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Obit: California Bluegrass Great Vern Williams

Richard Brandenburg 07 Jun 06 - 01:18 AM
SunnySister 07 Jun 06 - 11:18 AM
GUEST,Oldtimer 07 Jun 06 - 08:56 PM
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Subject: Obit: Califoria Bluegrass Great Vern Williams
From: Richard Brandenburg
Date: 07 Jun 06 - 01:18 AM

One of Bluegrass music's greatest singers and mandolin players left us today - Vern Williams. His declining health had been noted on the Califorinia Bluegrass Association's website (, and he will be sadly missed in the community. Tom Diamant, who produced Vern and Ray's albums for the Arhoolie label, wrote a moving entry onto the CBA message board today:

"What a sad, sad day.

Two random memories of Vern come to mind:

When I worked on the Vern CD "Traditional Bluegrass" we needed a blurb for the back of the CD so I wrote:

"Classic, hard core, bluegrass featuring hair-raising, paint-peeling, barn-burning vocals by one of the greatest tenor singers in the history of Bluegrass Music. This is the real stuff, not for the faint at heart. Bluegrass music the way it was meant to be played."

When I read it to Vern on the phone he said, "Don't you think you're laying it on a little thick?"
I said, well, I could change it. He said "No, ….I like it" with that smile in his voice he could get. It wasn't hype, I believed it when I wrote it, I believe it now.

And long ago at Grass Valley, I can remember crawling into my tent at 3 in the morning and lying there going to sleep with the high lonesome tenor of Vern echoing through those tall pines as he jammed into the night.

Nobody, ...nobody, could sing it like Vern.

It's a sad, sad, day.

Sing one for Vern.

Tom Diamant"

For those unfamiliar with Vern, here's a bio from All Music:

"Vern Williams is one of the great unheralded masters of bluegrass music, a mandolin virtuoso who was a star in California throughout the 1960s,'70s, and '80s, and an influence on an entire generation of players and bands out there, but who is little known beyond the confines of the Golden State. His relative handful of recordings, either as a member of Vern & Ray in the 1960s for Starday or leading the Vern Williams Band in the 1970s, don't begin to indicate his importance to bluegrass music. Vern Williams grew up on a farm in rural Newton County, Arkansas, part of a musical family in which both his parents and his six siblings, a well as most of his uncles, all played instruments, as well as singing at church. His first instrument was the guitar, and he played it until he was 17 years old and ordered his first mandolin from Sears. Williams' strongest influence was the music he heard over the radio, most notably the Grand Ole Opry and the songs of the Stanley Brothers and the Carter Family. But far and away the biggest source of inspiration in his early life was Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys, whom Williams listened to from the early '40s onward. Following two years in the U.S. Marine Corps, ending in 1954, Williams moved to California. He lived in Stockton and earned his living in meat-packing plant, but in 1959 he returned to music after he met fiddle-player Ray Park, a fellow Arkansan who'd moved west.

The duo, known as Vern & Ray, thrived in California and became known as one of the best bluegrass outfits in the region, and they got a contract with Nashville-based Starday Records in the early '60s. Vern & Ray, whose talents were augmented by banjoman Luther Riley and guitarist Clyde Williamson, cut four songs for Starday for a 1962 extended-play single release. This record was popular among bluegrass aficionados, but didn't sell, and the group found little opportunity to perform in Nashville, where traditional bluegrass outfits were usually kept at arm's length. They recorded a handful of additional sides before disbanding in 1974, and their later history was collected on the album Sounds from the Ozarks. In 1970, Ray Park spotted a 14-year-old boy carrying a banjo, walking across a parking lot in California, and struck up a conversation with him. It turned out that the boy, named Keith Little, not only knew his instrument but also a good part of the Vern & Ray repertory, and Park soon introduced Little to his guitarist son Larry. Later on, it was Larry who introduced Little to Delbert Williams, Vern's son and a fiddle-player. The three of them formed a band that entertained during the intermissions on the Vern & Ray shows. Larry Park eventually followed his father back into mainstream country music, but Keith Little and Delbert Williams stayed together, and Vern Williams began helping them put a sound together. After the break-up of Vern & Ray in 1974, Vern Williams formed a new group with his son and Keith Little, with Vern usually singing lead and switching to tenor on the choruses, with Keith doing the baritone, and Delbert taking over the lead. Delbert switched from fiddle to guitar, and Missouri-born Ed Neff came in on fiddle while Kevin Thompson, from Smithtown, New York, joined on bass. This was the Vern Williams Band, and in less than a year after their debut, they were pegged as one of the powerhouse bluegrass outfits on the West Coast. By the end of the decade, they were making regular appearances around the United States and touring internationally.

Their repertory was unusual in that, in addition to bluegrass standards and some country material, they also drew on songs from the pre-bluegrass era, including popular music of the 19th century, most notably the songs of Stephen Foster. In 1980, they were signed to Rounder Records, and with a somewhat convoluted effort, spread over two sessions in 1980 and 1981, the group completed their first album, Bluegrass from the Gold Country, released in 1981. That album was well reviewed, and it sold in the parts of the country where they were known, which is to say the West Coast. They group never toured east of Idaho, and eventually the geographic isolation of California was to take its toll. In California, they were regarded with the kind of respect that Flatt & Scruggs received during the late '40s, but on the East Coast they were virtually unknown except to the relative handful of aficionados who bought their Rounder album. They did two subsequent albums for the Arhoolie label, recorded as a backing group for Rose Maddox, which were also critical successes, and they toured with Maddox, but this did little to bring them to the attention of a national audience. The group continued to perform to enthusiastic crowds at colleges, festivals, and clubs in and around California, but as the 1980s wore on, their bookings gradually slowed, and their performances became less frequent. Finally, in 1986, the Vern Williams Band ceased to exist. Keith Little later joined the Country Gentlemen.

~ Bruce Eder, All Music Guide"

Unmentioned in this bio is the close association Vern and Ray had with young Herb Peterson on banjo and vocals.

A new Arhoolie release of Vern and Ray called "San Francisco, 1968" has been circulating among their California fans. For many of us, Vern Williams sets the standard for raw, real deal Bluegrass. Tom Diamant said it beautifully:

"This is the real stuff, not for the faint at heart. Bluegrass music the way it was meant to be played."

We're grieving tonight, friends; we've lost one of the best.

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Subject: RE: Obit: Califoria Bluegrass Great Vern Williams
From: SunnySister
Date: 07 Jun 06 - 11:18 AM

Oh, I'm so sorry to hear this sad news! Vern was one of the best!

His work, especialy his early work, reminded me so much of the music I knew and loved from the Ozarks and he brought a little bit of my grandparents to me when I heard him.

A huge loss!

Thank you, Richard, for sharing this. So many good ones are leaving us.


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Subject: RE: Obit: California Bluegrass Great Vern Williams
From: GUEST,Oldtimer
Date: 07 Jun 06 - 08:56 PM

Sad to think about all of these "bluegrass" jam bands enjoying the popularity and recognition, while Vern Williams and Ray Park remain so largely unknown. Well, those of us who were lucky enough to see them know how great they really were.
Keep it traditional, is what I say. You won't hear it better than Vern did it, except maybe Monroe.

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