Record Albums Notes—Al Jones, Billy Baker & Dee Gunter
Just A Memory
This writer was around for the beginning of what would become known as Bluegrass. I listened to Bill Monroe on the Grand Ole Opry before he hired Flatt & Scruggs, but those memories are of a pre-teen just discovering the wonderful world of early 1940 country music. These exciting new hillbilly sounds quickly replaced western music and a small lad’s obsession with cowboys.
Growing up in Northern Virginia, I quickly became aware of the country music scene in the Washington, D.C.—Baltimore, Md., region. By the 1950s, the sounds from Baltimore caught my ear, especially when I heard Bob Baker and the Pike County Boys and Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys. These two groups typified the sound which not only suited my teenage ears, but was popular with the southerners who migrated from Appalachia to Baltimore in search of employment. Many bluegrass musicians were in and out of these and other similar bands over the next several decades, including Al Jones, Billy Baker and Dee Gunter.
Al Jones was born in 1932 in White Top, Va., a hamlet where walking up a hill would put you in North Carolina or Tennessee. In 1946, he moved with his family to Maryland where eight years later he took up guitar and began playing locally with Don Stover’s younger brother Eldon. After working briefly with Earl Taylor at Baltimore’s Club 79, he formed his own band, the Spruce Mountain Boys with Johnnie Whisnant, recording some original songs for the Rebel label. Al eventually teamed with banjoist Frank Necessary, with whom he cut a Rounder LP. Over the years he has also recorded with Buzz Busby for Old Homestead Records, and most recently for Patuxent Music. Checking his discography, it quickly becomes apparent that Al Jones has been sadly under-recorded.
Billy Baker was born in Pound, Va., in 1936 to a musical family. He began playing banjo and fiddle at an early age, and soon was playing dances with his dad. He worked and recorded with Earl Taylor at WBMD in the early 1960s. Billy soon joined Del McCoury’s Dixie Pals, recording with him for Arhoolie Records. He worked several tours with Bill Monroe in the 1960s, and in Los Angeles with the Golden State Boys in 1965. After returning east, Billy played briefly with Alex Campbell before spending three more years working and recording with Del McCoury. He later recorded several fiddle albums for Old Homestead; he remains currently active.
Dee Gunter has spent most of his life in Baltimore, where he has played with virtually every bluegrass band in the region. Born Willard Dewey Gunter in 1943 in Jerryville, W. Va., he was dubbed “Dee” by his elementary schoolteacher. He came to Baltimore as a guitar player but took up the banjo with Porky Hutchins as instructor. Dee formed a band called the “Greenbriar Valley Boys” with his brother Duane. When Dee lost his brother in 1969, he worked with Al Jones for a time. When Walter Hensley returned to Baltimore, Dee switched to guitar, joining Walt, Frankie Short and Dewey Renfro as the Dukes of Bluegrass. He worked with Hensley a total of 11 years, during that time recording an LP for Revonah. He played with Frankie Short 1970-’80, recording several 45 rpm singles. Dee was a member, along with Bill Runkle in the band Square Deal, with whom he cut two albums. He’s also worked or recorded with Tommy Neal, Delmar Delaney, Bill Sage and Grant Eller.
The Dobro work heard here is by Baltimore legend Russ Hooper who has reigned as the veteran resonator master in the region since the 1950s. Over the years, Russ has recorded with countless bluegrass bands and appeared on local TV with Marvin Howell and the Franklin County Boys. Banjoist Mark Delaney, has worked or recorded with a number of area bands including the Patuxent Partners, Randy Waller and the Country Gentlemen, Appaloosa, and Danny Paisley. Carroll Swam is a veteran musician, working with the Franklin County Boys, Keystone, Jeff Presley, and currently Bluestone. Tom Mindte, leader of the Patuxent Partners and operator of Patuxent Music is heard here on mandolin and vocals. Marshall Wilborn, former Johnson Mountain Boy, shares bass fiddle work with Stefan Custodi.
The songs on this album are typical of the music for which Al, Billy and Dee are best known—hardcore traditional bluegrass. Whether it’s an original piece such as Al Jones’ heartfelt tribute to mothers, “Had A Dream About Mama Last Night,” the spirited instrumental “Sally Ann,” the tight harmonies of “Losing You” or the stirring gospel number “Little White Church,” the fellows always rise to the occasion. Listening to this CD takes one back to the heyday of 1950s bluegrass, the kind heard in the clubs in Baltimore.