Mayfield, a native of Dimmit, performed in a trio with his two brothers before going to work with Bill Monroe as one of Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. Monroe was impressed with Mayfield’s powerful singing and guitar playing, but, being from an agrarian background himself, he was most impressed with Mayfield’s rodeo skills. Mayfield’s tenure with Monroe fell at an unfortunate time, as rock and roll had decimated country music — and Monroe’s career. According to Mayfield’s brother, Herb, he was “starved out” of the Bluegrass Boys twice but continued to rejoin when he could afford to do so.
In the early days of Texas bluegrass, the five-string banjo was the rarest of instruments because it wasn’t also at home in a western swing band. Shelton heard a Flatt & Scruggs album in 1953 and decided to become a banjo player, though he’d never actually seen the banjo played. He pursued some stylistic dead ends early on, but within a year, he was performing on a live radio show, Cowtown Hoedown, in Forth Worth. The isolation from other banjo players resulted in a unique style — he was likely the first three-finger-style banjo player in Texas — which is no longer unique because of the numerous people Shelton influenced.
3. SOUTH PLAINS COLLEGE
Only two colleges in the U.S. offer a degree in bluegrass music. One is in Eastern Tennessee, where you might expect such a program; the other is in Levelland in West Texas, home of South Plains College. Alumni include members of Alison Krauss’s band and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. Coursework includes all of the skills one needs for a music career, including, but not limited to, musical skills.
Born Benjamin Logan, Jr., in Coahoma, Texas, near Big Spring, Logan played with Hoyle Nix and the West Texas Cowboys during his youth while attending Texas Tech. He then went to MIT, where he got his degree as an electrical engineer, and, having been a fiddler all of his life, fell in with Don Stover and the Lilly Brothers while in the Boston area. He was also in and out of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys during this time, and he’s written songs that have been recorded by Monroe, Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan. Monroe, in fact, was poised to record Logan’s most famous song with Logan, but a blizzard prevented him from making the session, so “Christmas Time’s A-Comin’” was recorded with another fiddler.
The Centerville, Texas, native defied the stereotype of the “high lonesome” singer with a smooth baritone voice that’s never been equaled in bluegrass. He was a member of Buzz Busby and the Bayou Boys, then, after Busby’s illness, he assembled some friends, including Bill Emerson and John Duffey, who played together as the Country Gentlemen. That group continues to this day, although Waller died in 2004, just a few years shy of his 50th anniversary as a Country Gentleman.
Moore, born in Pasadena, Texas, in 1963, got his first experience as lead singer with Johnny Martin around the Houston area. When health difficulties forced Martin to curtail the band, Moore ended up in Arlington in 1982 with Southern Connection. The group enjoyed regional success, but in 1986 Moore got the call from Doyle Lawson to join his band, Quicksilver. After six years with Lawson, Moore formed IIIrd Tyme Out, which has won the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) award for Vocal Group of the Year seven times. Moore, meanwhile, has won Male Vocalist of the Year twice.
7. SCOTT VESTAL
Vestal’s first professional banjo job was in Virginia with Larry Sparks, among the most traditional of stylists. But he returned to Arlington to work with Southern Connection and Russell Moore before receiving his own call from Doyle Lawson, in 1985, to join Quicksilver, which he remained with for four years. He’s played with the John Cowan Band and now the Sam Bush Band; along the way, he’s won the IBMA award for Banjo Player of the Year and has developed a more advanced and less traditional sound for the banjo — he manufactures his own Stealth Banjo brand — that requires a nontraditional tuning key arrangement and unusually short scale length.
Since 1987, Old Settler’s — known as the Old Settler’s Bluegrass Festival until 2000 — has attracted top bluegrass and roots music performers to central Texas, in part, by being the first major festival on the national bluegrass calendar. Held in April during the height of the bluebonnet and wildflower season, OSMF — now held at Salt Lick BBQ Pavilion just outside of Austin — has hosted bluegrass luminaries like Alison Krauss, Doc Watson, Johnny Gimble, Béla Fleck and Del McCoury. The festival also witnessed the final performance of John Hartford, who, though dying of lymphoma, nevertheless fulfilled his commitment by surrounding himself with his own string band, as well as the members of Nickel Creek, leading the players through a rousing set while flashing a transcendent smile or two.
Alan Munde isn’t a Texas native — hailing from Norman, Okla. — but he spent most of his career in Texas and now resides in Wimberley. In his youth he was influenced by Eddie Shelton’s banjo playing, but, unlike Shelton, he made a career of music and went to Nashville from 1969 to 1971 to play with the self-proclaimed king of bluegrass, Jimmy Martin, and his group, the Sunny Mountain Boys. After two years and several recording sessions with this most traditional of bluegrass musicians, he struck out for Los Angeles, where he first joined the Flying Burrito Brothers before forming a band, Country Gazette, with fellow Oklahoman Byron Berline. He got a job teaching bluegrass at South Plains College in 1986, where he remained until 2007.
The Dixie Chicks first formed as a four-piece band dedicated to singing cowboy songs and wearing cowgirl outfits. However, most of their influences and experience came from the bluegrass bands they’d been members of since childhood. The two remaining founding members of the Chicks, Emily and Marty Erwin, had been in a bluegrass band in their teens called the Blue Night Express with siblings Troy and Sharon Gilchrist. While they were competent and entertaining, their star never really rose until they were joined by South Plains College alum Natalie Maines. The group’s album, “Home” (2002), allowed their bluegrass roots to shine and has inspired many youngsters, particularly girls, to take up bluegrass instruments.
10 TOP TEXAS BLUEGRASS ALBUMS
1. DIXIE CHICKS, Thank Heavens for Dale Evans (Chrystal Clear Sound, 1994): The original Dixie Chicks were primarily a bluegrass band out of Dallas. This album, first released on cassette tape and vinyl — and later available on CD — is a true-blue Texas bluegrass masterpiece. As for the Chicks, you know the rest of the story. Who knew a little bluegrass band could be so influential?
2. THE KARL SHIFLETT AND BIG COUNTRY SHOW, Worries on My Mind (Rebel, 2003): Bluegrass done in the traditional style — with all the musicians around a single microphone. Longview native Shiflett’s distinctive voice and leadership creates an older, truer bluegrass sound. At times you can hear early country music influences.
3. LYNN MORRIS, Mama’s Hand (Rounder, 1995): A native of Lamesa, Texas, Morris and husband Marshall Wilborn (Austin) created a wonderful traditional bluegrass sound together. If Morris’ version on this album of the Hazel Dickens title cut doesn’t make you cry, check your pulse because your heart’s gone missing.
4. THE WHITES, A Lifetime in the Making (Skaggs Family, 2000): In his early years, Buck White was a honky-tonk piano player in the Wichita Falls area. Around ’76, he created a band with his then-young daughters, Cheryl and Sharon. (Listeners may remember the group’s rendition of “Keep on the Sunny Side” from the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?) This album features traditional bluegrass, with Buck’s singing of “Texas to a ‘T’” a highlight.
5. SARAH JAROSZ, Song Up in Her Head (Sugar Hill, 2009): At the age of 19, Jarosz, from Wimberley, has already received a Grammy nomination (in the Best Country Instrumental Performance category for “Mansinneedof,” from this album), appeared on her own Austin City Limits segment and recorded this accomplished debut. The multi-instrumentalist’s songwriting has an intimate association with bluegrass, both old-time and contemporary.
6. KEITH SEWELL, The Way of a Wanderer (Rubber Dog, 2009): On this album, this native of Duncanville, Texas, a phenomenal guitar and mandolin picker, demonstrates his prowess on the six-string as well as his songwriting skills on cuts like “Imogene” and “Walkin’ in the Dark.” His songs have been recorded by Alison Krauss and Ricky Skaggs, among others; he’s currently touring with Lyle Lovett; and he’ll be joining Sam Bush at this year’s Old Settler’s Music Festival.
7. CHARLES SAWTELLE, Music from Rancho deVille (Acoustic Disc, 2001): Sawtelle, originally from Austin, was the great flatpicking guitarist in the bluegrass band Hot Rize featuring Tim O’Brien (also playing Old Settler’s this year). This CD has an eclectic mix of tunes and features a veritable who’s who of bluegrass musicians, all of whom were aware that leukemia would soon take Sawtelle’s life.
8. BAD LIVERS, Industry and Thrift (Touch and Go, 1998): Danny Barnes (Temple) combined his talents with Oklahoma transplant Mark Rubin to created a subtly influential sound that’s inspired hundreds of musicians to pick up bluegrass instruments.
9. CADILLAC SKY, Blind Man Walking (Skaggs Family, 2007): This was an early CD from an all-Texas band that, sadly, disbanded recently after a great run. These guys had breathtaking tempos, outstanding harmonies and flawless instrumental skills. “Homesick Angel” is extraordinary, but songs like “Redbird,” with its lonesome heartbreak and strength of conviction, are irresistible.
10. SLIM RICHEY, Jazz Grass (Ridge Runner, 1977): While not traditional bluegrass, this album pioneered the use of exclusively bluegrass instruments to play jazz standards. The CD, in fact, is prominently displayed in the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Ky., as the “Future of Bluegrass.” Richey, an Old Settler’s fixture, jokes that he’s the “father of Jazz Grass” who’s still looking for the mother.
Tom Pittman and Tom Duplissey are members of the Central Texas Bluegrass Association.