I began playing banjo in September 1971 when me and my family lived in Jenkinsburg, Georgia. I was eleven years old and my parents enrolled my sister and I in group lessons at the local YMCA. "Group" lessons, meant there were horns, drums, electric guitars, fiddles and banjo, all in one room playing at the same time. After a few minutes I retreated to a back room with a young man I knew from school named Bill Lively. Bill's mother was one of the instructors and he knew a few tunes on banjo in the 3-finger style. Bill showed me how to play 'Boil Them Cabbage Down' and pretty soon I was hooked.
In 1972 my family relocated to Rising Fawn, Georgia, near Chattanooga, Tennessee. But, the only tune that I could play was 'Boil'em Cabbage Down.'
I began taking formal banjo lessons for the first time in January1973 at the local music store (Cameron Music, in Trenton, Georgia, about 10 miles away) with the understanding that I would earn the money for lessons.
In mid-1973 I met a young man named Joey McCormick, who was 10 years old at the time. His folks had observed me sitting on our front porch practicing banjo and decided Joey and I should try and play music together. Joey played guitar very well (amazingly well, as I think back on it) and already knew a lot of Bluegrass material. He even had a 'real' banjo (Gibson RB-100) I was able to borrow and he owned the first Martin guitar I ever saw in person. Joey and I formed something of a partnership and played numerous banjo contests held in our area from October 27, 1973 until early 1975.
In later 1973 and early 1974 I began taking lessons from Johnny Wooten, on Sand Mountain near Trenton, Georgia and it was from him that I learned to play tunes in ways that further piqued my interest and motivated me to practice more and more. It is to his methods that I turn, to this day, when trying to coax those first ragged tunes from a beginning banjo student.
During this era there were numerous banjo contests in North Georgia, North Alabama and Southeast Tennessee and James McKinney, from Ft. Payne, Alabama was the winner in every contest I ever saw him play in. When he showed up, he won. I hardly knew the names of other banjo players in my area until he left town for Nashville around 1975. Watching him play was amazing and inspirational and it didn't take long for me to decide that I wanted to take some lessons from him.
In 1975, Norman Blake moved to Rising Fawn, not far from where I lived. My mother (who had known him in school) encouraged me to stop by and introduce myself, which I did. Back then, flat-picking was a new sport and there were no other flat-pick style guitar players in my area that I was aware of and I quickly adjusted my musical path to include flat-picking guitar to my resume.
By late 1975, my sister, Janet, had become proficient on rhythm guitar and had begun playing with me in local and regional banjo contests. In 1976 we were invited to play with a band stocked with locally seasoned players (especially compared to us) called Bill Lowery and The Traditionals. Our primary focus was playing contests and it was during this stint that I actually began to win banjo contests once in a while. Our competitive pursuits even took us to faraway places like Leitchfield, Ky. in the summer of 1976, which is where I first heard Mark O'Connor play. His playing was so smooth, clean and clear that at first I thought it was a flutist I heard in the distance, rather than his fiddle playing.
In later 1976 I began to play rhythm guitar for some of the regional contest fiddlers, like Wally Bryson, from Chickamauga, Georgia and Roy Crawford and J.T. Perkins from Alabama. It was a fun time when I was able to learn a lot of fiddle tunes, perform in contests and for paying gigs and, best of all, to jam with experienced players that knew a lot of music. During this year I had the opportunity to venture into a recording studio for the first time while recording an instrumental fiddle album for Johnny Ray Watts.
By 1977 I was playing guitar for several fiddlers, as well as playing banjo in a couple of local groups. However, there was a Bluegrass radio program on WDOD on Sunday evenings and I was able to hear more and more innovative banjo players. Larry McNeely, Butch Robbins, Courtney Johnson, Alan Munde and Vic Jordan were hot, as was the 'new' music of David Grisman. One of my personal highlights of that year was attending the Grand Masters Fiddle Championships at Opryland in Nashville. There was cool music around every corner and to be able to hear some of those players up close was an experience I have enjoyed in memories throughout the many years since.
In 1978, I auditioned for and was awarded a banjo playing job in Nashville, TN with Hardy Brendle and the Virginia Partners. I had no idea what to expect when I quit my day-job and moved in with the band, but my first cue should have been when, a couple of weeks after I moved when Melba Brendle said something like, 'maybe you should find a job until the gigs pick up a bit.' Soon, I was working in a furniture factory-Davis Cabinet Co. in Nashville, making less money than I had back home. The gigs were soon plentiful, but the money was always low and slow. I stayed in Nashville all summer, had some fun, learned a lot and got to hear more cool music. On a few gigs in North Carolina, mandolinist 'Red' Rector performed with us and we also performed several time on a Knoxville, TN. television show called, The Cas Walker Show.
1978 also marked my first visits to The Station Inn (the old one off West End), the Bluegrass Inn, where Hubert Davis and Co. entertained several nights a week, and to the Ole Time Pickin' Parlor which used to be on second avenue in downtown Nashville.
In early 1979, I met Al Smith, banjo player from the Atlanta area. Later that year I moved back to Nashville for another season with Hardy & Melba Brendle. I was able to travel some and play Bluegrass festivals, as well as record a few tracks with Hardy and Melba and legendary fiddler, Marion Sumner. But, the money was still very low and I worked odd jobs just to get by.
Later in 1979 I moved back to Rising Fawn and attended the first of many performances at the newly christened "Mountain Opry" hosted by Dr. Ray Fox and J.J. Hillis on Signal Mountain, near Chattanooga.
In January, 1980 I was married for the first time. In April, Norman Blake invited me to quit my day job and drive the bus for him. I made a few trips with Norman and Nancy and James Bryan, and was able to be around some great music up close and to see Colorado for the first time.
By 1981 I was playing banjo for a good, solid well-established Bluegrass group based in the Chattanooga area. Tom Jones played mandolin, Newell Angel played guitar, Don Maness played bass and Billy Deal played fiddle in a group called The Grasscutters. Had lots of fun, made a little money (for a part-time banjo player) and played some decent gigs. It was a good experience that required me to focus on how the band sounded, rather than just on how I sounded. It was also during this era that I became reacquainted with Al Smith, in the Atlanta area, who had changed his primary instrument focus from banjo to acoustic guitar.
1982 was a great year for jamming and learning new music. My wife and I relocated to Rossville, Georgia and I became acquainted with more of the Chattanooga area musicians including Lou Wamp, Gordy Nichol, Donnie McRae, Bob Chuckrow, Pattee Wilbanks and a great many others. Good jam sessions were plentiful, as were a fair amount of low-paying gigs. I taught lessons to supplement my income and eventually accumulated a half-dozen or so steady banjo and guitar students.
By mid-1983, I was living in the Atlanta, Georgia area. Al Smith and I were jamming regularly working up many of the "Dawg" tunes from the classic David Grisman albums, as well as pieces from Tony Rice's recordings that featured his own style of 'new acoustic' music. Al taught me more "Dawg" music than any other single person. He knew a lot of the hot, jazzy Grisman music, as well as the cool guitar chord voicings and progressions. I whiled away hours and hours working out scale patterns, licks and lines to play over the improv sections of those pieces and by 1984 I was very comfortable improvising over most of the Grisman style music.
In March 1984 I auditioned for, and was awarded, the banjo playing position for James Monroe's Midnight Ramblers, in Nashville. During my audition, my playing was littered with melodic lines, jazz-inflections and lots of single-string babbling, which I considered 'fancy stuff' : sure to impress even the most jaded Bluegrass purist. However, after offering me the banjo position, he remarked with unimpressed candor: "In a few weeks you won't recognize your own playing." He was correct.
At our first practice session, Bill Monroe was there, as was James Monroe on guitar, 'Red' Taylor on fiddle, Robert Bowlin on 2nd fiddle, and Monroe Fields on bass. As we played, Bill would occasionally interject something about my banjo playing, even sometimes pointing to the fingerboard indicating which register I should play the fill-ins or melody lines. There were lots of 'straight' rolls and standard, Scruggs-style hammer-ons and slides. One tune I remember well is Bill Monroe's classic, Cabin in Caroline. For this one he pointed to the 4th string at about the 2nd fret and moved it laterally to about the 5th fret; then immediately to the 3rd string at about the 2nd fret moving to the 4th fret and finally to the 2nd string of my banjo to the 3rd fret, indicating the melody notes he wanted me to emphasize when I played my break.
As one of James Monroe's Midnight Ramblers, I played quite a number of gigs in 1984, from April until September when James disbanded. It was a great experience to be around so many notable and famous musicians and to play large Bluegrass festivals.
During that year I also performed with Mac Wiseman on about 5-6 gigs and Clyde Moody on at least that many. Also, I would occasionally get to play on stage with Bill Monroe when James and Bill performed songs from their Father/Son recordings. To be on stage with guys like Bill Monroe, Kenny Baker, Red Taylor, Wayne Lewis and other greats was a remarkable privilege.
Josh Graves played Dobro for James most of that season and I was fortunate enough to spend quite a bit of time around him, even rooming with him on several occasions. On one trip to Bean Blossom, Indiana, Josh knew Bill Monroe was looking for someone to drive his limousine back to Nashville, Tn. and he spoke to Bill and said 'me and Mark will drive it back for you.' During that 5-6 hour, all-night trip I enjoyed Josh recalling many of his experiences playing with Flatt & Scruggs, The Earl Scruggs Revue and many others. Many years later I worked a recording session for Monroe Fields that included Josh on Dobro and he said to me, "Remember that time me and you drove Bill Monroe's limousine from Bean Blossom to Nashville?"
In 1985, Ricky Rorex, mandolin player from North Alabama, invited me and Al Smith to play on his instrumental recording project. This effort largely featured a mix of fiddle tunes and Grisman-style new-acoustic tunes, and included the late fiddler extraordinaire, Randy Howard, from Milledgeville, Georgia, playing on several cuts.
Ricky, Al and I played several gigs that year featuring the 'new acoustic' tunes we enjoyed.
Also, in 1985, I decided to try and conduct my own Bluegrass Festival. I gathered the support and active involvement of Dr. Ray Fox, step-dad Marty Hickey, Steve Irvine and the late Bob Smart and we held the Lookout Music Fest at New Salem Community Center, near Trenton, Georgia, in late July. Our festival featured the talents of such diverse acts as New Grass Revival, Clyde Moody, Monroe Fields, The Dismembered Tennesseans and the aforementioned Randy Howard.
It was a well attended event given that the remnants of a hurricane were blowing through that weekend with record winds and rainfall rivaled only by those of Noah's time. We only managed to lose about $500 per investor, not counting our time and energy. It was still a fun event and it was amazing to be able to see and hear New Grass Revival up close after having been a fan for many years.
Throughout 1986 I performed with various groups in ever-changing configurations. From the 'new acoustic' music to fiddle music to traditional Bluegrass gigs. Al Smith, Ricky Rorex, Randy Smith (Al's brother) and I played a number of gigs around the Chattanooga and Atlanta areas.
I tried to rekindle interest in doing another music festival in 1986, but it was hard to find folks who are inspired to work really hard on most evenings and all weekends for weeks and months on end, and still lose $500 each. Though the stars didn't align for another festival that year, I was married to Phyllis Shelton on November 1, 1986. Ricky Rorex and Al Smith performed music for our wedding.
1987 brought much music: often from spirits not previously made known to me. I played several gigs with Wally Bryson and J.T. Perkins, as well as quite a few with Pattee Wilbanks and Virginia Parham in a group called Bittergreen. I also began playing guitar with Michael Walker: a 10-year old banjo player who was something of a prodigy.
That year, I also formed a band with Ricky Rorex, Neal Nichols, Kenny Smith and Bobby Burns called Backwaters; And I recorded an album with Wally Bryson, Randy Howard, Jim West and several others.
I was also able to enlist fresh support for another music festival on Lookout Mountain from friends Donnie Cassell and Richard Schreiber. We had much better weather than the previous event and only managed to lose about a $100 each. In addition to New Grass Revival we also had Norman and Nancy Blake, The Knoxville Grass, The Dismembered Tennesseans and several local groups.
In early 1988 I put together a music event at The Hunter Art Museum in Chattanooga that featured Backwaters. I also played lots of guitar for Michael Walker including recording an album, and tapings for The 'New' Mickey Mouse Show. Incidentally, Randy Smith (Al Smith's brother) was involved in both of those projects.
In early January, 1989, Al Smith, Ed Bashum, Bill Everett and I formed a contemporary Bluegrass group called Acoustix and played almost every weekend for a while. In February, I took Jason Hoard and Michael Walker to Nashville and backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, courtesy of Monroe Fields and Jim McReynolds. Acoustix disbanded in May. I also played quite a few places with Michael Walker, who had begun playing television shows such as Nashville Now and the Ralph Emory Show.