The Down County Boys Story. 1970 to 1980 by Peter Parker.
To continue, during late 1969 and early 1970, Ken’s involvement with the Band ended, as he pursued his musical career with the Playboys. The Band at that time, included Brian Curtis, Dick Newton and Mike Rodgers, they still rehearsed at Ken’s house and this is where Pete the budding new young fiddle player at nineteen years of age came for his audition.
Pete, during his schooling started to learn classical violin and just prior to leaving school played with the Coventry Youth Orchestra. During his time in the orchestra Pete became involved with a couple of lads playing Irish folk music, where an interest was spawned in playing types of music other than classical.
A Banjo player called John and a guitar player called Ian recruited Pete to play fiddle in this ‘new’ type of music called ‘bluegrass’. It was during this period that the Down County Boys were looking for a new fiddle player to replace Bob Bruce, who wanted to retire from playing. Peter and the lads were playing a gig in one of the local pubs in Coventry when Dick Newton came along to see whether this fiddle player was any good or not.
Pete had heard the Down County Boys, who were playing upstairs in the Lawrence Sheriff pub, Rugby, having been a few times to hear what this ‘bluegrass music’ was about. Pete jumped at the chance and went along to the daunting audition at Ken’s house. He was offered the job of Down County Boys fiddle player, joining in 1970.
In 1970 Brian Curtis, Dick Newton, Bob Bruce and John Allen were also playing as the Troubadours, a well renowned folk group playing the folk circuit and holding down a residency at the Lawrence Sheriff pub. This Band was quite well known for their full and innovative sound, but that’s another story. During the residency night, the first half of the evening was the Troubadours and the second half was the Down County Boys where Mike Rodgers would join the lads. Quite soon after, the commitment to play with the Down County Boys took its toll and the Troubadours wound down.
History has shown that the period between 1970 – 1975 was a stable situation for the Down County Boys. The lads rehearsed seriously and listened to the top American performers, at that time, trying to emulate the feel and the rhythm and at the same time introduce their own style.
Many of the songs in their repertoire, which was growing all the time, included the influences of Jim and Jesse, Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Ralph Stanley and the Country Gentleman, to name but a few. Pete and the Band, in later years, were to meet many of their heroes, but that too is another story.
To play in a Band and to realise its full potential requires hard work, drive, energy and most of all, commitment, not only from its individual members but also from family. Without the support from the family any success, if at all, would be very difficult to achieve. It is in this respect that the lads and family gave it their all.
Rehearsals would take place at Brian’s house in Rugby. Mike, who that time was working for English Electric, just down the road from Brian’s house would stay at work until rehearsal time; John and Pete would travel from Coventry, and Dick, would travel from the other side of Rugby.
Brian, Dick and John in there past musical lives, were lead singers in their own right. This enabled the Band to be flexible to the type of material and style to be performed. Later on, during this period, Mike who also played guitar would add some songs to the repertoire, “Last Train From Poor Valley” and “Willow Creek Dam”, are one’s to be remembered. These were recorded some time afterwards on the “Better Times a Coming” album.
The interest in bluegrass music was to grow, rehearsals needed public performance and a step was taken to re-establish a residency. This was achieved by persuading Ted and Hilda the licensees at the “New Inn, Long Lawford, Nr Rugby, to have the band play there every Sunday night. Once advertised, we couldn’t keep the people away. At that time the Pubs opened on Sunday at 7.o’clock and people used to queue outside from six o’clock, just to get a seat. The nights at the “New Inn” were absolutely superb, a terrific atmosphere. This venue established the band not only in the West Midlands area, but led to various gigs throughout the UK.
The Band had a lot to answer for, in respect of Pete, Sunday night’s at the “New Inn, Long Lawford” established Pete as ‘Prancing Peter Parker’, the young fiddle player, who always moved his hips when playing. This obviously had an effect on one member of the audience who came every week with her sister from Brinklow, the village down the road. They got married a few years later. Yes, Vicky was in awe of the fiddler; her sister was also in awe of another member of the audience, Selwyn, who was to become one of the Band’s biggest fans and critic. That too is another story.
Early in 1973, the Band changed its venue from the “New Inn, Long Lawford to the “New Phoenix” in Coventry. We couldn’t accommodate the number of followers in the “New Inn”. We kept Sundays as our regular playing night at the “New Phoenix” and increased our regular following. We had some terrific nights at this venue and met many friends, who we still see, even after all these years.
In addition to the residency and rehearsals, the Band were taking bookings further afield, many of which were in the country music clubs, which at that time were becoming more and more popular. We were fortunate that Birmingham, only some twenty miles away had a number of country music venues, where we were regularly booked and therefore didn’t have to travel very far. As the Band’s popularity grew, people were asking, “where can we hear the Down County Boys?” and “It’s about time you recorded an album”. Well, we thought we’d best do it.
We set about putting a list of songs together and made contact with Gordon Davies at Westwood Records who had set-up his recording studio in an isolated farmhouse in Montgomery mid-Wales. Each of us in the Band has fond memories of the recording sessions we shared with Gordon and Alan Green the engineer and producer. Little did we know we also shared the same venue with a couple of Lions, to be told later, they were well behaved. We called the album “About time too!” Some of the songs included on this album still bring back memories. One in particular, entitled “Bringing Mary Home” always caused a stir, especially with the girls in the audience; the song was so haunting many used to cry. We still don’t know whether or not it was Brian’s voice or the lyrics.
Some time during 1974 after many BBC appearances, ‘Auntie Beeb’, decided to release an album from all the Radio 2 broadcasts featuring British Country Music artists, called “Up Country” making this the first time the DCB’s music was on sale in high street record shops. In April 1975 we recorded our second full album, a live performance with an audience recorded at the Mansfield Civic Theatre. A coach party was organised from Coventry to lend support and they made lots of noise, the football rattles and shouts can be heard on the recording. Great memories
During this period, we accumulated some quite prestigious gigs; these included many appearances on the BBC programme “Country Meets Folk”, recorded live at the Playhouse Theatre and Country Club, and other programmes featuring live country music. The gent’s toilet and dressing-room in the Playhouse Theatre holds memories for the lads, as this was situated directly underneath one of the London Underground tube lines and as trains went past above, the whole place used to shake.
One special memory was a BBC live performance at Golders Green Hippodrome, London which celebrated the 50th anniversary of Nashville’s ‘Grand ole opry’. We shared the stage with Mac Wiseman and Bill Anderson from America and the Hillsiders country music Band from the UK.This was broadcast live simultaneously over the Northern Hemisphere and it was reckoned to have a listening audience of some 500 million. We think this may be our biggest audience ever.
You can imagine the fun and memories such gigs have had upon the Band. Studio time was always booked first thing in the morning, and that meant getting up very early in the morning and driving either to Maida Vale or Langham Place studios. On one of our return journeys back up to Coventry, the driver, who shall remain nameless, drove the whole distance of the M1 leaving the handbrake on. That’s the only time Dick Newton’s car had red glowing wheels and an annoyed owner.
1975 was a milestone in the band’s career, Brian Curtis played his last gig with the Down County Boys at Digbeth Civic Hall Birmingham. He went on to form his own Band which was later called the Acme Bluegrass Band, yes, another story. Dick, around this time was giving guitar lessons and a chap by the name of Paul Ashton whom he was teaching, who was showing potential, was asked to join. Not too long afterwards our third album was produced called “Better Times a Coming”. This album was a departure from Westwood Records being recorded at Tank Records near Snitterfield Stratford-upon-Avon. Not so far to go and no Lions in the garden.
Paul had a very poor sense of direction, one night we were playing in a dubious pub in Dudley when Paul failed to turn up, he carried the Mic stands. Lucky for us Dick and Mike could swap instruments and as a consequence Mike played guitar all night, and Pete played directly underneath a broken glass light shade, we still had a great night. Perhaps Paul had been there before!
We were still working clubs around the UK predominantly country music venues, which at the time were the main outlet for bluegrass music. The folk club cult always thought that bluegrass music was a bit of an oddity and consequently there was a reluctance to accept our music within their circles. Paul worked with us as our lead singer until 1978, when we parted company.
During 1977 Mike’s period with the Band was to come to an end when a career move caused him to relocate to Bristol Ian Worthington came in to replace Mike on Mandolin shortly before Paul left, leaving Dick Newton, John Allen, Pete Parker and Ian to continue to the end of the 1970’s.
Work commitments and changes in personnel reduced the Bands public appearances however; the Band kept going, although not playing as many gigs as in previous years. The venue at the New Phoenix also ceased due to the inevitable pub refurbishments. Undaunted, a new residency was sought and 1980 saw the introduction of a new lead singer.
The Down County Boys story for 1980 will continue.
by Peter Parker .