Butch Robins: Challenge Creates Talent
by Kara Martinez Bachman
Butch Robins was age 12 when his passion took hold of him. That passion would bring him around the world, landing him on stage with people such as Bill Monroe, Leon Russell, and Jim & Jessie. It would also be connected to years of distress that he’s only worked through as time has passed.
Robins recalled where it began.
“Some guy came around that had an old banjo he sold my dad for two dollars,” he said. “I played on that thing for six or eight months. I looked at Earl Scruggs on TV and I said, hey man, I can do what that guy’s doing. That’s what can get me out of the trailer parks.”
After six or eight months he won a contest for young musicians. His parents saw the potential.
“My parents paid a hundred dollars down and five dollars a week for my first Mastertone banjo,” he said.
It wasn’t long before the young man was winning more contests and found himself playing with the most famous guy in bluegrass, Bill Monroe. It didn’t work; they butted heads too often and it was short-lived. After a stint in the military and a move to Nashville, Robins picked up sessions playing with people such as multi-genre pop and rock songwriter and performer Leon Russell, known for his collaborations with everyone from The Beach Boys to Eric Clapton.
During the 70s, Robins gigged with various outfits including Charlie Moore, Jim & Jesse, Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper, and the New Grass Revival, where he played bass. In 1977, Monroe lost a banjo player and invited Robins to join in. Robins was skeptical and asked whether it was a good idea.
“We’ve both grown a lot since then,” Monroe said.
But had they?
Robins’ four-year stint as a Blue Grass Boy came with both headaches and triumphs. The two continued to push against each other, and an undercurrent of conflict persisted.
“He was a very strange individual,” Robins said. “Everything in life was a challenge with Bill Monroe. It was like a boxing match with him, and every night I walked off that stage with a bloody nose.
“I never found a bottom to that old man’s talent,” he said, his voice almost glowing with the compliment.
Things can often be complicated. Life is bittersweet and comes both with troubles and joys. This was certainly the case with his four years as a Blue Grass Boy.
Robins said despite these early conflicts, he still considers Monroe to be one of two musicians he feels are true “genius,” with the other being banjo player Bill Keith.
Those four years brought Robins far from the trailer parks. He performed on more than one occasion at the White House, and once sat at a luncheon with President Jimmy Carter. He of course performed at the Opry, Lincoln Center, and appeared on Austin City Limits.
Not only was he busy, but he was always growing as a performer. In retrospect, he acknowledges that the challenges and head-butting with Monroe made him a better player. There was accidental mentorship in the battling.
A final blow-up happened; he left the band, and the two men were estranged for many years. He did make amends several years before the legend’s passing.
“When I quit you,” he said to the old man, one night just after a show, “it was the ugliest thing I ever did.”
Following the reconciliation, Robins found a sense of peace that had eluded him for years. He also regained a relationship with the man who may have done the most to push him to be the best banjo player he could be. “For those last four or five years, he considered me his friend,” Robins reminisced.
While the Monroe chapter is just one part of an interesting life as a musician, it’s the most colorful. And boy oh boy, Robins can tell some interesting tales about his life in the bluegrass world.
Those interested in hearing more might want to check out a series of videos he recorded six or seven years ago for Radford University. Titled “Butch Robins Presents — Blue Grass Music, its Origin and Development as a Unique and Creative Art Form,” the series is available online. The five interviews feature Robins walking through the background of bluegrass and giving his opinions and philosophies on what makes the music tick.
He readily admits that he is opinionated. It’s what caused friction with another opinionated musician, Monroe, whose improvisational ways rubbed a young Robins the wrong way. “Monroe played all over the place,” Robins recalled. “With Monroe, that backbeat chop he did was more reminiscent of the jazz era in Chicago.”
Robins said Chicago jazz influenced other things in the early days of bluegrass.
“Monroe was the first one at the Opry that had soloists go up to the mic and play alone,” he said.
The video series deals both with history and with ways of making strong music.
“How do you make it sound like a freight train coming at you?” he asks. “That whole thing has been fascinating to me, how you make power in the music.”
Robins has been part of some powerful music, and he’s stood before big crowds. When he played with Leon Russell, he’d pick before crowds of 60 to 70 thousand. Very few bluegrass performers ever get to experience something that huge.
“That year I worked for him, Leon was the top-grossing rock and roll act in the United States,” Robins explained.
He liked it just fine that way, supporting a big name. Not being at the front of the stage suited him.
“I never played into the popularity contests,” Robins said. “I’m an introverted person…I could be anonymous but be part of that wonderful music that they played.”
Despite feeling at home at back-of-stage, Robins has put out much material of his own over the years. With fourteen albums to his credit, he might soon have another coming down the pike. He said he wants it to be musically “simple”, and maybe even have a “Lawrence Welk” vibe.
“It’s a banjo music record that’s very, very different,” he said. “I want continuity of rhythm…I want it danceable…and I want discernible melody.”
He played a few tracks he’s already completed: they almost sound like a blast from the past. They’re basic. Soothing in their simplicity. He read some lyrics, which he said are all about positivity. He said he’s not a “religious” guy so much as a “spiritual” one and hopes his simple music with a universal appeal will help lift spirits higher.
A spirit lift came recently when a few months ago Robins received a prototype of the “Butch Robins Banjo” inspired by him and created by Davis Banjo company. “It’s one of the better banjos I’ve ever played,” he said.
He’s come quite far from the days of playing that busted-up old thing that cost his dad two whole dollars.