “criminally under-appreciated.” Bill Monroe biographer Richard D. Smith says that “Walter remains one of the terribly underrated greats of the 5-string.”
Walt was born in Grundy, Virginia, in 1936. His father, Finn, after a stint in the Navy, moved his family to a coal camp in Pike County, Kentucky, where he had gotten a job working in the coal mines. Sometime during that period he ordered Walt and his older brother Jim instruments from the Montgomery Ward catalog: Walt got a banjo (“a 24-dollar job,” says Walt) and Jim got a guitar. “I had to learn off the radio,” recalls Walt. “Didn’t have any records or anything. I just kept messing with the banjo roll. Drove my Dad crazy because he worked in the mines, and he’d have to get up at four in the morning. He said, ‘If you’re going to play that thing, I want you to learn it, but go out to the barn.’” Replacing broken fingerpicks and strings was possibly only when someone who had a car was going to town – 35 miles away – and could bring some back. So Walt sometimes made fingerpicks out of PET Milk cans (“They were not all that bad; better than nothing if nobody was going to town,” says Walt). To replace broken strings he sometimes cut the insulation off blasting wire that was used for setting off dynamite in the mines, then tuned it down low enough so it wouldn’t break when played.
By 1952 Walt’s banjo-playing earned him (along with his brother Jim on guitar and mandolin) work on a radio show on WLSI in Pikesville, Kentucky, with Hobo Jack Adkins and the Kentucky Pals. At around the same time, Walt was filling in as banjo player with bluegrass pioneers the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers for several show dates. Walt moved to Baltimore in 1956 and, during a stint in a rockabilly band called the Black Mountain Boys, met Earl Taylor. “Earl had just come back to Baltimore after playing in Jimmy Martin’s band,” Walt recalls, “and wanted to start his own band. He sat in a the Cozy Inn where I was playing and asked me if I wanted to join, and I said, ‘Yeah.’” So in early 1957 Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys was formed and included Earl on mandolin, Walt on banjo, bassist/comedian Vernon “Boatwhistle” McIntyre, and Charlie Waller (who later that year went on to co-found the Country Gentlemen) on guitar. Within a year Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys had recorded two songs for the newly formed Rebel Records: “Stoney Mountain Twist” (a composition by Walt) and “The Children Are Cryin’.” (In 1962 a new version of “The Children Are Cryin” – retitled “Calling Your Name” – along with “Stoney Mountain Twist” became Rebel’s first bluegrass single.)
In 1959, the same year as the Carnegie Hall concert, the band recorded an album for United Artists, and Mike Seeger made a (soon-to-be-influential) live recording of the band for Folkways Records in a room upstairs at the famous (some might say infamous) 79 Club on Cross Street in Baltimore, where the band had been playing a seven-nights-a-week gig. The band then moved west to Missouri, but after a brief stay Walt came back to Baltimore and joined the Country Gentlemen in 1961, who at that time included Charlie Waller, John Duffey and Tom Gray. But less than a year later Walt quit the band to re-join Earl, who had left Missouri and was moving to Cincinnati. The band signed with Capitol Records and, the following year, recorded Blue Grass Taylor-Made. During the recording session, Walt was asked by Capitol to record an album under his own name. Shortly afterward, he left the band, recorded 5-String Banjo Today for Capitol, and formed his own band, the Dukes of Bluegrass.
But these were tough times for bluegrass musicians. The market for bluegrass music was already languishing after Elvis-fever swept the nation. Beatlemania was too hard a second blow. Capitol stopped pressing bluegrass albums and put its resources into manufacturing Beatles records. Walt left Cincinnati and moved back to Baltimore, where he worked on a variety of non-music jobs and played only weekend music gigs – even completely laying off performing bluegrass in public for a while. Although the Dukes of Bluegrass disbanded and re-formed a couple of times during this period (and included Jim McCall in the early 1980s, as well as Leon Morris and Bill Slotzhauer), Walt consistently remained an important musical influence in Baltimore bluegrass.
In the early 1990s Walt moved to Pennsylvania, and his public performances were limited to occasional festivals with Vernon McIntyre’s Appalachian Grass (led by the son of Stoney Mountain Boy Vernon “Boatwhistle” McIntyre). It was in the summer of 1999 that he and James Reams met at the Riverside Bluegrass Festival in Groveton, New Hampshire, where Walt was playing with Appalachian Grass and James was playing with his bluegrass band, James Reams & The Barnstormers. Walt and James talked some, listened to each other play, and hit it off. James and Walt saw each other over the next couple of years at festivals and bluegrass venues where the two bands were playing, and continued the personal and musical friendship. They shared a similar background, although a generation apart: Both were from rural Appalachia and migrated to an urban area as young adults (James was a native of eastern Kentucky who had moved to New York City in the 1980s). And James Reams & The Barnstormers played a hard-driving style of bluegrass that Walt could relate to.
James was keeping a busy musical schedule: He was making arrangements for his annual old-time/bluegrass festival, the Park Slope Jamboree, which was drawing musicians from all over the Northeast and helping to establish a revival of interest in bluegrass and old-time music in urban NYC. His CD with the Mysterious Redbirds, a string band that included NYC fiddler Bill Christophersen and legendary old-time banjo player Tom Paley (who himself had spurred an urban old-time and bluegrass music revival 30 years earlier as a founding member of the New Lost City Ramblers), was finished and in production at Copper Creek, and James was at the time writing songs and working on a CD with the Barnstormers, as well as preparing for the band’s upcoming shows. But he kept in touch with Walt.
In the summer of 2001, late one night when James got back to NYC after one of the band’s shows, he started thinking about Walt’s banjo playing again. Here was a legendary banjo player – indeed, one of that first generation of bluegrass musicians who had helped to shape the music’s sound – yet Walt hadn’t been in a recording studio for more than 25 years. Barnstormin’, the Barnstormers’ CD that James had been working on, as out on Copper Creek and was getting nice reviews; James was busy with a season full of shows and was already starting to pull together material for the next Barnstormer album. But James picked up the phone and called Walt. It was time to get him back into the studio.
The logistics of the rehearsals were tricky: James, along with bass player Carl Hayano and mandolin/fiddle player Mark Farrell, took repeated day-trips in the fall of 2001 to Walt’s home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to go over the material. There were lots of long phone calls. When the recording date was set, Walt would have to come to NYC – and record it all in one weekend. Accompanied by his teenage son Dale, Walt came to New York in February 2002 for the sessions (and somehow squeezed in some of the sights of NYC). James recalls, “During the sessions Walt was like an otter in a lake – just as nimble, and performing banjo acrobatics.”
Recorded live-in-the-studio, Walt’s banjo playing – as you will hear on this album – hasn’t lost any of its impeccable timing, punch, drive and inventiveness. His two original tunes exhibit the ingenuity, craft and pure excitement of the classic bluegrass instrumentals. James’s hard-charging rhythm guitar on this CD shows why he was profiled in a Flatpicking Guitar magazine “Masters of Rhythm Guitar” article. And his singing shows the power and passion that have through the years earned praise from fellow musicians, deejays and music writers, including Banjo Newsletter’s Donald Nitchie, who wrote that his “southern-tinged vocals sound as smoky as his heroes, Lester, Carter, and Red” – and that moved Walt to say, “I think bluegrass has lost a lot of its heart. The musicians are great. They sound good, but I think some of the heart has gone out of it. James put is it back in there.”
The members o the rest of the band – Carl Hayano on tenor vocals and bass; Mark Farrell on baritone vocals, fiddle and mandolin; Bob Mastro on fiddle; and Barry Mitterhoff on mandolin – are each, separately, talented musicians. As the Barons of Bluegrass they demonstrate how working in such an exceptional ensemble can be a catalyst for true inspiration.
In addition to the great song selection and musicianship on this recording, what comes through to the listener is the musicians’ unmistakable and unmitigated love for the music they’re playing. Their motto – Cor et Manus (Heart and Hand) – is what we’re hearing.
This CD contains a mix of originals, traditional songs, and some under-recorded gems – and sounds like the sort of album that might have been made in those earlier days of bluegrass. This is the real thing. James Reams, Walter Hensley and the Barons of Bluegrass have captured the essence of that hard-core, hard-driving, raw Baltimore sound and have made an album that Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys or the Dukes of Bluegrass would have been proud to call their own.
New York City
SELECTED DISCOGRAPHY FOR WALTER HENSLEY:
–Wild Card, James Reams, Walter Hensley & The Barons of Bluegrass, Mountain Redbird Music, MRMCD005 (scheduled for release in March 2006; for more information, visit www.jamesreams.com)
wJames Reams, Walter Hensley & The Barons of Bluegrass (self-titled), Copper Creek Records CCCD0214, 2003
–Three Days From Home, Walter Hensley & the Dukes of Bluegrass, Revonah 912, 1974
–Come By The Hills, Bill Clifton, County 751, 1975
–Pickin’ On New Grass, Rebel SLP 1488, 1969
–The 5-String Banjo Today, Capitol ST 2149, 1964
–Blue Grass Taylor-Made, Earl Taylor and His Blue Grass Mountaineers, Capitol T 2090, 1964
–Stoney Mountain Twist / Calling Your Name (45 rpm), Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys, Rebel F 230, 1962
–Alan Lomax Presents Folk Songs From The Blue Grass – Earl Taylor and His Stoney Mountain Boys, United Artists 3049, 1959
Compilations including Walter Hensley:
–Classic Bluegrass From Smithsonian Folkways, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings SFW CD 40092, 2002
–35 Years Of The Best In Bluegrass, 1960-1995, Rebel Records REB-4000, 1997
–Mountain Music: Bluegrass Style, Folkways FA 2318, 1959
–Folksong Festival At Carnegie Hall, United Artists UAL 3050, 1959
Liner notes by Carl Goldstein from Wild Card, the 2006 CD release by James Reams, Walter Hensley & The Barons of Bluegrass:
Many of the finest musicians playing rural acoustic music today (both old time and bluegrass) come from those communities nestled deep in the Appalachian Mountain chain from mid-Virginia through North Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky. James Reams and Walter Hensley hail from those settlements, and both found their way north to help introduce and spread the beauty and power of that music to countless people.
From their respective home places in Eastern Kentucky and Southwest Virginia, Walter and James found separate but equally impressive paths to this collaboration. They met at a festival in New Hampshire in 1999 and formed a friendship borne out of a respect for each other’s musical heritage. Their first recording together, the self-titled James Reams, Walter Hensley & The Barons of Bluegrass, was nominated in 2003 as recorded event of the year. James Reams and Walter Hensley now return for a second engagement with the fine assistance of the Barons of Bluegrass – Jon Glik, Mark Farrell and Carl Hayano.
Walter Hensley is a cult figure in bluegrass. Walter, who was born in Grundy, Virginia, in 1936, also grew up as did James in Eastern Kentucky (Pike County) when his father moved the family there for work in the coal camps. He learned to play along with his brother and by 1952 was playing on the radio in Pikesville. A few years later Walter moved to Baltimore, Maryland, and became a central figure in the bluegrass scene there, a place and time that was the epicenter of the bluegrass world from the mid 50s through the 60s. Along with Walter, such luminaries as Earl Taylor, Vernon McIntyre, Red Allen, Buzz Busby and Del McCoury frequented the clubs and informal jams throughout the city. I experienced this apocalyptic confluence of talent first-hand guided by my friend the late Ted Lundy, who would often travel down there from Wilmington, Delaware, to be part of the action.
It was from there that Walter went on to play with Earl Taylor and the Stony Mountain Boys along with Charlie Waller as lead vocalist. The band recorded on the seminal Folkways recording Mountain Music Bluegrass Style (FA2318, released in November 1959). That recording became the mother lode for the urban folkies who were smitten with the genre. It also led to folklorist Alan Lomax’s well-known pronouncement of bluegrass as “folk music with overdrive.” The famous April 1959 Carnegie Hall appearance (a first for bluegrass) followed. Walter also performed with another important band of the period, Vernon McIntyre and the Appalachian Grass, and later formed and recorded with his own fine band, The Dukes of Bluegrass. Appropriately, author and music historian Richard Smith called Walter “one of the underrated greats of the 5-string.”
James Reams is writing a similar legacy by using his commanding yet unaffected rich baritone voice to spread the power of the music of his native Kentucky to wider audiences, first in the Northeast U.S. and now beyond. James was raised on a farm in London, Kentucky. His father’s band played at square dances, and he in turn encouraged James’ musical talents. James has a broad knowledge of both bluegrass and old time music and can play both with authority. With Tom Paley and Bill Christophersen he recorded the critically acclaimed old time CD, The Mysterious Redbirds 1992-1998. This familiarity with old time and bluegrass gives James’ music a depth and feel not found in many other musicians. With his bluegrass band the Barnstormers, James is building an impressive repertoire and following, which garnered them a nomination as the IBMA’s Emerging Artist of the Year. Moreover his respect for history and tradition is clear not only in his performing and material but even more dramatically by reaching out to people like Walter Hensley and giving him an audience again after a couple decades of relative silence.
As Director of the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival I have been privileged to know and listen to both the Barnstormers and the Barons in concert and festival settings. I have found only terrific, interesting and professionally presented music by the guys in both settings. And that friendly warm stage presence of James is no act. In conversation you will also find an encyclopedic knowledge of early country music. He and Walter are both delightful human beings who just happen to make great music as well!
This partnership has a deeper, richer feel the second time around. Walter’s banjo has that old drive and beautifully displays what I used to love about early bluegrass – artful banjo backup to the vocals and breaks by the other band members when appropriate. James’ voice is as expressive as ever but reveals a more emotional or soulful side that may come with age or just paying your dues. There is also a wonderful interplay between the fiddle, banjo and mandolin (just listen to “Road to Columbus”). That interplay seems woefully absent in many contemporary bluegrass recordings these days. The harmony here is real and present – not softened and blurred. The edge and emotion remain.
Jon Glik has been a Baltimore fiddle icon forever and just flat nails this session. Jon has played with everyone from Del McCoury to David Grisman and appears regularly with the dance group Footworks and is a regular member of the Good Deale Bluegrass Band with Mike Auldridge. Mark Farrell contributes mightily here on both mandolin and fiddle. He has played with the Barnstormers for eight years and has a deep knowledge of both bluegrass and old time music. He was part of the infamous Major Contay and the Canebrake Rattlers but is responding well to treatment. The rock solid bass and soaring tenor is supplied by Carl Hayano, who has appeared on both Barons CDs and the Barnstormers’ recordings.
There is a deep respect for tradition throughout these proceedings. It is evident not only in the vocal and instrumental styles but in the song and tune selection as well. The list includes compositions by the Delmore Brothers, Ola Belle Reed, Johnny Paycheck, Albert Brumley and Bill Monroe. And then there are my two favorite moments on the CD. A startlingly beautiful new song written by James and Tina Aridas called “Where No Heart Goes Hungry” and the nearly five minutes of sheer joy and passion heard in their version of “Working on a Building.”
In sum, James Reams, Walter Hensley and the Barons of Bluegrass have given us a royal treat. Enjoy!
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