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Country Gent Bill Emerson returns

By John Lupton, November 2007

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Another touchstone to the past - in this case, Emerson's own - is Randy Waller's lead vocal on "Beautiful." While Randy's voice carries its own distinctive resonance, Emerson acknowledges it's impossible not to be haunted by the echoes of Charlie.

"You can close your eyes and hear a lot of Charlie in Randy, but you also hear a lot of Randy in Randy. Randy came up with that tune, I asked him if he had any ideas as to what he would like to do on the CD. He ran that tune by me, and I'd never heard it before. It's been out, I guess, many years ago, not necessarily in the bluegrass idiom, but it's been done before, and Randy pulled that one out of a hat. It's a beautiful song, and he does a beautiful job of singing it. A lot of people, it's their favorite song on the whole CD."

Recalling that Fourth of July 50 years ago when he and Charlie Waller brought the Country Gentlemen into being, he admits they were just doing what they needed to do at the time.

"We never thought we'd amount to that much, we just wanted to play music and make a little money, have some fun. We never thought we would ever get a recording contract and become the group that the Country Gentlemen became. I was just glad to play with somebody who could play guitar as well as Charlie Waller and somebody who was as great a singer as he was. I certainly benefited from that, and I hope he benefited from me being around, especially in the later years, and Charlie Waller is certainly one of the greatest lead singers of all time as far as bluegrass music goes."

Another link to the past on the album that longtime Emerson fans will welcome is the presence of Michigan-based singer and songwriter Pete Goble. Their 2 late-1980s Webco collaborations ("Tennessee 1949" and "Dixie In My Eye") have become cult classics, and Emerson felt a connection with Goble from their first meeting.

"I met him way back when I was with Jimmy Martin, and we went up to Detroit to play, and Pete came out to where we were staying and we got acquainted with him. As time went by, we became close friends, and then when (I) would go up there with the Country Gentlemen, Pete would come out, and I'd get a chance to talk to him. I always thought he was a great singer, and he would sit on a stump somewhere, and a crowd would gather around him because he just loved to sing his songs to people."

"I could feel his music - his music's not really what you'd call hard bluegrass at all, it's more in the country vein. They're all fairly commercial tunes, and they all have that good laid-back feel, and they're all just perfect for a banjo - at least for my style - and I could just feel his music, and it was very easy for me to just step in and play his tunes."

Despite his role as co-founder of one of the most enduring bands in the music's history, Emerson is quick to acknowledge that his time with the mercurial genius Jimmy Martin shaped his musical career.

"Jimmy wanted his music played his way. He had a certain way of doing everything, and if you didn't know that and walked into his band, if you didn't realize that, you'd be in trouble because you weren't able to play his stuff his way, and you needed to know why he wanted it that way, and why it worked that way."

"I can recall Paul Williams saying one time, 'People want to play like we do, but they can't figure out what we're doing.' And, Jimmy knew what that was. It was because of him, and his approach to the tunes and the way to do them and the way to phrase them and the way to say the words."

"The whole thing, the way you would stand on stage, the way you work a microphone was all choreographed, it was all Jimmy Martin, and I learned every bit of that from him. I learned how to act on the stage, I learned how to sing, I learned how to play the banjo."

"A little bit later on, Jimmy said, 'You know, in this business you've got to be good, but you've got to be different too. You can't sound like everybody else. I don't want somebody that sounds like Earl Scruggs, I want somebody that sounds a little different...He'd sit down with me and suggest things, he really encouraged me to do it, and he's the reason why I'm still doing that."

And, in a final note, Bill Emerson sounds genuinely pleased to be back in the saddle.

"I'm just glad to be back in the business, glad to be doing this...maybe I'm not as energetic as I was, but I'm a lot smarter."

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