How it all Started.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, please put your hands together and welcome the Midland’s first bluegrass band, the Down County Boys”. There was a smattering of applause as the four twenty-something’s launched into their first number in a seedy Coventry pub back in the mid Sixties. The band played their total repertoire of four songs to a generally appreciative audience and then they were off stage discussing who’d forgotten the words or chord changes or who’d sung the wrong harmony. Not the most promising start for Britain’s longest running bluegrass band who were regularly voted Britain’s best in the Nineties when the British Country Music movement got around to organising their annual beauty parades.
The fact is that the music played that evening wasn’t even bluegrass, although it was well on the way to becoming so. Within three or four years, the band would be playing the most authentic bluegrass music that any British band has played, then or since, and by the Seventies would have learned how to entertain an audience as well as perform this exciting music. The band personnel would constantly change, with three of those first four musicians leaving before the end of the Sixties. In fifty Four years of almost continual existence, the band would go on to employ thirty one or so musicians, one having lasted only a month whilst the longest serving band member has clocked up almost forty eight years and is still going strong.
The four musicians who stepped out on stage that cold January night in 1964 – Ken Harris, Martin Hollis, Mike Rodgers and Andy Smith – could not have imagined that for the next fifty two years, the band would be the pre-eminent British bluegrass band who took their music all over the country, winning countless admirers of their informal but entertaining style. That the band would be the automatic choice for a whole generation of BBC radio producers who needed a bluegrass band for their programme. That the band would, in varying degrees, affect the lives of all the musicians who passed through it’s ranks. That the band would do so much to raise the profile of this unique music in this country and would inspire numerous other budding musicians to have the courage to start playing.
But, above all, their wildest imagination could not have foretold that if you were today to ask any Country Music fan to name a bluegrass band, the overwhelming majority would say “ The Down County Boys”.
As the band’s name suggests, there is a Northern Ireland connection in that Ken Harris, the original guitarist and lead singer, lived in the County Down end of Belfast before he and his wife moved to Coventry in the 1950’s. Ken had been interested in American country music for as long as he can recall, collecting records and tapes in those early days and buying himself a guitar and learning the rudiments of playing the music. Not with thoughts of ultimate fame and glory but, as with most musicians, simply because they enjoy playing.
Martin Hollis lived in Coventry and in the early Sixties was studying for his accountancy qualification. He played guitar and got to know Ken Harris through Andy Smith. Ken persuaded Martin to bring his guitar along and they would spend many hours listening to LP records trying to discern the chords, or the guitar notes or the harmony lines.
By the autumn of 1964, Ken had decided to organise a country music club in Coventry where anyone could come along each week and see various solo singers and groups performing the music. The problem was that, in those days, it was unheard of for one act to play for a whole evening and so it was important to get as many different acts together as possible. The regulars who appeared on the first night of the club at the end of September comprised the Ken Reader Trio, an ‘electric’ country group, Martin Perdine, a sometime aspiring pop music singer who’d moved over to play country music and Andy and Janet Smith, a brother and sister act with excellent harmony singing.
Ken had found a room at the Swanswell Tavern, a down market pub in a somewhat seedy part of the city. But it had a room with a stage and probably held about fifty people and it was ideal for this new venture in that it was easy to get to and it was cheap to hire.
Also present on the opening night, sitting in the audience, was Mike Rodgers, a friend of Ken’s who had that very week moved from Lincolnshire to take up a job as an accountant in Rugby. He played mandolin but definitely not for public display. But Mike knew about bluegrass music and, although Ken and Martin had heard of it, they did not initially have his knowledge or enthusiasm. Mike had discovered the music through listening to early morning radio broadcasts from the American Forces Network in Germany. The programme was called “ Hillbilly Reveille”, which played country music, or ‘country and western’ as it was then called for American troops stationed in Germany. But the important thing was that the signature tune was a bluegrass instrumental called “ Cedar Grove “ played by Bill Clifton’s band and when he first heard it, the sound of it just knocked Mike sideways. Like most people first coming across bluegrass music, it was the sound of the banjo that was mind blowing. How could anyone play that many notes in such a short space of time and live ??
Mike had met Ken the previous year in London at a concert where an American country music duo were performing and the two of them had kept in touch. In fact it was the prospect of being near to this country music scene in Coventry that persuaded Mike to take the job in Rugby. He’d started playing mandolin as it gave him something to do whilst he awaited the results of his accountancy finals.
Within a few weeks of starting the Swanswell country music club, it became clear that more acts would be needed and Ken decided that a nice trio performing acoustic music would be just right and so “ Ken, Martin and Mike” were launched onto the public. That wasn’t without it’s trials and tribulations as Mike was quite adamant that he was not going to play mandolin in public but he’d reckoned without the powers of Ken’s persuasion. For about the next four or five weeks they would learn three songs on a Sunday in Ken’s living room and perform them on the following Thursday. After that they started repeating some of the earlier songs and so gradually built up a repertoire. This was what might be called acoustic country music but Ken was by now realising that it did not offer as many possibilities as bluegrass music which he was by now getting quite serious about.
Andy Smith, who played each week at the club with his sister Janet was a good musician. He came from a musical family and had various uncles who played folk music. One branch of the family had come from Lithuania and the influence of such a musical family had it’s effect on Andy. Certainly, of the founding members of the band, he was the most natural musician and could play a number of instruments.
For several years he and Janet had played in the local folk clubs. He would play guitar in the normal way, and she would play a guitar held out flat in front of her in the way that a dobro is held. The strings were raised and tuned to an open chord which she changed by the use of a steel in her left hand whilst she strummed away with the other hand. It was an unusual sound but the main thing was that it worked.
In any event, the reason that they were well regarded around the clubs was their singing. Brothers, or in this case brother and sister, can usually harmonise well and they carried on this tradition. Their choice of music was mostly English folk music with the songs of Euan McColl and Peggy Seeger being particular favorites.
Andy was starting to become a very good banjo player and Ken wanted that sound to add to the trio sound that they already had. He persuaded Andy to join and after several weeks of rehearsal the band decided that they were ready to play in public. Introducing “Ken, Martin, Mike and Andy” was too much of a mouthful and the band had to have a name. Agreeing to a name naturally took much longer than learning the material and the band was still undecided by the time they were ready for their debut. One of the suggestions had been “ The Down County Boys “ for the reason that Ken, the lead singer and spokesman, originated from County Down in Northern Ireland, another was “ The Warwickshire Travellers “ which was thought to sound ‘bluegrassy’. Came the moment of their debut and Martin Perdine, who was to introduce them on stage, listens to all of the bickering backstage and finally declares “Well, I’m damned if I’m going to introduce you as the Warwickshire Travellers” so The Down County Boys it was
(and still is).
By, Mike Rodgers.