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Charlie Waller's spirit lives on with new album

By Rick Bell, September 2004

Charlie Waller was all set to board his bus for a weekend's worth of concerts with his band.

Yet, it wasn't just another road trip for the legendary Waller and his band of 47 years, the Country Gentlemen. Sure, the weekend would kick off with a show in Cherokee, N.C., then on to do a benefit concert to help raise money for his longtime friend and former member of the Gentlemen, Eddie Adcock, who underwent heart bypass surgery in July. Next would be one final gig in Ohio before Waller and his band mates returned to their homes in and around Washington, D.C., where the Country Gentlemen helped create one of the most vibrant and vital bluegrass and folk scenes of the 1960s and '70s.

The band's storied bluegrass and folk archives was to be punctuated with some fresh new sounds from the several of the Gentlemen. Over the course of the weekend, Waller was gearing up to play songs from his just-released album, "Songs of the American Spirit."

Waller's son, Randy, a relatively new member of the Gentlemen whose voice is strikingly similar to his father's resonant bass vocals, had begun performing a couple of tunes from his just-released self-titled record.

And, longtime Gentlemen tenor vocalist and mandolinist Darin Aldridge also is debuting his latest release, "Call it a Day." If that wasn't enough, bassist and baritone singer Mike Gee was settling in as the newest member of the Gentlemen.

Indeed, this wasn't going to be just another weekend of picking and singing for one of the world's most recognized, respected and innovative bluegrass bands of all time. The band was literally packing a busload of new music to blend with four decades' worth of longtime favorites.

Yet, the weekend never arrived for the heart and soul of the Country Gentlemen. Amidst the Gentlemen's routine of checking road maps and set lists, of setups and breakdowns and stage lights and autographs, Waller never got the chance to board the bus for another weekend run.

Charlie Waller, 69, died the evening of Aug. 18 while alone and picking squash in the garden of his home in Gordonsville, Va., of a heart attack - just hours before the Gentlemen was to leave for their show in North Carolina. His wife, Sachiko, discovered Waller there, unresponsive.

The immediate outpouring of love and support for Waller and his family was overwhelming. Within a day, literally hundreds of well wishers, fans and fellow musicians had offered condolences and wrote their memories of Waller on his web site.

If there was a hint that he was about to die, Waller, who according to family members had been in poor health for the last five years, didn't readily show it. He was making final preparations for the weekend shows.

Just hours before his death, Waller conducted his final media interview. Contacted by phone on two consecutive days, Waller shared his thoughts on a number of topics, from son Randy to the band's current lineup to the music coming out of Nashville.

Yet, it appeared to be two distinctly different Charlie Wallers on the phone. On Aug. 17, Waller was affable, chatty and sharp as a tack. The following day - Aug. 18, the day Waller died - he seemed somewhat bitter and had difficulty remembering simple things like song titles.

Yet one thing was unmistakable both days - Waller was incredibly proud of his personal accomplishments and unabashedly bragged on the skill and talents of the Country Gentlemen.

The band's storied history dates back to the fall of 1957, when Waller on guitar and lead vocals teamed with Larry Lahey on bass, John Duffey on mandolin and Bill Emerson on banjo to form the Country Gentlemen.

Waller had joined the Louisiana Hayride a few years earlier, and after an auto accident sidelined his band, Buzz ' Busby and Bayou Boys, Waller joined with his future Country Gentlemen to fill show dates while the others recovered.

It was certainly a humble beginning for what was to become a legendary pioneering bluegrass ensemble. Over the next 47 years, the Country Gentlemen featured lineups consisting of bluegrass giants such as Ricky Skaggs, Jerry Douglas, Bill Yates, Doyle Lawson and Adcock, who actually produced Waller's final album.

Yet the Country Gentlemen was more than a bluegrass band. Waller helped transform bluegrass from a parochial backwoods music to a vital new sound on college campuses, in concert halls and in the clubs of Washington, D.C. It didn't take long for Washington to become the capital of bluegrass - despite whatever arguments those in Kentucky and Tennessee may offer - and the Country Gentlemen were the undisputed kings of what popularly was known as the "new grass revival."

It wasn't a fastidious clinging to tradition that brought the Gentlemen into America's consciousness, though Waller's bass vocals and Duffey's haunting tenor kept the band firmly rooted in bluegrass.

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