Adcock comes to 33rd annual Joe Val Bluegrass Festival

Feb. 15, 2018 | Craig Harris

FRAMINGHAM – A half century after setting a new standard for banjo playing, Eddie Adcock remains one of bluegrass’ most innovative artists. Joined by his wife, Martha, with ex-Country Gentlemen bandmate Tom Gray on bass, Adcock performs on Feb. 16, the first of the thirty-third annual Joe Val Bluegrass Festival’s three days at the Sheraton Hotel in Framingham. “Eddie’s unique musical wizardry is frequently mind-blowing . . . ,” said his wife in the liner notes of Eddie Adcock—Vintage Banjo Jam (2017). “His ideas and methods have infiltrated, influenced and inspired the entire genre, which has quoted him endlessly, and usually unknowingly, for many years.”

The recipient of the $50,000 Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass in 2014, Adcock is fortunate to be alive. Experiencing hand tremors, Adcock underwent deep brain stimulation (DBS) surgery in 2008 and twice in 2011, playing banjo while doctors at Vanderbilt University Medical Center operated so he wouldn’t lost the ability.

Adcock met the former Martha Hearon in 1973, and they married three years later. Trained in classical technique, she played piano for more than a decade before turning to folk and string-band music. She started out by running the soundboard for Adcock’s II Generation before taking  over guitar duties when the slot opened. “We were the first newgrassers,” she said, “open to a more progressive, inclusive bluegrass.”

“We were free spirited,” Adcock told the Frederick (MD) News-Post. “You would get up onstage and play your thoughts the way they were coming out at the moment, all of us would at the same time; you would do anything you want.”

Scottsville, VA-born Adcock, an ex-semi-pro boxer and racecar driver, apprenticed as a guitarist with Smokey Graves & His Blue Star Boys in 1953. Joining Buzz Busby’s band, he was in the middle of a longtime engagement at the Admiral Grill in Bailey’s Crossroads, VA on July 3, 1957. After their final set, Busby and bassist Vance Trull persuaded Adcock “to go to North Beach, MD, where there was legal gambling and bars stayed open all night,” said banjo player Bill Emerson. “They got into a car with one of their friends and headed to North Beach.”

They never made it. “The driver ran off the road,” said Emerson, “and they all wound up in the hospital. As soon as I heard about it, I went to see Buzz. He said, ‘Get some people together; keep that job for me.’ I needed a mandolin player to replace Buzz so I called John Duffey. We played together [with bassist John Leahy] while Buzz was in the hospital. When he got out, we decided to stay together – that was the beginning of the Country Gentlemen. Our first show was July 4.”

Gray played for Busby from 1959 until joining the Country Gentlemen a year later. They would briefly reunite in 1967. “The accident almost killed him,” he said. “The car crashed into a utility pole at seventy miles per hour. He was riding shotgun and got the worst of the accident. Duffey came along and replaced him. Buzz tried to hide his bitterness but it was hard. I don’t blame him for resenting Duffey. He was never rude about it but it took the steam out of his career.”

Emerson left the Country Gentlemen in 1959. Adcock (1938), who had gone on to play banjo with Bill Monroe following the accident, took over. “I insisted on playing [banjo] my way,” he said, “and I demanded we do material that wasn’t identified with anyone else.”
Adcock would be essential to the Country Gentlemen’s sound, encouraging their use of unusual arrangements and songs from non-bluegrass sources. “We were all partners in the band,” he said, “but John and I were the main song-finders. They had been doing traditional material but I knew that wouldn’t get us anywhere. We had to go further; it had to be more creative.”

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