Being brought into focus by Bill Monroe

As I stepped on the blue bus, I wondered whether I could measure up to the task ahead.
I had spent much of the last decade learning to play the fiddle and violin. I listened to every record and learned hundreds of fiddle licks that helped me take these steps. I had already performed for the Grand Ole Opry.
Nevertheless, despite years of performing and endless hours of preparation, still in my teens, I was scared.
Already, I had the distinct honor of being a regular show guest of one of music’s greatest innovators, the Father of Bluegrass music, Bill Monroe.
But now instead of just walking out on stage, shining in his accolades of my talent, the duties of carrying long-time fiddler Kenny Baker’s parts fell on my shoulders.
While I had listened to the recordings, I knew that the dynamic of Mr. Monroe’s stage show was a bit different than those sounds emanating from the vinyl.
In many ways, I believe this monumental band leader, who had coached some of bluegrass and country’s biggest stars such as Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin, Benny Martin and so many others, sensed my concerns of filling such a giant fiddler’s shoes.
Baker had just quit a few weeks before, after 22 years with the Blue Grass Boys.
Mr. Monroe, being a stickler for detail, did not have a reputation for giving musicians in his band much slack to carry their weight.
Therefore, although we were friends, I think my feelings were appropriate.
This trip was already full of firsts for me; I was now an official member of the Blue Grass Boys, and I was taking my first airplane flight.
In the process of the flight, I got to move from each leg of the journey to a smaller and smaller plane as I moved closer to Yakima, Wash., where I met the band on their return from Japan. Baker had quit just before that trip.
I am just glad there wasn’t one more connection, or I would have been out in the air flapping my arms. That last plane was awfully small.
After taking those four steps onto the bus off the gray sidewalk, Mr. Monroe and the rest of the Blue Grass Boys — Wayne Lewis (guitar), Tater Tate (bass and fiddle), and Blake Williams (banjo) — greeted me.
Mr. Monroe’s first words were: “Thank you for coming, glad you could be with us.”
Blake showed me to my bunk, and then I had to sit down with Mr. Monroe to discuss the evening’s show.
While we had played together, and he had faith in my abilities, there is a big difference between jamming and carrying a stage show. Especially when the fiddle often began each song, set the tempo and could make or break a show.
As an experienced band leader, I think he sensed my concerns of not measuring up to the task of filling not only Baker’s shoes, but those of the dozens of other fiddlers from Bobby Hicks to Byron Berline and even current band member Tater Tate.
“Do you know my material?” he asked.
“Yes sir, I know a lot of it — “Jerusalem Ridge,” “Road to Columbus,” “Lonesome Moonlight Waltz,” — but I do not really know what you regularly include in your stage shows,” I said.
That evening, we were scheduled to appear at the Capital Theatre, a 1920s-era grand movie house that was now Yakima’s crown jewel of entertainment.
Mr. Monroe talked with me a few minutes and called Tater to the front of the bus.
“Do you play the big fiddle?” he asked me.
I said, “A little.”
“I think for tonight, Tater, you should work with him on the big fiddle, and you play the little fiddle until he is comfortable,” he said.
So, I was off the hook. The fiddling fears went away for a moment.
In one decision, Mr. Monroe had figured out a way to ease me into my new responsibilities a bit at a time, much like you would test the water as you were going in wading one foot at a time.
This also gave me the chance to learn the ropes from Tater.
But now, rather than walk on stage my first time as a Blue Grass Boy with my then constant companion, my Guarnerious violin, I would step on stage with its older brother, Tater’s “doghouse bass.”
In my life, I had held one only a few times, but I did know some of the basics.
Tater gave me a 20-minute crash course on what I needed to know to get through the 75-minute show.
As we prepared for the show that evening, I dressed in my gray Blue Grass Boy suit, put on my gray Stetson Blue Grass Boy hat, grabbed the bass fiddle and an arm full of my records and headed to the dressing room backstage.
I had traveled in music for years, but until I stepped through that door as a member of the Blue Grass Boys, I really did not know what it was like to be treated as a star.
As the set grew near, I was putting thick white tape on my fingers to protect the skin from the blisters that would come from playing the bass.
I peaked out from behind the red velour curtains, which seemed to reach for the sky, to see every seat full, with people seemingly hanging from the rafters.
As the master of ceremonies was preparing the audience, the Blue Grass Boys took our places on stage and waited for the emcee to reach a crescendo.
As soon as Mr. Monroe took his first steps on the stage, the entire audience was on their feet with a standing ovation.
As Tater and Blake hit the first notes of “Sweet Blue Eyed Darling,” I grabbed a hold and held on for dear life, doing my best to hold the rhythm together. The show began to roll and did not stop until the audience called us back for encore after encore.
It really did not seem like an hour and 25 minutes; it just flew by, as did all of my performances with Mr. Monroe.
As I stepped off the stage, Mr. Monroe stopped, smiled and patted me on the back and said, “Thank you.”
I had made it through and the ride was just beginning. I was really a Blue Grass Boy.
After that first show, Tater and I began swapping fiddle and bass duties, easing me into the shoes of all those that came before.
Even today, after walking in them for years, there sure is a lot of room left in those shoes, but I just keep trying to fill them.
Thanks to my work with Monroe and other bluegrass legends I was honored as a Bluegrass Legend in 2011 at the Monroe Centennial Celebration at the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Owensboro, Ky. and am blessed to part of a unique brotherhood that includes many of bluegrass music’s greatest musicians.
(This feature appeared in Randall Franks book series Encouragers)

Appalachian youth finding their way to the top

When I was a child beginning my music career, the opportunity to record was a dream that could have not come true without the support of many adult mentors.
Musicians including Eugene Akers, WSB Barndance stars Cotton and Jane Carrier, performers John and Debbie Farley, Roy Westray, plus numerous parents who wished to invest in my fellow youth musicians and me.
They were helping us prepare for the day we could go in the studio and create something that people would want to listen to. When the day finally came, unlike today when people have devices capable of recording in their own pockets, we had to a recording studio and then the music had to by manufactured into a product, in our case, an album and cassette.
That all cost money and thankfully my late mother was willing to loan us the money needed. We were blessed that the music was well received and we sold plenty of albums and were able to pay back every dime, and then finance our next album with the profits.
Recently, I was blessed to be in a similar situation as those who mentored me. Over an 18-month period, I brought Appalachian youth into the recording studio producing a project for the non-profit Share America Foundation, Inc. The learning experience was to give them the opportunity to record, to work with other talented musicians, and to learn from some good mentors. In some cases, we taught the youth about writing or arranging songs, and since about promoting songs.
When we started the process, I never imagined how ultimately amazing the combination of talents would be and how radio would receive those talents. With the release of our CD “Randall Franks – Americana Youth of Southern Appalachia” in the middle of May, in the course of a month, the recordings carried the CD to the #1 position on the APD Americana Albums Global Charts with most also charting individually with their songs. With today’s technology and a radio music provider like our partner AirPlayDirect.com, within a couple of weeks, these youth’s music was being heard by audiences around the world.
When I started, we had to mail LPs to radio stations and then call program directors and disc jockeys asking them if they would consider playing the music, sometimes with success, sometimes not. Often, we had to visit the stations while touring, or meet them at the DJ Convention before we had a shot at a listen.
What a blessing the attention is for these talented youth!
Joining me on the project: Emerald Butler; Warren Carnes; Phillip Cross; Landon Fitzpatrick; Nicholas Hickman; Trevor Holder; Kings Springs Road including Tyler Griffith, Owen Schinkel, Kylie Anderson, Josh Meade, and Max Silverstein; Isaac Moore; Mountain Cove Bluegrass Band including Eli Beard, Cody Harvey, Colin Mabry, Wil Markham, Tyler Martelli, and Chris Brown; Matthew Nave; Wally O’Donald; Drew Sherrill; SingAkadamie including Jacob Trotter, Grant Lewellen, Nicholas Hickman, Lilly Anne York, Haleigh Grey, Kayla Starks, Chelsea Brewster, Logan Lynne and Kiersten Suttles; Landon Wall; and Tyler West.
The other musicians contributing their talents to the effort on various recordings are special guests Gospel Music Hall of Fame member Jeff Hullender, SingAkadamie director Sheri Thrower, Tim Witt, John Roberts; Bary Wilde; Chris Gordon; Tim Neal; and Mitch Snow. Bradley Powell mastered the project.
The 18 recordings include: Original Songs – It’s A Hard Road to Make Love Easy; How Could I Go?; What About All These American Flags?; Wash Day; Time for the Blues; Midnight Train; Filling the River with Tears; Someone Greater Than I; I Believe He Spoke to Me; five standards – The Star Spangled Banner; When We All Get to Heaven & Blessed Assurance; Farther Along; and I Want to Be Ready; and five covers – Chet Atkin’s “Baby’s Coming Home;” Billy Joel’s “Piano Man;” Dwight Yoakam’s “Traveler’s Lantern;” Ramblin’ Tommy Scott’s “Been Gone A Long Time;” and Billy Hill’s “Old Spinning Wheel.”
If you should have an interest, I hope you might take the time download the project or donate for a CD copy. All the funds go to Appalachian music scholarships and will help encourage not only these youth but others in the future. The Share America Foundation, Inc., a 501-C-3 of Georgia, fosters the arts and preserves the history of Appalachia.
The North Georgia Electric Membership Corporation Foundation, Kiwanis Club of Ringgold and the Wes and Shirley Smith Charitable Endowment, all also provided support of the project like AirPlay Direct,
“Americana Youth of Southern Appalachia” CD is available for a $15 donation
or on the web at www.ShareAmericaFoundation.org . It may be downloaded through Apple iTunes, Google Music, Amazon, and CD Baby by searching for the title.
Radio stations may download the recordings at AirPlayDirect.com/RandallFranks-AmericanaYouthOfSouthernAppalachia

YouTube: Randall Franks Americana Youth of Southern Appalachia CD PSA:
https://youtu.be/HDnh-Ls-HCQ/

Bullies often influence our life’s directions

I rolled down the hill head first, it wasn’t the first time that I gotten myself in a scuffle with the other boys at school. But this one seemed to be tougher to overcome than most.
You would think a peaceable person such as myself wouldn’t get into scrapes with other folks but I often found myself on the receiving end of bully’s attention. Sometimes it was directed at me to start with, but over the years, I had learned sometimes the only way to stop someone from being bullied was to step in and divert the attention of those inflicting the action.
Early in my life, I had seen my dad and mom step in to help others and one day another boy had stepped in for me in a fight and these things left an indelible mark in my character that I should do the same.
I was never much of a fighter. I was more of a punching bag coming up but I learned quickly to out smart those who had ill will.
As I hit the bottom of the hill this time, I rolled up on my feet and turned ready for the next blow from the bully. Once I looked up, he was gone along with his band of evil doers. They had moved on to wreak havoc elsewhere.
I brushed myself off, walked back up the hill and picked up my books. The original aim of their actions had evaporated into the crowd. But I had accomplished my objective. I had deflected the harm with little or no worse for the wear.
This childhood tendency has brought me into helping others in a variety of ways in my life, though I have left physical intervention long in the past.
There are still bullies who need their attention diverted from those they wish to torment. Each of us should be mindful no matter where they appear. No matter what they wear or what they claim to be.
Wolves sometimes still wear sheep’s clothing to gain the opportunity to devour their prey.
Sometimes we have to step up, use our heads, so the wolves know we and those we love are not their prey and they need to move on.
May you always defend those less fortunate, and always stand up for the right.