Travels in Virginia

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Tony Williamson (pictured right with Sam Bush at the 2016 Merlefest) shares some intimate sentiments here in his June 2016 installment of his blog ‘The Mandolin Vine’.  

Being Williamson’s birthday month, this special edition of our online archival will explore some of his onstage and on-the-road exploits, focusing particularly on ‘The Williamson Brothers’, and how the dynamic duo went from a traditional duet to a full bluegrass band collaborating with some of the greatest names in music.  

Without further ado, enjoy this excerpt from Tony’s own personal Tour Journal:

    'I have always enjoyed singing and playing music with my brother.  Many music critics have observed that sibling music is blessed with appealing and often exciting harmonies. Perhaps this results from childhood musical impressions, exact matches of dialect or the magic of hereditary sensibility.  It is certainly not because of shared views and attitudes. 

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Live In VA Vol. 1 & 2

Click Here or the pic above to enjoy Real Groove Music’s first two installments of The Williamson Brothers’ live series, and get a taste of the tunes as they were peformed on this very tour!

    Now, there is not only a new offering for fans of brother duets, but also a very special musical milestone for Tony and Gary, The Williamson Brothers: the download only release of our first full length live album.  That’s right!  The wonderful folks at Real Groove Music have undertaken the momentous task of choosing highlights, archiving, restoring, remixing and mastering recordings of concerts past. The first of their efforts has now been released in a series called “Live In Virginia”, Volumes 1 and 2.  And I am told there is much more to come!

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     Inspired by this greatly welcomed support from our record label, I am prompted to reflect on the glimpse of our career which these recordings document.  After the success of our album, “My Rocky River Home” we had spent several years performing as a duet.  What was then seen as a simplified, bare bones approach to traditional music harkened back to a time when the brother duet was standard fare.  This genre produced some of our most beloved recordings by such acts as The Monroe Brothers, The Blue Sky Boys, The Delmore Brothers and many others.  We had a lot of fun taking this gratifying and unique throwback to the festival circuit during the late 1980s and early 90s.  Other duos soon took up the sound, many of whom were not even brothers. Consequently, we decided a change was needed to keep things fresh and exciting for us. Therefore, during the Virginia tour, we were carrying a full Bluegrass band, adding the traditional sound of the banjo, fiddle and “doghouse” bass to our mandolin and guitar driven vocals.

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     Above left to right:  Al McCanless (fiddle), Harold Chriscoe (banjo), Tony, Gary, Jim Watson (bass) 


     There are many stories of the camaraderie that we experienced during this time traveling with some truly wonderful musicians.  

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Hitting the stage with a full band gives an electrifying charge to a performance; enduring the daily transitions of travel with a group can be just as interesting, to say the least.  We would go from anxiousness: about the travel, finding the venue (using maps instead of iPhone gps!), locating lodging and dealing with the challenges of foreign sound systems; to exhilaration: the thrill of stage performance, the enthusiasm of a good audience and the inevitable after-hours jam session and party.  Next thing you know, the alarm goes off and we are on the road again!

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We felt so blessed by and grateful to the musicians that joined us, some of whom continue to work with us.  In addition to those named in the photo captions, we have been joined on stage and/or in the studio by a who’s who of traditional music including Bobby Hicks, Tom Grey, Aubrey Haynie, J. B. Prince, Jimmy Arnold, Craig Smith, Larry Perkins, Butch Robins, Rex McGee, Rob Ickes, Dale Perry, Michael Cleveland and Rad Andy! On one occasion, we joined Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys on stage.   I still get chill bumps when I recall the time we sang a trio with Ralph on “Lonesome River.”

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     Above:  Tony and Gary Williamson join Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys.
     left to right: James Price (fiddle), James Allen Shelton (guitar), Steve Sparkman (banjo), Ralph, Tony, Gary, Jack Cooke (bass)
 

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     In addition to the wonderful musicians who join us onstage, we met many wonderful folks along the way. There are so many highlights, but one example really stands out. We had a call from our dear friend, band mate and huge supporter of our music, Larry Perkins, who invited us to drop by to play a few songs for “a friend of his.”  The friend turned out to be none other than Earl Scruggs, who sat in an easy chair for 3 hours while we serenaded him.  He commented that we “reminded him of listening to Zeke and Wiley Morris when he was a boy back in Carolina”. What a treasured accolade!

Great Gospel on iTunes:

Perhaps the most momentous on-the-road highlight of all was in Huntington, West Virginia when we performed on a live radio show hosted by music legend Rev. Lynn Davis.  Rev. Davis, of course, was the musical partner, life partner, and beloved husband of none other than 1940s country music star Molly O’Day.  Our association with Molly O’Day began in childhood when our Uncle Carl Sidney Wellborn would share his collection of 78 rpm recordings.  He loved the Carter Family, Chuck Wagon Gang, and his favorite, Molly O’Day and the Cumberland Mountain Folk.  

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Molly sang and played banjo like no other and the accompanying guitar of Lynn Davis was absolutely scintillating!  Uncle Carl told us fondly of the time that he had walked, barefoot, from Ramseur to Asheboro to hear Molly and Lynn and the band perform, around 1946. 

Above Right: Rev. Lynn Davis presents Gary Williamson with Molly O’Day’s banjo: 1929 Bacon and Day Silver Bell 

     The recordings were a revelation to us:  Poor “Ellen Smith”, “The Tramp On The Street”, “If You See My Savior” “The Evening Train” and many, many more. Of course, Molly O’Day was her stage name; her given name was Lois LaVerne Williamson.  As it turns out, we were distant relatives.  When we played Lynn’s radio show, he announced, “these boys are Molly’s kin.  If there was any doubt before, it is now confirmed once we have heard them sing!”  Another treasured accolade!

Fun Fact

Did you know Gary Williamson performs ghost vocals on the track ‘Mountain Girl’ on ‘The Low Country All Stars’ cd?  This was the only studio overdub on this otherwise live recording featuring Tony Williamson, Vassar Clements and Tony Rice!  Download the track or entire album on iTunes today.

   He also clearly remembered our barefoot uncle, even though they had met half a century ago.  Lynn recalled, “he stayed for the last encore and then spent some time visiting with us.  When he left to walk the 8 miles back home, he turned and said, ‘I ain’t gonna let nothing bother me tomorrow morning.  I’m gonna sleep in ’til at least 5 am’.”

     As we sang and played for Lynn in his studio, we could not help but notice a framed glamour shot of a beautiful woman.   I inquired.  Lynn explained, that is Molly’s first cousin, Fannie Mae Williamson, who turned out to be another distant Williamson relative of ours.  Lynn continued, “You might know her by her stage name:  Blaze Starr”.  Yes, that is right.  Blaze Starr:  a stunningly beautiful woman and a confirmed advocate of nudism at a time when alternative lifestyles were even less tolerated than they are today. 

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During her long career she was a star of stage and screen.   She also steered government policy toward kindness and humanity through pillow talk with her lover, Earl Long, Governor of Louisiana.  She was immortalized in the Hollywood movie, “Blaze”, starring Paul Newman as Governor Long and Lolita Davidovich as Blaze Starr.  Blaze also appears in that movie. Like Molly, she was our kinfolk, and Lynn put us in touch with her.  We spent precious time with her, shared music and memories, and every year after that we received photos and Christmas cards from this wonderful, generous woman who was an amazing part of the history of her time.  Lynn Davis recalled:  “yes, I got her to accept the Lord,  but I never convinced her to stop taking off her clothes!“


     As if that was not enough.  On another trek, we ran into our good friend and yet another hero, John Hartford who was on the search for music of Blind Ed Haley, a legendary old time West Virginia fiddler from a bygone era. 

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 told him that Lynn and Molly had been good friends with the old fiddler and that Lynnhad collected much of his music.  I put John in touch with Lynn.  Well, it was not too long before John Hartford’s tour bus pulls up in Lynn Davis’ front yard.  After a wonderful meeting, sharing stories and music, John asked Lynn if there was something he could do for him.  Lynn said that he had always 

Pictured above, the current Williamson Brothers’ Band as appearing on the latest studio album ‘Bluegrass!'

admired the song “Gentle On My Mind”, but had never acquired a recording of it.  He asked John if he had a CD with that song on it that he could purchase.  John looked around the room and said, can you turn that tape recorder on?  Lynn replied in the affirmative and before you knew it, John took out his  banjo and played and sang into the tape machine.  He had created a one-of-a-kind version of the John Hartford classic, a recording that Lynn Davis always prized!

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     Not too much later, Lynn called and asked if Gary and I were passing that way any time soon.  As it turns out we were on tour in Virginia, and we dropped in on him.  Molly had passed away, and as per her wishes, Lynn presented my brother Gary with her banjo,  It was a moment beyond comprehension, and Lynn, once again, proved himself to be a gracious, generous gentleman honoring us and the friendship we had developed, an honor we will treasure for all time.  Any time we are driving through Huntington, West Virginia, there is a little graveyard where the stones mark the resting place of Lynn and Molly, side by side, as they were in life.  When travelling in that part of the country, we always stop and put out some flowers and say a grateful prayer for these beloved musical heroes.’     -Tony Williamson


Click Here to explore ‘The Williamson Brothers Live In Virginia’ Recording Series

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 © Rad Andy 2015