The Country Gentlemen, in their 1960s-vintage prime, were one of the most revered acts in all of bluegrass.
They weren’t known for repertoire so much as execution, although they had a special flair for bluegrass renditions of then-contemporary songs like Bob Dylan’s “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and even the theme from the film, “Exodus.”
But mostly, the Gentlemen were about virtuosity, displaying a level of musicianship that has never been surpassed. For good reason, they were one of the earliest groups to be inducted into the IBMA Hall of Fame – in 1996. And here is another measure of just how influential they were: Even the Country Gentlemen’s few-and-far-between wrong notes became part of the bluegrass canon.
“As a boy, I totally tried to emulate John Duffey on mandolin, right down to the mistakes he occasionally made,” said Sam Bush, himself one of the most influential mandolin players in bluegrass. “To us younger mandolin players, that was the only way it sounded right. So yeah – we’d do that!”
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The Wide Open Blue Bluegrass program at Red Hat Amphitheater Sept. 29 will include a tribute to the Country Gentlemen, with Bush and Dobro master Jerry Douglas – who was himself a member of the Gentlemen for a few years in the 1970s – as ringleaders.
Douglas has since gone on to an acclaimed career of his own, lately as leader of the Earls of Leicester, IBMA’s reigning Entertainers of the Year.
As for the Gentlemen, the most recent version of the group has been gone since the early 2000s. But their Hall of Fame legacy remains one of the strongest in bluegrass and a touchstone for multiple generations of fans and players.
The band’s catalog is familiar enough to be second-nature to any bluegrass player, but they’ve still been hard at work to do it justice.
“We will be well prepared,” said Bush. “For me, especially, this is a true labor of love. I was 14 the first time I saw Country Gentlemen at the Roanoke Bluegrass Festival in 1966, and they blew the roof off the place. They always brought with them a great sense of adventure and fun and showmanship, with a focus on expert musicianship and vocals. How great they sounded, and the whole stageshow was just overwhelming and I was sold, right off the bat.”
Bush’s path from there included co-founding New Grass Revival in 1971, and becoming the Country Gentlemen’s peers. When the Gentlemen did their first tour of Japan, New Grass Revival served as replacement fill-ins for the Gentlemen’s regular hometown gig at The Shamrock on M Street in Washington.
New Grass Revival also proved to be enormously influential by taking bluegrass in more progressive directions – especially when Bela Fleck signed on in 1981. After New Grass wound down in 1989, Bush turned up alongside acts like Fleck and Lyle Lovett while forging a solo career that has made him one of the genre’s marquee acts. More often than not, he’s one of the main-stage headliners for World of Bluegrass, although he missed it last year.
“The last time I was there was 2015, and I’ve gotta say that they did one heckuva job moving everything indoors that year,” Bush said. “That was great. I love the festival, it’s always wonderful to walk around the stages. I usually discover some young player I didn’t know before.”
Still, this will be about the Gentlemen.
“Jerry and I started talking a while ago about doing this tribute, and I’m taking my cues from him,” Bush said. “He was in the Country Gentlemen, after all. Me, I was in the audience. I think our main focus will be on some of the earlier tunes. The Gentlemen were always willing to go out on a limb and bring new kids of songs to the world of bluegrass.”
What: Wide Open Bluegrass tribute to Country Gentlemen, with Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Kruger Brothers, Flatt Lonesome and others
When: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday
Where: Red Hat Amphitheater, Raleigh