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The Classic Country Gentlemen

Eddie Adcock, John Duffey, Tom Gray, & Charlie Waller




Classic Country Gentlemen

The birthplace of The Country Centlemen is Washington, D.C. because lead singer and founding member Charlie Waller was raised and started his musical career in this area. He was born in Texas and lived in Louisiana but moved to D.C. at age 10 in 1945 to rejoin his mother, who had relocated to find employment with the Potomac Electric Power Company. Charlie got his first guitar then, a $15 Stella guitar. "It took me a long time getting started because I didn't know how to tune it," he recalls, "and I couldn't find anybody to tune it for me. But I finally got it right, and when my friends would stop by the house I'd pick up the guitar and they'd say, 'Oh no, we're never gonna get out of here, now,!' But later it was just the opposite; they all wanted me to pick some. My first good guitar was a small Gibson. I paid $35 for it off a friend.  


Charlie quickly advanced from playing for his school buddies to singing before real audiences, At just 13 years-of-age, he launched his nightclub career in a smoke-filled beer joint in Washington. He was part of a trio of other 13 year-olds. "It was not a nice place for young kids to be in, but they paid us," says Charlie, who then earned $3 a night plus tips playing twice a week. The group played country music, and Charlie's favorite singer and major influence was Hank Snow. The next few years found Charlie playing a combination of country and bluegrass in local bars. He decided to quit high school. and got a, job as a body and fender repairman. But he soon learned that day jobs and bluegrass don't always mix. "It didn't last too long because of the pickin'," Charlie recalls of his car repair career. "I started playing more in bars and actually made more money'. I couldn't make much as an apprentice, but I did both for a while. and it caused me to have a few hang-ups on the highway: I wrecked my car two or three times because I was sleepy. Finally I decided I was going to do one or the other."

Charlie banged out his last fender and left for Baltimore to play with mandolinist Earl Taylor. About the same time he met another bluegrass musician from his home state Louisiana, mandolin player Buzz Busby. Buzz needed a singer and guitar player. and Charlie agreed to divide his time between the two bands. The following year (1955) Charlie decided to become a full-time member of Buzz's band, the Bayou Boys. The Washington area at the time had several other popular bands-The Stoneman family, Bill Harrell and Bennie & Value Cain-and there was just a handful of clubs in which to play. Buzz decided to relocate in Louisiana, where the group remained for two years.                                                          

Charlie recalls one of the highlights of his career was performing on the Louisiana Hayride, A Grand Ol' Opry style showcase of country music. He remembers playing on the same shows with many other aspiring young singers, among them George Jones, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. By the time the band returned to Washington in 1957, Charlie had spent two years working for Buzz and he grew impatient to try something else. "He had given me notice," Buzz recalls. "He said he'd never get anywhere working as a sideman, and I agreed with that." Charlie began to fill in for other bands while continuing to play for the Bayou Boys part-time. Buzz, in turn, would find substitutes for Charlie. In an ironic twist of fate, Charlie was not with Buzz on a night in early 1957 when the carload of happy-go-lucky pickers were speeding home from a show at a North Beach, MD., club. That night, Buzz had hired as a guitar player a young banjo player named Eddie Adcock. Eddie's friend Sonny Presley was driving, Buzz sat next to him, bass player Vance Truell and Eddie were in the back seat.

Suddenly the car swerved off the road. "We hit a pole going about 90 miles per hour," remembers Buzz, whose career-and life-nearly came to a halt then. He was pronounced dead at the scene, but signs of life flickered upon arrival at the hospital. Buzz was in a coma for two days with a damaged kidney, crushed rib cage and his right leg shattered in three places. Eddie Adcock suffered internal injuries. The two other men were also hurt. Bill Emerson, the band's banjo player, was riding in another car. Buzz would be hospitalized for two months. Eddie was in for several days, but his stay was extended for bad behavior. "I tried to escape one time," laughs Eddie. "I made it to the bottom of the hill from the hospital 1 was sure a redneck back then if there ever was one. It caused me to stay a few more days.

At the time of the accident, the Bayou Boys had a regular job at a club in Bailey's Cross Roads, Va., the Admiral Grill. Not wanting to lose the job Bill Emerson sought to put together a pick-up band until Buzz returned. Charlie Waller agreed to play and bass player Larry Lahey was hired But who would play mandolin and sing tenor? Bill knew of a lanky, 23-year-old musician named John Duffey who at the time was driving almost 50 miles to Frederick, MD., to play with a local band, Lucky Chatman and the Ozark Mountain Boys.
John accepted Bill's invitation to sit in, Says Charlie: We just got together and I said, 'Okay, you play mandolin, I'll play guitar and let's get up and sing. And sing they did. Charlie's powerful lead voice was a perfect match for John's forceful tenor. They immediately realized they had stumbled upon a rare combination that could not he ignored, and made the decision to break away from Buzz completely and start a new band centered around Charlie and John. Buzz got the news the week he was leaving the hospital. "Charlie come and told me like a man," Buzz recalls. He was obviously disappointed that he had lost his band during the hospital stay, but after a two-month vacation to recuperate Buzz reformed the Bayou Boys. "After it was all said and done it didn't really bother me," Buzz says about losing the band. So on July 4, 1957, The Country Gentlemen became a reality. Bluegrass would never be the same again. The original version of the band consisted of Charlie WaIler (guitar), John Duffey (mandolin), Bill Emerson (banjo) and Larry Lahey (bass).  

From the beginning, Charlie learned that personnel changes were to become a fact of life. Larry Lahey was soon replaced by Tom Morgan, was replaced by Jim Cox. Before Tom Gray became the bassist in 1960, other bass players included Pete Kuykendall, Roy Self, Sonny Johnson and Stoney Fdwards. In the banjo department, Bill Emerson left he band in the fall, 1958. He was replaced by Pete Kuykendall (now publisher of Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine). Pete performed under the name of Pete Roberts. Not only was he proficient on the instrument (he won the national banjo championship in 1956). he also contributed excellent baritone singing, and later technical assistance in the band's recordings. Pete left the group in June 1959 because it interfered with his day job in the recording laboratory at the Library of Congress. Porter Church replaced him briefly Porter's replacement would prove to be the missing link in what was to become one of the most significant vocal and instrumental trios in bluegrass history.                                                                                                    

Enter Eddie Adcock. Only 20 years old at the time, Eddie already had a wealth of experience playing professionally He started with Smokey Graves and the Blue Star Boys in Crewe, Va., in 1953. Then he went with Mac Wiseman's band, and then with Bill Harrell and the Rocky Mountain Boys. During this time he met banjo great Don Reno, who gave Eddie some helpful hints that improved his style.When Eddie came aboard, The Country Gentlemen hadn't found a sound of their own yet. Instead, they were copying a couple of the top acts of the day. In a 1976 interview in Muleskinner News, Eddie described the band's music at the time he joined: "At that point, The Country Gentlemen were extremely affected by The Osborne Brothers and Red Allen. They weren't actually doing some of The Osborne Brothers' songs, but they were doing a lot of songs like The Osborne Brothers. And pretty soon we realized - I guess John realized before anybody-that I wasn't happy singing Osborne Brothers - type stuff. I liked it, but not for us. .                                    

 John was the first one in the Library of Congress looking for songs. Our minds were in "Knoxville Girl" and hit-her-in-the-head and stuff like that; the old traditional stuff that nobody had heard, so we dug it up -out of the Library of Congress."The Country Gentlemen were performing and recording old folk songs just at the time of the folk music groundswell. They did such songs as "Copper Kettle," "Long Black Veil" and "Handsome Molly," which enhanced their acceptance by the younger, college-aged audiences who were listening to folk music on campuses and coffee houses all over the country then.Several songs are credited with setting the Gentlemen apart from the rest of the pack. The most talked about then was "Hills and Home," which featured an inventive banjo break that resembled a pedal steel guitar lick. Says Eddie: "It was different from the rest of what everybody had heard, and it set aside the Country Gentlemen sound right off then and there. I believe people started listening to the banjo more as part of the Country Gentlemen sound Eddie says the band was receptive to his suggestions to move away from copying other bands and also in letting him experiment on the banjo. "I was interested in doing things a little bit different and I was allowed the freedom to do what I wanted to.

John Duffey, too, was experimenting. For him, the turning point came on the tune, "The World is Waiting for the Sunrise," says John: 'it came from the realization that you cannot play like somebody else and expect to create anything that's your own,"                          

Since then, John has made it a point to avoid playing
straight melody lines and instead improvise around the chord patterns. Vocally, the hand was doing some amazing things, too. Eddie's smooth, letter-perfect baritone was the icing on the cake in rounding out the trio sound. Eddie credits Pete Kuykendall as his major influence in learning the baritone part. Just when it seemed as though the band had reached its musical zenith, another bass player came along who took the Gentlemen another step toward bluegrass perfection. Tom Gray replaced Jim Cox in 1960.            

 With Tom's arrival, his innovative, walking-style of bass playing gave the band a fuller sound and further set them apart from other groups of the day. Tom, who was influenced by George Shuffler of the Stanley Brothers, says the Gentlemen gave him plenty of room to experiment. "I was lucky back in 1960 when I joined The Country Gentlemen, because they were an ideal group to improvise in just as freely as I liked. As a matter of fact, I was encouraged to do more all the time, The thing that made it good for walking style I played was that the lead instrument players were singing in the trios, and that left nobody with a lead instrument to play back-up. That left a clear path for me to use the bass as a back-up instrument, playing a bit of counter melody along with the usual rhythm functions." After four years as a full-time musician, Tom made the decision to return to his former day job as a cartographer with National Geographic. His departure ended an era of the famed Waller-Duffey-Adcock-Gray quartet, widely heralded as one of the most significant bands in bluegrass. That version of the band is also considered to be the original Country Gentlemen because their sound and style had fully developed, and they were blazing new trails in bluegrass during that period.

If Bluegrass was indeed 'folk music in overdrive', then The Country Gentlemen was the catalyst that kicked it into a higher gear....Their concerts were the stuff of which legends were made.