23 August 2021

Bill Emerson, 1938-2021

The BIB editor writes:

We learn with great regret that Bill Emerson (John Lawless on Bluegrass Today describes him as 'surely one of the most consequential banjo players of the 20th century') died on Saturday 21 Aug. from complications of pneumonia, at the age of 83.

Bill Emerson (William Hundley Emerson, jr) was inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2019. The biographical article there by Gary Reid, together with John Lawless's feature, give good overviews of his long career, and the heartfelt tribute by Lynwood Lunsford at the end of the feature is bound to be followed by many. Instead of repeating the same facts, here are some of the impacts that Bill Emerson made on my own experience and outlook.

Bluegrass Unlimited magazine for October 1968 had Edwin G. Huffman's splendid black-and-white photo of Jimmy Martin and Bill Emerson on the cover, and the first instalment of Bill's 'On the road with Jimmy Martin' inside. These brought me closer to the real life of the professional bluegrass musician than anything had previously done.

Bill Emerson's contributions to the early years of BU shouldn't be overlooked: they included detailed assessments and comparisons of the different brands of bluegrass banjo then available; reviews of LPs, banjo accessories, and the first edition of Earl Scruggs and the 5-string banjo; a system of record reviewing; and his part in 'Sonny tells it like it is', a long and very frank 1969 interview with the Osborne Brothers and others about the current state and prospects of bluegrass.

The first 5-string banjos I encountered were all old and needing attention in one way or another. This convinced me that 'tinkering' was an essential part of banjo ownership, and many other people clearly felt (and feel) the same. It was therefore a shock to find a player of Bill Emerson's stature stating, as he did in an early issue of Banjo News Letter, 'Get a good banjo and leave it alone' (or words to that effect).

Joe Ross's major article in the March 1992 issue of BU, 'Bill Emerson: banjo player extraordinaire', is one of the most comprehensive, informative, and thought-provoking interviews of a bluegrass musician I've ever seen. It showed that Emerson (with a clear view of the past) was always focused on the present and future. I hope it is soon made available from the Bluegrass Unlimited archives.

Update: The interview can now be read here.

Finally, it does no harm to remember that when Bill Emerson and Roni Stoneman (four months younger) were in their teens, Roni kicked Bill for saying that as a girl, she couldn't play banjo in three-finger style. Harmony was later restored.

PS: Thanks to Flanman for his comment, below. By chance, Jimmy Martin's own preferences concerning J.D. Crowe and Bill Emerson as banjo players are reported by a contributor to Banjo Hangout (https://www.banjohangout.org/topic/377256).

© Richard Hawkins



At 8:09 pm, Blogger Flanman said...

Very good piece. I was a big fan and in or around the late 90's / early 2000's I got the "Bear Family" Jimmy Martin box set. Hearing Sweet Dixie and Wild Indian literally stoked my fire of learning which had been smoldering away due to an apparent lack of progress on the instrument over the previous years. The sheer drive and full-bodied sound got me going like nothing else. Jimmy Martin always got great solid banjo players and dare I say it, possibly even more than J.D. Crowe, Bill Emerson embodied what the Sunny Mountain Boys sound was all about.


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