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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)

Nashville puts Bill and Jimmy in bronze

From my earliest days in country music International Country Music Fan Fair was an event that many country music personalities loved so they could get up close and personal with fans from around the world. The event is now called CMA Music Festival, and it was appropriate that during this year’s event a couple of the early stars of the Grand Ole Opry were honored during this week with unveilings of bronzes – Hall of Famers Bill Monroe and Little Jimmy Dickens.

I knew both of these men, I first met Jimmy at an event at Country Music Fan Fair and I performed for and with Bill Monroe numerous times throughout my career at this wonderful event. Both are featured in various volumes of my Encouragers book series.

Outside of Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium, country and bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs unveiled a newly installed life-size bronze statue dedicated to his musical mentor, Bill Monroe.

“I don’t know if you ever get another Bill Monroe in a century,” Skaggs said. “There’s not a lot of people that I know of who could be cited as creating a whole new genre of music, but he did. He had the ear to hear it, the talent to play it and the heart to keep it alive because he was strong, he was powerful.

“I don’t know any person who could have withstood, pushed through and made it like him. He had music in his veins. It was the thing that pushed him so much,” he said. “It wasn’t just to make a living. It was to get something out of him and take to people that he loved, and that was the fans that loved this music. I have traveled all over the world into places you would think that bluegrass music would never make it to … and you meet someone there that actually plays the music. So this music has totally gone around the world.”

James Monroe, son of the late bluegrass icon was also on-hand to say a few words about his father.

Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass, was a gifted player, singer, and songwriter. The genre takes its name from his band, the Blue Grass Boys, named for Monroe’s home state of Kentucky.

Monroe formed the first edition of the Blue Grass Boys in Atlanta, Ga. The band eventually featured more than 150 performers including Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt performing career spanned 69 years before he died on Sept. 9, 1996. I am extremely honored to be one of those 150 Blue Grass Boys playing both fiddle and bass contributing to this legacy.

In October 1939, Monroe successfully auditioned for a regular spot on the Grand Ole Opry impressing Opry founder George D. Hay with his energetic stage performance – he soon started recording and developing what would eventually become his signature style with fast tempos, instrumental virtuosity, and musical innovation. His recordings have become classics including “Blue Grass Breakdown,” “My Rose of Old Kentucky,” and Monroe’s most famous composition, “Blue Moon of Kentucky.”

Monroe, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970, remained a mainstay at the Opry. There he settled into a role as a musical patriarch influencing generations of young musicians including Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, and the Oak Ridge Boys.

In addition to Monroe’s dedication, country star Brad Paisley unveiled a bronze statue of the late Little Jimmy Dickens. WSM radio personality Bill Cody hosted the ceremony.

Dickens was born James Cecil Dickins, but was world famous as “Little Jimmy.” He was known for his humorous novelty songs, his small size (4’11”), and flashy wardrobe, but his contributions to country music were far greater than his diminutive stature. He started as a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1948 and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1983.

Little Jimmy Dickens was a beloved fixture at the Opry, on stage and backstage. He passed away on Jan. 2, 2015. Before his death, he was the oldest living member of the Grand Ole Opry.

Dickens recorded many novelty songs including “Country Boy,” “A-Sleeping at the Foot of the Bed,” “I’m Little but I’m Loud,” and his biggest hit, the No. 1 “May the Bird of Paradise Fly Up Your Nose.”  His song “Take an Old Cold Tater (And Wait)” inspired Hank Williams to nickname him Tater.

Over the years, Dickens made appearances in music videos by close friend and fishing buddy, fellow West Virginia native Brad Paisley. Along with joining on bonus comedy tracks on several of Paisley’s albums, Dickens also joined Paisley and his CMA Awards co-host Carrie Underwood in several show monologues. Upon Dickens’ death in 2015, Paisley lamented the loss of his hero and “the best friend a human being could ask for” and has performed numerous tributes to Dickens’ life and career.

“This was a man who was honing his craft before Hank Williams, who we sort of credit as the father of modern country music in many ways,” said Paisley during the unveiling today. “He saw everything in those decades that he stood on that stage, like Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn and Garth Brooks. By the time Jimmy left us, he had become the Grand Ole Opry. On a night that he wasn’t there, you were cheated out of something and he knew that. He realized when he was well enough to do it, he went. He knew that he owed it to the younger generation that wanted to see him, it was another lesson in how you entertain people. He gave them everything that he had on that stage and in this building for many many years. So I think it’s really appropriate that he’s going to be one of the statues that’s a permanent reminder of what we should be in this building.”

This year, the Ryman Auditorium celebrates its 125th anniversary since originally opening its doors in 1892. On July 27, Skaggs and his band Kentucky Thunder will perform at the historic venue as part of its annual “Bluegrass Nights at the Ryman” concert series.  Tickets are on-sale now at the box office and ryman.com.

Thank Your Lucky Stars

Webster describes a star as a celestial body with twinkling points of light. The wise men of old followed a star to the baby Jesus. Centuries ago, sailors learned to navigate themselves around the world by the stars.
Today, many look at people who have reached a certain status in their field as stars.
Do we look at these people as twinkling points of light? I imagine some do. Many stars use their celebrity to accomplish great works of charity.
The late Danny Thomas and his St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital is a wonderful example. Now, many years after Mr. Thomas left us, his work lives on in the children they help each and every day.
I have been blessed to know many stars in my life. People who I have admired. People who have been guides to me in the darkest of night, or the brightest of day.
First and foremost, one of the greatest stars I have ever come to know is Jesus. His light has lead millions now for 2000 years. For this Georgia boy, he is always there to lean on, or to guide me through whatever comes my way.
My parents were stars to me. No matter what they faced, the great depression, war, meeting the needs of my brothers and I, they were always there doing what had to be done.
Many teachers were stars to me. At any given point in my schooling, I can find one teacher who stood out in giving me more than what was required. They would make whatever I wanted seem important. No matter how dumb the question was, they made it seem intelligent. One teacher in particular, because of his love of music, changed the direction of my life. Dr. Donald Grisier brought the fiddle into my life and set the stage for God to open so many doors.
My first employer, Joe Wyche, ran the local Dairy Queen near where I grew up outside Atlanta. He and the managers, David and Ed, gave me a chance to earn a little money. I was able to learn responsibility and how to deal with customers. Thanks to their guidance, I soon became one of the youngest managers in the Dairy Queen system. But before that I could make the best cone curl in the business. All the people I worked with there were stars to me.
Now I have mentioned parents, teachers and a restaurateur as being stars. Now I’ll mention a couple of people who you may consider to be popular stars.
When I was still in my teens, Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, took interest in this young fiddler. He spent many hours sharing his music with me. Grand Ole Opry stars Jim & Jesse also become huge advocates and mentors in my life. They were my guides, my teachers, my friends and some of the highest stars in the musical heavens to me.
Carroll O’Connor, TV’s “Archie Bunker” and “Chief Gillespie,” and Alan Autry, TV’s “Bubba,” both took an interest in me as a person and in my work. They took the time, along with many producers like Walt Dornisch, directors like Peter Salim, Larry Hagman and Leo Penn and other actors to encourage me, teach me and give me opportunities to go where a boy from Georgia could not even imagine — on “In the Heat of the Night.” These and so many others are stars to me from that period in my life.
So many stars touch our lives every day. To me a star can be anyone who does what they do well. Then they share that God-given talent with others. They may be a good cook, a great mechanic, a successful salesperson, an inspiring clergyman, a visionary statesman or a cone-maker. They are all stars to me. Why don’t you take a look at the stars in your life? and let them know that your life is better because their light is shining on you. Is your light shining on those around you? If so, you can be a star too.

Director/Actor Randall Franks to direct IBMA Awards segment

Randall Franks will direct a segment of the annual International Bluegrass Music Association Awards Show featuring the Distinguished Achievement Awards.

“Bluegrass music is one of my greatest loves,” he said. “Playing a part in honoring the greats of our industry for their lifetime of commitment, as well as those we recognize for their special industry awards is an outstanding honor.”

Recognized as an International Bluegrass Music Museum Legend for his work with over 30 hall of famers including the legendary Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe, Franks is also known as an actor/director around the world. Franks, who appeared as “Officer Randy Goode” on TV’s “In the Heat of the Night,” has directed documentaries, music productions for television, stage plays, and dozens of hours of new media content. Franks starred in three TV series and 15 films with his latest film “Broken” starring with Soren Fulton and Joe Stevens.

Franks returns for his fourth year of directing working alongside segment producer Tom Kopp. The IBMA Awards Show are Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016 at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh, N.C. This special segment of the IBMA Awards Show including the Distinguished Achievement Awards, the organization’s second highest career honor, and its industry awards are presented at the Raleigh Convention Center earlier in the day.

“It is a pleasure to work with Tom Kopp and the IBMA staff who bring together a wonderful and always moving presentation for this segment,” Franks said “I often find myself being pulled into the moment along with the recipient during their acceptance speech sometimes choking up right along with them.”

Franks became a bluegrass and country music personality as a youth beginning appearances at major country, folk, bluegrass and gospel events such as Country Music Association Fan Fair, National Folk Festival, National Quartet Convention, World of Bluegrass, National Black Arts Festival and for the Grand Ole Opry. With 24 career albums in four genres, he has performed to over 145 million fans around the world. Musically, he is an Independent Country Music Hall of Fame member. His latest CD is “Keep ‘Em Smilin’” featuring Christian music and comedy.

Learn more about Franks connections to bluegrass, https://www.randallfranks.com/appalachian-and-bluegrass-music/.

Franks highlights many of his music heroes in his Encouragers book series, the latest in the series is “Encouragers III: A Guiding Hand” which include these bluegrass personalities: Eddie and Martha Adcock, Kenny Baker, Byron Berline, Jerry and Helen Burke, Vassar Clements, Peanut Faircloth, John and Debbie Farley, Otis Head, Bobby Hicks, Bill Monroe, and Tater Tate.

For more information about the IBMA Awards visit ibma.org.

Bluegrass music legacies

America’s music – bluegrass continues to grow in its popularity with new generations picking up the mantle of decades of evolution of the music that grew from the Appalachian sounds that gave it birth.

There are over 80 million listeners of bluegrass in the United States with millions more around the world, there are over 1,000 active bands, nearly 800 radio stations, and close to 200 associations.

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