I feel of late as if I am saying goodbye a lot in the words that I write, and in my personal life. In many respects I am blessed that I have known so many people in various walks of life but still sadness abounds when we see those we have walked with in some aspect of our life called home.
Just recently I attended a celebration of life for a talented musician and friend Gene Daniell (1941-2011) from Marietta, Ga. Gene was an acoustic bass player an in his second career a sound engineer supreme making the rounds at some of the biggest bluegrass music festivals in the South and East.
As a youth, Gene was the person who brought me into fiddling for one of the last remaining links to the Georgia Fiddle Bands – Doodle and the Golden River Grass.
He played with many groups in his nearly four decade career but it was this group that carried him into musical history as his fingers forged a rock solid bottom which pushed the music along like the driver of a train.
The Golden River Grass was the standard bearer for the Georgia Fiddle Band sound from the 1970s through the 1990s carrying on the traditions started by The Skillet Lickers, Fiddlin’ John Carson and Moonshine Kate and so many others. I had the honor to be one of four fiddlers including Bill Kee, Paul Wallace and Jerry Wesley who carried that torch joining in early 1985.
Because of Gene and the band, I had the opportunity to perform in front of one of the largest audiences of my career at the National Folk Festival in 1985. I was told 60,000 were in attendance when I kicked off the evening with my rousing fiddle performance of “Liberty.”
For a period in my college period, I also served Gene and his wife Johnnie as a sound tech, doing what had to be done to set up, tear down and keep running the stage of various festivals he worked. He taught me a tremendous amount about how to do that properly.
We said goodbye to the leader of that group Georgia comedian and single-note harmonica player John “Doodle” Thrower (1927-1994) many years ago now.
Doodle was a country comedian whose stories sometimes pushed the envelope. When I came to work with the group, my late mother Pearl sat Doodle down and said “The only way my son can work with you is if you keep your act clean and family friendly.” Doodle agreed and he kept his promise, although he made it a point to stretch just a bit whenever mother was in the audience just to pick at her a bit.
At the celebration, I sat beside the surviving members of the band. Beside me was clawhammer banjo stylist James Watson, 76, whose once strong right arm established a rhythm that made it a breeze for a fiddler to play.
Also there were guitarist C.J. Clackum, and mandolinist and guitarist Wesley Clackum, father and son, who both provided a steady and consistent rhythm and vocals for the group.
The collaboration of the musicians created the energy with which we hit stages from Ohio to Florida, South Carolina to Alabama. This group was a fixture on the biggest bluegrass and folk festivals in the East.
Gene’s role in the group, serving as manager helped to bring greater attention on the raw rustic sounds of the group that seemed to cross over any boundary.
During his tenure Brown’s Guide to Georgia cited the group as one of the top ten acts in the state. Their talents won the attention of the National Council on the Arts bringing them to make repeat appearances at the National Folk Festival. Folklorist Alan Lomax sought out the group to document and feature in his PBS documentary “An Appalachian Journey” for the “American Patchwork” series. They also starred in the PBS series “Tonight at Ferlinghetti’s” as well as other TV shows.
In its career, the group recorded about 100 songs of which I had the honor of fiddling about sixty. I consider these recordings some of the most representative of the traditional sounds of Appalachia and closest to the music of my fiddling Great Grandfather A.J. “Harve” Franks and Great Uncle Tom Franks.
One of my fondest memories is of a Golden River Grass jam session at Holiday Hills Music Park in Florida. Adding to the energy of the jam session as we sang The Carter Family song “Foggy Mountain Top” was my friend Marty Stuart. I remember Marty telling me how much he’d like to bring Doodle and the band to the Opry if he ever had the ability to make it happen. Sadly, by the time Marty’s star had risen to that level he could make it happen, Doodle’s health failed him.
It was an honor to be part of this group who carried on a vital part of Georgia’s musical history and to work with Gene, Doodle, James, Wesley and C.J. I learned a great deal from each member of the group.
If you would like to see the ensemble you may visit Randall Franks TV on youtube at http://www.youtube.com/user/randallfranks.