By Steve Romanoski
Over the years,
the punchy rhythmic introduction to "Fox On The Run" has
become a virtual call to arms in the bluegrass community, And, while
the tune will be forever linked to the classic Country Gentlemen
ensemble of the early 1970s, another Washington DC based band was
responsible for the song's introduction to bluegrass. That band
was simply called Emerson & Waldron.
was born in West Virginia and became interested in bluegrass music
at an early age. He remembers "when I was a kid, growing up in the
West Virginia hills, I was a die-hard bluegrass fan, Stanley, Monroe
and Flatt & Scruggs. I started to follow those bands when I was
about seven and I continued with the music in my teens." Waldron
recalled that, "when everyone was crazy for Elvis bluegrass was
down low on the totem pole and you couldn't hear it much. But I
was still following those guys and listening to country (music),
which was country in those days. And I liked some of those guys
and their songs. So I used to just sit around the house and pick
the guitar and sing bluegrass and country songs."
musical experience left a lasting effect on the young Cliff Waldron.
"I did bluegrass for several years. That's all I knew. I guess that
I knew every song that Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanley's ever recorded
and used to sing just about all of them. I never did sing very much
of Monroe because it didn't fit me that well." And this fascination
with bluegrass eventually took Waldron from picking around the house
to the stage when he began to work with a local band called The
Southern Ramblers who had a radio program on WNRG in Grundy, Virginia.
"About all we did was the old standard bluegrass," Waldron notes
about those early years.
Then, in 1963,
Cliff Waldron left West Virginia and moved to the northern Virginia
area where he immediately found himself in the middle of a blossoming
DC and it's surrounding country had a magnetic attraction for bluegrass
musicians in the 1950s, much as Chicago had for bluesmen in the
1940s. Both Baltimore and Washington, DC offered radio and television
outlets that were sympathetic to bluegrass music and programmed
it regularly. In addition bands like Buzz Busby's Bayou Boys and
it's offshoot, The Country Gentlemen were already popular bands
in the area. Waldron found himself a spot, playing mandolin, in
an area band, The Page Valley Boys, at the time that legendary banjoist
Bill Emerson was working with Busby and a loose-knit band of local
players. Busby's well-documented problems in the 1960s caused him
to leave the band and Emerson turned to Waldron, who had switched
to playing guitar, as he reorganized the ensemble.
band was called The Lee Highway Boys, but became simply Emerson
& Waldron in a short period of time. While this dynamic partnership
was short lived, it provided three, well received, recordings on
Waldron and Bill Emerson were immersed in the progressive leanings
of the northern Virginia bluegrass scene and actively brought material
from different genres for the band to play. Waldron remembers how
"Fox On The Run" was introduced to the world of bluegrass,
"Bill was the first one to hear it," he says, "and he played it
for me and wondered if we could work it out. I was up for doing
new material at this time and thought that we could give it a try.
I had done Stanley's and Flatt & Scruggs songs. I wasn't sick of
them, but I was tired of doing it myself. I wanted to do on my own;
something that I could put a name to it myself instead of doing
somebody else's stuff all the time." And Cliff found true inspiration
from the realization that "he'd (Emerson) heard this song and thought
that we could do something with it." Little did either player know
that this song, originally performed by the English rock band Manfred
Mann, would become an anthem of the ages in bluegrass music.
Bill Emerson and Cliff Waldron found magic in a plethora of contemporary
material that they introduced to the bluegrass audience. The band
performed and recorded compositions like Tim Hardin's "If I Were
A Carpenter," and Gordon Lightfoot's "Early Morning Rain"
alongside bluegrass standards from Don Reno and the Stanley Brothers.
Also worthy of note was the band's recording of an instrumental
penned by an upstart young dobro player named Mike Auldridge. "Spanish
Grass" was a dobro instrumental that became a standard
for the instrument. As in so many situation's, Auldridge's entry
into a prominent instrumental role in the band was more a matter
of chance than a calculated plan. Cliff remembers that "it came
along when Mike Auldridge joined us (Emerson & Waldron)." Auldridge
had been taking part in jam sessions at Ben Eldridge's basement
that was located a few blocks away from The Red Fox Inn where Emerson
& Waldron had developed a regular gig. Auldridge noted that "for
some reason, one night, we decided we'd all go over to The Red Fox
and ask to play during the breaks." It was only a short time before
Mike became a member of Emerson & Waldron's band.
1970, Bill Emerson made the decision to replace Eddie Adcock in
The Country Gentlemen, a band he had found in 1957, After a short
stint with the Shenandoah Cut-Ups, Waldron, now a mainstay in the
Washington area bluegrass community created a new band and too it's
name, The New Shades Of Grass, from the title of the first album
of the Emerson & Waldron partnership. The new band included Mike
Auldridge and fiddler Bill Poffinberger from the final edition of
Emerson & Waldron. "I had to get one new guy, which was Mike's (Auldridge)
brother Dave and then Ben Eldridge." Cliff remembers that "I had
a couple banjo pickers sit in for a little while and they didn't
seem to work out. Then I got Ben to start playing with us, As a
matter of fact, he didn't want to play. He had this good daytime
job and didn't want to lose it." Waldron convinced Ben Eldridge
to join the New Shades Of Grass by stating that "we didn't play
that much. But, later on, we got to playin' quite a bit and it was
effecting his work. And that's when he and Mike left me, and that
was a couple years later.
Some of you
will recognize the scenario as the beginning of the bluegrass supergroup,
The Seldom Scene. However, Waldron's unit continued to turn out
quality bluegrass with a cast of characters that included banjoist
Jimmy Arnold, bassist Ed Ferris, mandolinist Akira Otsuka and current
Diamond Rio mandolinist Gene Johnson. The New Shades Of Grass continued
to develop new material for the bluegrass market. Between 1971 and
1974 the band recorded seven albums of dynamic contemporary music.
Life on the
road caught up with Cliff Waldron in December of 1974. "My life
was going down the tubes," he commented, "and I felt that I needed
a change as I got caught up with some stuff that shouldn't have.
So I had to get a hold of myself and get my life straightened out."
So Cliff Waldron took himself in a new direction. "I got remarried
and started going to church and right after that I got out of music
a job with The National Park Service and began an extended period
of time where music was only a part of his life, "The only thing
that I did was a little bit of gospel music. I didn't do any recordings.
We made a couple tapes in the group that I was in and went around
and played a few churches in the mid 80s. But I didn't do anything
from 1974 until the 80s."
a twenty-year tour of duty with the Park Service, Cliff Waldron
has again found the musical calling. In 2000, Cliff Waldron released
his first recording since stepping away from The New Shades Of Grass.
Typically he has returned to the scene with much the same vigor
that brought him to prominence during the late 1960s and 70s. Waldron
has released two recordings with a revamped New Shades Of Grass
and a duet project with mandolinist Paul Williams. Paul and myself
met, for the first time, in Louisville in 99, Since he is a Christian
too, we had things in common and we got to talkin' and then at SPBGMA
in 2000 we got to singing in a room. Our voices seemed to blend
pretty good and somebody suggested that we record something. Then
Paul came up to where I live a couple months later and we did a
couple of his shows." Dave Freeman from Rebel Records was present
for the show and came up with a project for the two bluegrass veterans,
The result was Higher Ground (Rebel, REB-CD-1771) that was released
The road of
life has been long and hard for Cliff Waldron. Yet Cliff has found
that his philosophy toward music has not changed. He still loves
to bring unique songs and transform them into bluegrass. And, while
he has taken his share of chances in his life, Cliff Waldron has
found that there is room in his life for his personal beliefs and
bluegrass music. He doesn't do as many shows today, as he once did,
however you'll hear the same devotion to style in the current band
that was ever-present in his earlier works. Cliff Waldron is an
innovator and a survivor and certainly a worthy choice for induction
to the SPBGMA Preservation Hall of Greats in 2004.