John Duffey: The Rebel Years: 1962-1977
4½ stars (out of 5)
By Larry Stephens
I never had the opportunity to see John Duffey in a live performance. He passed away December 10, 1996, a period when I was still immersed in country music. I’m sorry I missed the opportunity because he has become one of bluegrass’ legends, as much for his stage persona as for his singing.
His father was an opera singer but John loved Appalachian music as a young man. His opportunity to perform professionally came in 1957 when Buzz Busby was injured in an auto accident. Busby’s bandmate, Bill Emerson, wanted to keep the band going so he made contact with Duffey and Charlie Waller. With the new lineup the band took on a new name: the Country Gentlemen.
While no one can pin down an exact date when “bluegrass” came into existence, by 1957 it was only twelve to fifteen years old. There were many influential men in those early years, Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Jim & Jesse, but the music was very Monroe-centric. Perhaps the Stanley Brothers represented the most important offshoot with their mountain-style music. But bluegrass – and country – music was about to face a great and nearly devastating challenge: rock-’n’-roll.
In an effort to survive those lean years of the Elvis explosion, some bluegrass bands changed their style and leaned more towards folk and country music. Despite the decline of country music, it still had a wider audience than bluegrass. Flatt & Scruggs was playing folk music festivals, Jim & Jesse used an electric bass and made country-sounding records. Mac Wiseman and the Osborne Brothers leaned heavily towards country music. Bill Monroe struggled. And there were the Country Gentlemen.
With Washington DC as their locus they were geographically removed from the bastions of bluegrass. With their song selections, they became artistically removed, too. They had a traditional bluegrass lineup of instruments and they mostly sang like bluegrass singers, yet they were reviled by some bluegrass purists while loved by many in the DC area who simply liked their music and didn’t worry about the rules or what it was called. While Waller proved to be the mainstay of the Gents, guiding them until his death in 2004, the big personality in the group (and later in the Seldom Scene) was Duffey. He was never afraid to speak up from the stage, no matter what was on his mind, and often dressed in clothes wildly different from his bandmates and bluegrass musicians in general.
This new release centers on the voice and mandolin of John Duffey within the settings of the two bands he helped form and lead into bluegrass history. Despite the feelings of some in the bluegrass crowds of the ’60s and ’70s, the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene became two of the big draws on the bluegrass circuit. The Scene remains a top name today, despite their relatively light schedule. The Country Gentlemen are still around but things just haven’t been the same since Charlie died and his son, Randy, took over leadership of the band.
Representing the CG years is “Bringing Mary Home,” one of their biggest hits from 1965. “Some Old Day” has become a bluegrass standard but “Girl From the North Country,””This Morning At Nine” and “I’ll Be There Mary Dear” are not frequently heard these days. “500 Miles,” on the other hand began life as a folk song and has been recorded many times, sung by artists like Peter, Paul & Mary, the Kingston Trio and Joan Baez. “I’m Working On a Road” is an excellent example of Duffey’s vocal range and how well his voice melded with Charlie Waller’s.
“Silence or Tears” is a song I don’t remember hearing before, and I’ve listened to a lot of CG songs. It is an excellent example of Tom Gray‘s excellent but frenetic bass playing. Playing the bass in bluegrass tends toward keeping the tempo, playing a fairly simple combination of notes (often called 2 – 4) with an occasional run into a different chord. Tom, on the other hand and at least in his early years, never heard a note he didn’t like and played more of them in one performance than most bass players would in a year. Another song unknown to me is “The School House Fire,” not a bluegrass murder ballad but a song of gruesome tragedy. Rounding out the CG group is “The Young Fisherwoman” from 1963. Compare that to what Bill Monroe was doing then and it’s easy to see why bluegrass purists looked upon them with disdain.
After a dozen years with the Country Gentlemen, Duffey left the music scene for a while. He left just as the band was getting ready to tour Japan, apparently uncomfortable with flying but, some say, never that happy with touring in general.
Two years later Duffey, making his living as a musical instrument repairman, started attending some jam sessions with former bandmate Tom Gray, banjoist Ben Eldridge, guitarist and singer John Starling and respohonic guitarist Mike Auldridge. They clicked but none of them were willing to give up their day jobs to start touring. They did play regularly in the DC area and recorded seven albums in their first five years together before switching record labels about the time Starling left the group. Duffey would stay with them twenty-five years, until his death.
From the Scene years Rebel has included a handful of songs. Perhaps the most recognizable to today’s bluegrass generation are “Heaven” and the Louis “Grandpa” Jones-penned song, “Falling Leaves.” “Small Exception of Me” is an excellent example of how Duffey could sing lead as well as blend with the harmony. His high tenor is instantly recognizable to anyone who has heard even a small sample of his work. “Reason For Being” and “I Haven’t Got The Right To Love You” are the other Scene songs on the CD.
Time grinds everything to dust but we’re fortunate that John Duffey’s voice was captured for generations to enjoy after his passing. He can never be replaced, but he can still be appreciated and Rebel has just made this easier for today’s bluegrass fans.