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Rock County is rock solid

By John Lupton, October 2003

Page 2...

"The first time I worked with (Scott), we'd run into each other at different times, probably when he was with (Larry) Sparks, I guess. I did three albums with Doyle (Lawson), just as a session fiddle player, and Scott was on all three. Then, when I was with the (Osborne Brothers), he rode with us a time or two, and we'd all sit around and pick."Where some banjo players make their rep by simply mastering a set of "stock" licks, Duncan emphatically agrees that Vestal's style is distinctive and easily recognizable.

"The thing I've always really loved about Scott's playing was, I always thought of him as a really professional musician, as opposed to just a player of an instrument. He'd always play so musically, and whatever the song calls for, he'd play that. You know, he always plays just a very, very musical approach...I could always tell (it was him) the minute I heard him play. His instrument has its own voice, the tone, the phrasing and everything else, and I just really thought that he would be the perfect fit for what we were doing."

Though Ray Craft also departed following the sessions for "Rock Solid" (since replaced by Keith Tew), Duncan can't contain his enthusiasm as he talks about Craft's contributions to the disc, such as "He Died A Rounder At 21", a song Craft picked up during his time touring with Dave Evans. It's a song that seems custom-written for Evans' hard-bitten style, but Duncan was surprised to learn it was written by '50s-era country singer Jimmie Skinner.

"I thought I knew pretty well Jimmie Skinner's catalog frontwards and backwards, but that was a new song to me...I never heard Jimmie Skinner ever do that song, ever. I'd love to hear his take...when I first heard that song, I thought, oh man, this is really good. I'm sure (Ray) got it from Dave."

For his own part, Duncan's fiddle work is still chock-full of the pyrotechnics that have made him a "must have" session player and not only for country projects.

"Almost all my studio work these days, some 90 percent, is pop or rock or modern country."

In particular, he's among the best-known practitioners of the "double stop," the art of bowing two strings at once. It sounds simple, but it's an art form that few fiddlers ever really master.

"When I started playing the fiddle, I just always wanted to play two notes at once, I mean, I just loved that sound, so I was just naturally drawn to Buddy Spicher and like that, but then I heard Dale Potter play."

Potter, a Missouri native, was a session legend during the golden years of the '50s who also toured extensively with high-profile Opry stars like Carl Smith and Cowboy Copas, and Duncan considers him one of those Babe Ruth-like figures.

"You know, there's always, like, one guy, like Earl Scruggs is on the banjo, you know, 'before him' - there ain't no 'Almost Earl'. It's like Paganini, with classical music. It's sailing along and all of a sudden there's this seismic change, and then for a long time after that, that's the way you do it. When it comes to fiddling like we do, that double-stop style, even though we all play differently from each other, nevertheless, they all go back to Potter."

As "we," Duncan includes not only himself, but also those he considers prime influences on his own style - he mentions Spicher, Vassar Clements, Bobby Hicks and Richard Greene as just a few.

Although for all five members of Rock County, the band is only "part time" in a sense, for all of them, their "day job" is still musical. They are all full time musicians, in one way or another. Duncan still maintains a heavy studio schedule, though lately he tries to keep it to three or four days a week. Rigsby produces and sits in on numerous projects, while both Vestal and Tew own their own studios. And Smith, of course, continues to add to the banjo population.

None of them rely on the bluegrass circuit for their entire living, but Duncan continues to observe that bluegrass is becoming more and more a viable lifestyle.

"I think it's easier to make a good living playing bluegrass now than at any time in my whole life. There's some real good reasons for that. I think, number one, the direction of pop music and radio country, I'll put it that way, have left a lot of fans kind of disenfranchised, and bluegrass has, thankfully, been one of the art forms that's been able to fill that void."

He wasn't always so sure that the music would survive, though.

"Back in the mid-'80s, I was actually concerned, I was like 30 years old, and I thought, 'I don't see any kids, I don't see any people my age coming to any of my shows. These are people that are my parents' age or older'. Boy, that's not the case now, I cannot believe how many young people I see at a show, and that's wonderful. But the crowds are way up, way up."

Of course, in the years when Glen Duncan and Larry Cordle were touring with Lonesome Standard Time, being "online" meant talking on the phone, and with the dawn of the digital age, the naturally gregarious Duncan relishes the opportunity to be just that much electronically closer to the music's fans.

"I love the internet, I love email. We hear from a lot of folks who have seen us and drop us a line, and then the same thing from people who have bought the albums...and write to us. I like that, it's really, really cool to hear from people, to hear what they really did like. Very cool."

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