Cliff Waldron’s career in bluegrass was represented by three distinct phases on Rebel Records. First was his partnership with legendary banjoist Bill Emerson in the late 1960s. Second was Cliff’s post-Emerson solo career, during the early and middle 1970s. Third was his re-entry to bluegrass after a 20-year absence. All three phases were noted for Waldron’s excellent musicianship and the high quality of all his recorded music, regardless of partner
Waldron’s story was typical of bluegrass musicians in many ways. A native of rural West Virginia, he grew up listening to the music of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers. As a youth, he played mandolin and guitar and later performed in several local bands. Waldron relocated to the Washington DC area in the early ‘60s and continued to perform with regional pickers. Persistence and patience was rewarded with an eventual partnership with Bill Emerson, a prominent DC-area banjo player and a perfect creative match for Waldron. Their three-year run ended with Bill’s re-joining the Country Gentlemen.
The first solo release by Cliff Waldron, backed by his band the New Shades of Grass, firmly established him as a forceful entertainer in his own right. Touted as a “superb album in every way,” Right On! (Reb-1496) was a perfect match of expert musicianship and top notch material. Waldron, who was 29 at the time, was asserting himself as a dynamic lead vocalist. He was joined on tenor harmonies by mandolin player Dave Auldridge. The group’s trios and quartets were equally compelling. Other band members included Mike Auldridge, who was quickly making a name for himself as THE dobro player of the 1970s, banjoist Ben Eldridge, fiddler Bill Poffinberger, and bass player Ed Ferris.
Starting in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, a number of artists and groups were looking to areas outside of bluegrass for material. Cliff Waldron was no exception. Where a lot of these other groups borrowed not only material but the elements of pop and rock, Cliff took songs from folk, pop, and country and made them work seamlessly as bluegrass-styled tours of force. Among his favorite writers to mine for material were Kris Kristofferson, Merle Haggard, and Ian Tyson, all stars on the pop and country charts. He blended these songs with a few deftly chosen bluegrass classics, a gospel song here and there, and a couple of instrumentals from various band members to arrive at a sound that was unqiuely representative of the modern bluegrass template.
This formula was repeated to great success on a number of Waldron’s Rebel recordings, including Traveling Light (Reb-1500), One More Step (Reb-1510), One More Mile, One More Town, One More Time (Reb-1518), and the self-titled Cliff Waldron and the New Shades of Grass (Reb-1539). Notable exceptions were the excellent gospel collection Just a Closer Walk With Thee (Reb-1505) and Cliff’s tribute to the first generation of pickers called Bluegrass Time (Reb-1524). In 1975, Waldron dedicated his life to Christ. He made two more albums in the middle 1970s, Gospel (Reb-1558) and God Walks the Dark Hills (Reb-1572), before taking a leave of absence from music to begin a career with the National Park Service.
In 1996, Waldron retired from the National Park Service and returned to bluegrass. He picked up where the left off with Rebel and from 1998 to 2003 recorded four new albums for the label: Old Friends and Memories (Reb-1741), Seasons Past (Reb-1761), Higher Ground (Reb-1771), a gospel collection with Paul Williams, and A Little Ways Down the Road (Reb-1791).