Banjo player Bill Emerson has led a long and storied career in bluegrass, culminating with his recent receipt of the IBMA’s Distinguished Achievement Award. He was a charter member of the Country Gentlemen in 1957, was a part of Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys in the early and middle ‘60s, and a partner with guitarist Cliff Waldron in the late ‘60s. By the early ‘70s, Bill was back with the Country Gentlemen and then for the next 20 years played music as a member of the Navy band Country Current. After his retirement from military service, he performed with the Rice Brothers and also Pete Goble. The longevity of his career and the sheer brilliance of his playing have earned him a reputation as one of bluegrass’ best banjo players.
In 1987, Bill released Home of the Red Fox (Reb-1651), a ten-track instrumental workout that featured tunes that were written, or co-written, by him. Included were remakes of a few tracks he had originally recorded with Jimmy Martin, (“Theme Time” and “Sweet Dixie”) and the Country Gentlemen (“Cowboys and Indians” and “Welcome to New York”). The disc also included exciting newer tunes which like the title track and “Old Times in Virginia,” “Appalachiana,” and “Stonewall Country” to name a few. Helping out was a bluegrass A-team of pickers: Tony Rice on guitar, Jimmy Gaudreau on mandolin, Mark Schatz on bass, Jerry Douglas on dobro, and Jim Buchanan on fiddle.
Gold Plated Banjo (Reb-1671) came three years later. In contrast to his previous release, this one contained only three Emerson originals: “Ridin’ the High Iron,” “Reynard in the Canebrakes,” and “Knights of the Golden Horseshoe.” What listeners were treated to with the remainder of the disc were brilliant interpretations of banjo tunes from a variety of sources. Chief among them was Don Reno’s “Tennessee Breakdown.” Also effective was Bill’s melodic rendering of “New Camptown Races” and a version of “Black Mountain Blues” that started out as a fiddle and banjo duet and slowly built to a full-blown bluegrass breakdown. Adding a little variety, bass player Mark Schatz switched to clawhammer banjo on “Jump Cricket Jump.” The recording again featured Jimmy Gaudreau on mandolin and Tony Rice on guitar, alongside newcomer and mandolin player Larry Stephenson.
Emerson’s last release for Rebel was the 2008 disc Bill Emerson and the Sweet Dixie Band (Reb-1823). In some respects, this could almost be considered a retrospective CD: not in the sense that it consisted primarily of earlier recorded material, but rather that he reconnected with people who have dotted his career over the years to create an album of old fan-favorites. For instance, Paul Williams and Bill were both members of Jimmy Martin’s band in the early 1960s; they were reunited here on “The Hills of Roane County.” Randy Waller and Jimmy Gaudreau helped to evoke the sound of the Country Gentlemen with the lovely gospel song “Beautiful.” It was Bill Emerson who, 40 years ago, brought pop songs from the likes of Creedence Clearwater Revival and Manfred Mann to bluegrass; he used Scott Linton here to continue the process with a lively rendition of “Ridin’ My Thumb to Mexico.” A core group consisting of Joe Wheatley on bass, Frank Solivan II on guitar and mandolin, Pat White on fiddle, and Con Burch on vocals were joined by guests Pete Goble, Tony Rice, Wayne Taylor, Dudley Connell, Gary Corbin, dobro player Dave Miner, and others.