By Frank Overstreet
The majority of bass fiddle players start on another
instrument. They become a bass player in order to join a certain
band, or perhaps their family band needed someone to play that instrument.
Bill Yates admits he can play a little on the guitar but his first
instrument was the bass fiddle. Bill's talents on the bass fiddle,
and his ability to sing lead and all the harmony parts have allowed
him to be a professional bluegrass musician for well more than forty
years. Bill will be recognized for his contributions to bluegrass
music on February 3, 2002, when he will be inducted into SPBGMA's
Preservation Hall Of Greats during the SPBGMA Awards show at the
Sheraton Music City Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee.
Bill Yates was born April 30, 1936 in Big Rock in
the Appalachian coal country of Southwest Virginia. His father worked
as a coal miner until that work slowed down, then the family moved
to a farm in Carharpin, Virginia, (near Manassas), in 1942 where
they were sharecroppers. The family's entertainment was singing
around the farm, in church, and listening to the Grand Ole Opry
on a battery operated radio. After the second year of share cropping,
Bill's dad earned $135 from harvesting the crops. He went to Arlington,
Virginia and purchased a car, a Kay mandolin and a Harmony guitar.
The Yates family was very talented. Bill's father, his brothers,
Wayne and Jim were musicians. Bill learned to play the bass fiddle
by listening to records. Bill's parents, Martha and James Yates
The next move for the Yates family was to an area
that would have a great impact on Bill's future. "In 1943, dad went
to Washington, DC to apply for a job as a streetcar operator," Bill
recalled. "We then moved into the town of Manassas, Virginia, but
with dad working in Washington, DC, we soon moved to Falls Church,
Virginia. Having always been interested in bluegrass music, my brother
Wayne and I attended places where bluegrass was performed."
Bill joined the Air Force in 1952 and served overseas
in Japan and Korea for sixteen months. He returned to the United
States and was discharged in 1956.
A group that was to become quite well known in bluegrass
music led Bill and his brother Wayne into the music business. "The
Country Gentlemen formed their band on July 4, 1957, and played
a club in Baileys Crossroads, Virginia," Bill said. "We used to
go and listen to the Country Gentlemen and this is what led to Wayne
and I into forming our own band, The Yates Brothers and the Clinch
Mountain Ramblers. Little did I know that ten years later I would
become a member of the group that influenced me so much." The original
members of The Yates Brothers & the Clinch Mountain Ramblers were
Bill Yates, bass, Wayne Yates, mandolin, Bill Emerson, banjo and
Ferrell Brown, guitar. The group played different clubs in the DC
area. A friend, disc jockey Eddie Matherly, liked the band and booked
them with various country acts. Other well-known musicians that
worked with The Yates Brothers & The Clinch Mountain Ramblers included
Bill Harrell, Leon Morris, Smiley Hobbs, Buck Ryan, Porter Church
and Don Miller. The Yates Brothers & Bill Emerson single record
on the KASH label included the songs, "Please Keep Remembering,"
written by Bill Harrell, and "Love's Chance Again," written by Lola
Emerson. The Kentuckians recorded an album for Pete Kuykendall,
Melodeon 7325, Solid Bluegrass Sound Of The Kentuckians,
with Red Allen, guitar, Bill Emerson, banjo, Wayne Yates, mandolin,
Bill Yates, bass and Chubby Wise, fiddle. From the Melodeon 7325
album, a single record with the songs, "Flowers By My Graveside"
and "Hello City Limits" was released on the Glenmar label. They
also recorded County 704, The Kentuckians.
Bill Yates' list of musicians that influenced his
music includes Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin,
Stanley Brothers, Reno & Smiley and of course, The Country Gentlemen.
A few band changes resulted in Red Allen joining
the band. "We continued as the Clinch Mountain Ramblers until we
went to work on the WWVA Jamboree in Wheeling, West Virginia," Bill
continued. "We then changed the name of the band to Red Allen and
the Yates Brothers since Red had previously worked the Jamboree.
We played on the WWVA Jamboree for 1 1/2 years. Bill Emerson left
the group to go work for Jimmy Martin. Not long after, Wayne left
and the group was renamed The Kentuckians. During this time, we
recorded the Melodeon 7325 album and the County 704 album. Bill
Emerson called me about playing bass for Jimmy Martin. After getting
the job, I moved to Nashville, Tennessee. I played bass with Jimmy
Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys for six years and recorded three
sessions with him. I played bass with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass
Boys for about seven months before joining The Country Gentlemen."
Bill's first show with the Country Gentlemen was
in December of 1969. He moved back to Northern Virginia and traveled
the roads with the Country Gentlemen for the next 20 years. During
his years with the Country Gentlemen, Bill did a lot of the behind-the-
scenes work that keeps a band together. Driving and maintaining
the bus, helping to arrange and select songs were just a few of
the necessary items Bill handled for the band. Bill was also a full
partner in the Country Gentlemen with Charlie Wailer, Doyle Lawson
and Bill Emerson.
Bill Yates recorded the following albums with the
Country Gentlemen: One Wide River (Rebel SLP-1497), (1971),
Sound Off (Rebel SLP-1501), (1971) The Award Winning Country
Gentlemen (Rebel SLP 1506), (1972), Country Gentlemen
(Self-Titled) (Vanguard VSD 79331), (1973), Remembrances & Forecasts
(Vanguard VSD 79349), (1974), Yesterday & Today Vol 1 (Rebel
SLP 1521), (1973), Yesterday & Today Vol 2 (Rebel SLP 1527),
(1973), Yesterday & Today Vol 3 (Rebel SLP-1535), 1974),
Calling My Children Home (Rebel SLP 1574), (1978), Joe
's Last Train (Rebel SLP-1559), (1976), Greatest Show On
Earth (Sugar Hill SH-2201), Live In Japan (Seven Seas
GXF 27 & 28), (2-LP), (1972) (Rebel CD 1104), Sit Down Young
Stranger (Sugar Hill SH 3712), (1980), River Bottom (Sugar
Hill SH 3723), (1981), Good as Gold (Sugar Hill SH 3734),
(1983), Return Engagement (Rebel REB-1663), (1988), Live
at McClure (Rebel SLP 1554-5), (2-LP), (1976).
Wayne and Bill decided to record an album in 1998
and formed their current band, The Yates Brothers with Bill on bass,
Wayne and Leon Morris on guitars, Bill Emerson on banjo and Dave
Propst on mandolin.
Bill Yates is truly a dedicated bluegrass music
veteran. Bill will become the sixth member of the Country Gentlemen
to be inducted into SPBGMA's Preservation Hall Of Greats. He will
be joining his friends, Charlie Wailer, John Duffey, Eddie Adcock,
Doyle Lawson and Bill Emerson. Bill Yates is also a member of the
Bill Monroe Blue Grass Hall Of Fame in Bean Blossom, Indiana.
Note: A very special thank you to Doyle and Suzanne
Lawson, Bill's sister, Ruth Brown and Bluegrass Photographer/Booking
Agent Karen L. Jones. Their assistance and guidance was very important
in the preparation of this article.