Remembering Bill Emerson
By Susan Marquez
After a night of performing in North Beach, Maryland, Buzz Busby (Bernard Busbice) and the Bayou Boys packed up and headed back to Washington, D.C. It was July 4, 1957, and it had been a long day. The driver fell asleep at the wheel, which resulted in a crash. Buzz and several members of the band were badly injured. But when in show business, the show must go on. The band’s banjo player, Bill Emerson, was riding in another car, escaping injury. Buzz didn’t want the band to lose their regular gig that night at the Admiral Grill in Bailey’s Crossroads, so he asked Emerson to put together a band while the others recovered from their injuries. Emerson recruited guitarist Charlie Waller, a former Bayou Boy, along with mandolin player John Duffey and bassist Larry Leahy to fill in. That historic decision led to the formation of The Country Gentlemen, a band that popularized bluegrass music in the 1960s.
After a long and illustrious career in bluegrass, Bill Emerson passed away August 21 from complications due to pneumonia. He was 83 years old.
Emerson was considered one of the finest bluegrass banjo players in music history, and his career in bluegrass dates to the middle 1950s. At age 21, he was awarded the National Champion Banjo Player at the 1959 National Championship Country Music Contest in Warrenton, Virginia.
Born in Washington, D.C., Emerson grew up across the Potomac River in northern Virginia. His family then moved to the Maryland suburbs, where, as a teenager, he listened to country music on the radio and discovered Mac Wiseman. Wiseman had a daily live radio broadcast from nearby Baltimore, and it was through listening to Wiseman’s show that Emerson discovered the music of Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, and Earl Scruggs.
Emerson loved the sound of the banjo, and he traded his electric guitar for a five string. It was at that time that he met John Duffey, another budding musician from the Maryland suburbs, who taught Emerson some basic techniques on the instrument. After three months of intense practice, he won a local banjo contest.
His earliest experience with a band was with Uncle Bob (Bob Smith) and the Blue Ridge Partners in 1955. That group had a radio show in Rockville, Maryland, and they performed at Moose lodges in the area. He also played with Roy and Curly Irvin, a father and son band which included Art Wooten, the legendary fiddle player. Emerson credits Roy’s son, Smitty, as being a big help with his progress on the banjo.
With experience under his belt, Emerson was ready for his professional work. Joining Buzz Busby and the Bayou Boys in 1956, he participated in several of the band’s recording sessions, including such classics as “Me and the Juke Box,” “Lost, Going Home” and “Lonesome Wind.”
While with the Country Gentlemen, Emerson played on nearly a dozen songs, and he also sang harmony. He left the Gents after a year to perform with Mac Wiseman and Bill Clifton, among others. During those years, he appeared on the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride, did a stint at the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas, and performed for military troops on a USO tour.
Emerson rejoined the Country Gentleman in late 1969. The group became famous internationally, even making a well-received tour of Japan in 1972.
Emerson was quoted in an article by Bill Vernon in the June 1972 Muleskinner News: “Cliff (Waldron) and I were just starting out and we realized that we had to do something different to attract people’s attention – we couldn’t just do the same things that had been done down through the years, over and over again traditionally, so that’s the reason we went to do things like “Proud Mary” and “Fox on the Run,” which the Country Gentlemen recently recorded.”
In 1973, following the Country Gentlemen’s appearance at Ralph Stanley’s Memorial Day festival, Emerson joined the Navy where he served his country for twenty years. He played in a Navy recruiting band, Country Current, averaging 200 dates a year. His bluegrass background was a big influence on the band, and in time they performed at bluegrass festivals and at IBMA events. Emerson’s retirement from the Navy gave him the financial freedom to pursue music full-time.
Emerson has been highly recognized for his musical abilities. In 1984, June 10 was officially declared as Bill Emerson Day by the Governor of Virginia. He has been nominated for IBMA banjo player of the years several times, as well as being an IBMA nominee for Album of the Year, Song of the Year, Recorded Event of the Year, Bluegrass Album of the Year, and Instrumental Recording of the Year. Emerson has been inducted into several Halls of Fame, including the Southern Legend Entertainment and Performing Arts Hall of Fame (2009), Honorary Life Member of the IBMM Museum and included in the IBMM’s Pioneers of Bluegrass (2008), Washinton Area Music Hall of Fame (2007), the SPBGMA Preservation Hall of Greats in Nashville, Tennessee (2000), and the Virginia Folk Music Association’s Virginia Country Music Hall of Fame (1984).
A statement by the IBMA was made following Emerson’s death: “We are very saddened to share that the Hall of Fame banjo virtuoso Bill Emerson peacefully passed on to his heavenly home while surrounded by his family, due to complications from a bout with pneumonia. Bill was a wonderful husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, a true gentleman, and a proud Navy veteran. He was 83 years old. This happened quickly and is still a shock to the Emerson family. We ask that you pray for Bill’s wife, Lola, and the rest of the family.”
William Hundley “Bill” Emerson, Jr. was preceded in death by his son John Scott Emerson. He leaves behind his wife, Lola, and two sons, Mike Emerson (and his wife, Sherry), and Billy Emerson (and his wife, Lisa).