~ Hall of ~
Melvin & Ray
By Frank Overstreet
When the words traditional Bluegrass come up in conversation, and the talk leads to the bands dedicated to the old songs, sooner or later, the names of the Goins Brothers, Melvin and Ray, will be mentioned. They have done as much as anyone in keeping Bluegrass music alive by recording songs that would have faded away, in addition to recording many songs they have written. Melvin was asked why the Goins Brothers are so dedicated to this part of their art. “Lester Flatt once told me that the old songs would always feed you,” he replied.
Melvin Goins was born on December 30, 1933, and just two years and four days later, on January 4, 1935, Ray made his entrance into the world. Raised in the coal mining areas near Bluefield, West Virginia, each has spent some time as a coal miner. Melvin plays rhythm guitar, sings lead and handles the emcee work, with Ray playing banjo and singing tenor.
Music was a very natural thing in the Goins family. Many relatives played and sang. Glen and Pearl Goins had ten children; in addition to Melvin and Ray, Donnie, Harold and Conley became involved in music.
Not just an outstanding musician, Melvin Goins proves one of the greatest talkers in Bluegrass. His stories offstage are always lengthy and interesting, for he can add in some wonderful aspects, just off the top of his head. Observed in February, 1991 at the SPBGMA Convention, telling the story of how he and Ray got their first banjo, he was kind enough to repeat that story and others for this chapter.
I was plowing a garden for an old gentleman over in West Virginia, and when I went into his house for him to pay me, I believe it was two or three dollars, I seen this old banjo over behind a battery radio. I had always loved the banjo. I used to listen to Uncle Dave Macon, and Earl Scruggs, so I asked him what would he take for that old banjo, and he said, probably eight or ten dollars. I said, I don’t have that kind of money, and he said have you got any big, fat chickens, and I said yeah. He said, just bring me five big, fat chickens and we’ll call it a deal. His name was Tom Hilmerdollar and he was a railroad conductor. I went home and it was getting kind of late up in the evening, and my Dad had already went to bed, because he had to go to work in the coal mines early the next morning. I asked him if I could trade the chickens, and he said yeah, now get on out of here. I got the carbide light that he used in the mines, and I went up to the chicken house, got me a feed sack, and I stuffed five big old chickens down in that sack. Come to find out, I had five hens, and one big old dominecker rooster. I had to walk and carry them about two miles, and I was afraid if I waited until the next day, he might back out on the deal. I got there about ten o’clock at night, and I knocked on his door, and told him I had his chickens. He told me to stick them under a wash tub, and fix it with a rock or stick so they wouldn’t smother, and he reached the banjo out the back door to me, and that’s how we got our first banjo.
Melvin was then asked how Ray became the banjo player:
Well, he just learned to play it and I didn’t. That was my first love, because Earl Scruggs and Ralph Stanley had me so worked up wanting to be a banjo player, but I guess you can’t do all you want to do. After Ray learned to play the banjo, I decided I’d better learn to play the guitar, if we were ever going to do anything in the entertainment business. A first cousin gave me an old archtop Harmony guitar, and I learned to strum it. We also had a cousin that was an old time fiddler, and he lived on top of a mountain, with an old dirt road, about four miles from where we lived. About two or three times a week, me and Ray would walk up there, and he taught us to follow the old hoedowns, and that’s-kind of how we got started.
When Ray and Melvin were growing up, every young musician yearned to play on the radio. Melvin tells of their first radio show:
It was over in Bluefield, West Virginia, and Gordon Jennings, who started with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, was a disc jockey there, and he gave us our first fifteen minute radio show in about 1950. We hadn’t really thought about a name, as we were just getting started, but I never will forget that Ray had a Kay banjo in a cardboard case, that we had paid $27.50 for in a music store in Bluefield. We had worked a week digging a basement for a man, and he paid us $60.00. I had that old Harmony guitar in a feed sack with a drawstring, and it was so cold that I had strings break on my guitar, but I had wired them back together, because I didn’t have any money to buy new strings. Now Gordon knew that I was in bad shape for a guitar to play, and he had an old Martin, of course, that’s like stepping out of a T-Model Ford into a Cadillac. I thought if I could just hold that old Martin, it would be the greatest thing in the world.
Gordon said, ‘I’ll just let you play my old Martin,’ so we went on the air and done a fifteen minute show. One of the songs we did was ‘Gonna Settle Down,’ I won a contest one time in Bluefield singing that song, and I believe I got $10.00, and Ray played ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown.’ We done that radio show and I was tickled to death.
I went back home and told my Mommy; ‘Boy, everybody knows us now, we’ve been on the radio.’
The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, in existence since 1938, played an important role in the career of the Goins Brothers. Ray joined that band in 1952 and participated in their first recording session for RCA Records. One song recorded at that time, “My Brown-Eyed Darling,” was written by Ezra Cline’s daughter Patsy as a tribute to her future husband, Bobby Osborne, who was serving with the U. S. Marine Corps in Korea.
When Ray left the Fiddlers, he and Melvin formed their own band in late 1952 called. The Shenandoah Playboys, with Joe Meadows, fiddle, and Bernard Dillon, electric guitar. They had a radio show on WHIS in Bluefield, and played shows in that area until November 15, 1953, when Ray and Melvin joined the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers. Other members were Ezra Cline, bass, and Curly Ray Cline, fiddle. This group played at theaters in five cities in Eastern Kentucky, five nights a week, and had a radio show on WLSZ in Pikeville. This lineup of the Fiddlers recorded for RCA in February and September, 1954. They waxed eight songs, with “Windy Mountain,” and “No Curb Service,” included on the Victor album, (LPV 569) Early Bluegrass. Victor album (RA 5508) Bluegrass Music ‘52 and ‘53, released in Japan in 1969, featured some of the cuts from those sessions. In 1992 Germany’s Bear Family label produced Windy Mountain (ECD 501), a CD containing 26 tracks recorded by the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers between 1950 and 1955.
Ray left the Fiddlers in April, 1955 and moved to Flint, Michigan, where he worked in a General Motors Plant for a very short time; Melvin left the Fiddlers in June. Ray returned to Eastern Kentucky and once again, the Goins Brothers were back together, with a radio show on WPRT in Prestonsburg. Personnel included Melvin, guitar; Ray, banjo; Buck Dillion, fiddle; and Bernard “Tommy” Dillion, electric guitar. This turned out to be a very short reunion. The limited income from music forced them into various kinds of employment through the winter of 1955-56. They then moved back to Bluefield, West Virginia, and worked with Cecil Surratt on his television programs until 1958.
Melvin and Ray once again teamed up with Ezra and Curly Ray Cline in the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers in May, 1961, recording for Starday Records, and playing on WCYB-TV in Bristol, Tennessee. Starday released (SLP 194) Bluegrass in October, 1962, with (SLP 222) More Bluegrass, following in May, 1963. During 1964 Ray and Melvin played with many different musicians at dances and shows. Ray worked in the mines for a while, then obtained a grocery store, playing only on certain occasions. Melvin went into the business side of the music, booking Hylo Brown and the Stanley Brothers, as well as making some solo appearances.
The association with the Stanley Brothers led to Melvin’s joining them on January 18, 1966, playing rhythm guitar or bass, and doing comedy as “Big Wilbur.” He remained with them until Carter Stanley’s death on December 1, 1966. When Ralph Stanley reorganized The Clinch Mountain Boys in early 1967, the members were: Ralph, banjo; Larry Sparks, lead and rhythm guitar; Curly Ray Cline, fiddle; and Melvin Goins, playing rhythm guitar or bass, and doing his comedy skits.
Melvin remained with Ralph until May, 1969, when once again he joined with Ray, a partnership that would last for 29 years. Their first album as The Goins Brothers was recorded in Ashland, Kentucky on May 18, 1969 for Rem Records. The project was titled Bluegrass Hits Old And New, (LP 1041). Paul “Moon” Mullins played fiddle and “Kentucky Slim” played bass. Some other well-known musicians that have been members of the Goins Brothers bands include: Harley Gabbard, Dobro; Joe Meadows, fiddle; Dave Sutherland, bass; Ricky Skaggs, mandolin; Art Stamper, fiddle; Danny Jones, mandolin; Bill Rawlings, bass; Leslie Sturgill, mandolin; Buddy Griffin, fiddle; and Glen Duncan, fiddle. Two other Goins Brothers, Harold and Conley, have also played at various times with the group.
In 1991 members of the Goins Brothers and “The Shedhouse Trio,” a name they started using in the 1980s, were: John McNeely, guitar; Bill Hamm, bass; and Sam Jeffries, fiddle and mandolin. The Goins Brothers not only played great music, they resurrected rural comedy routines that dated back to the minstrel and medicine shows of the 1930s. Melvin would make an excuse to leave the stage, and putting on his “spotted” costume, emerged as “Big Wilbur.” While Ray and “Big Wilbur” were going through their routine, the “Shedhouse Trio” would disappear back stage, only to reappear dressed in women’s clothing. The fact that they had beards added to the fun. “Big Wilbur” would go out into the audience, still answering straight man Ray’s questions, with hilarious results. Everyone was fair game, and some emcees have been known to run for shelter when those bearded women threatened them with a kiss. It is just good, clean American comedy, and bluegrass music needs more of this type of entertainment.
Ray Goins semi-retired from the music business after a heart attack and bypass surgery in late 1994. He also had surgery for cancer in early 1995. The band continued as The Goins Brothers until 1998. Melvin went to Ray and asked what he should do. “We’ve been playing this music for a lot of years,” Ray said. “I think you should take the band and go on with it.” The band name was changed to Melvin Goins and Windy Mountain. The new band name came from a Lonesome Pine Fiddlers song, “Windy Mountain.” Ray Goins plans to make occasional guest appearances with Melvin’s band.
The Goins Brothers have made wonderful contributions to bluegrass music, with albums recorded for Old Homestead, Jalyn, Rem, Jessup, Vetco, and Rebel. They were recognized for their love of traditional bluegrass music, and their dedication to it’s continued existence in 1988, when they were inducted into SPBGMA’s Preservation Hall of Greats.