Rock County is rock solid

John Lupton, October 2003

In many ways, regardless of the musical genre, it's the imminent release of the second album that provides more excitement and satisfaction than the first. Whether major label, independent or basement studio, most anyone these days can put out that first album.

In the close-knit world of bluegrass, the release of a follow-up album on a highly respected independent label like Virginia-based Rebel Records might suggest the unfolding emergence of an up-and-coming band of previously unknown young talents, but in the case of Rock County, their new "Rock Solid" represents another chapter in the ongoing, varied careers of five veteran pickers.

For the band's founder, 48-year-old fiddle virtuoso Glen Duncan, the band's success validates the decision he made to make the bluegrass circuit a big part of his life again.

For most of the past three decades, the Indiana native has been one of the premier Nashville session musicians, with album credits almost certainly numbering well into four digits. By his own estimate, at his peak "I was doing five, six hundred sessions a year."

The story of Rock County, he says, actually goes back to Lonesome Standard Time, the band he co-founded in the mid-1980s with his close friend, legendary Nashville writer Larry "Murder On Music Row" Cordle. For nearly a decade, they had a blast cruising the bluegrass circuit as an outlet to their "day jobs."

"Then, by 1995," Duncan now says, "my session work was just so busy. I was just beating myself coming and going, so I told Larry in the first part of '95 that, hey, I'm gonna have to bail out on this and not travel like this anymore, and so we agreed to just fold up Lonesome Standard Time at that time." (Cordle has since revived the band on his own and is currently touring.)

As the '90s came to a close, Duncan jumped at the opportunity to be part of the bluegrass sessions at a studio on a Massachusetts farm and the farm's name - Longview - became the name of what many began calling a "super group" that, along with Duncan, included Don Rigsby, Dudley Connell, James King, Joe Mullins and Marshall Wilborn.

The success of the three Longview discs to date (two on Rounder, one on Rebel) has led to a continuing demand for concert appearances, and Duncan found that he really missed the experience.

"Longview played a show at the Ryman Auditorium," he recalls, "and the next day we were going to be in Cherokee, N.C. On the way...I mentioned to Don Rigsby...I was going to put something together for 2000, really put it together carefully, with as much planning as you can do, because it's not an exact science...(Don) said, 'Keep me in mind when you do that.'"

The yen to get back in the saddle continued to haunt Duncan, even as the phone continued to ring for session work."I was just going to the studio every day and doing records with people. (Longview) was so much fun, and (we) at that time did maybe a dozen dates a year...I thought, 'man, I really miss this,' you know, playing more with a bluegrass band, which is what I started out wanting to do when I was a kid."

"So actually, my wife and I decided we needed to put together a really good bluegrass band and start doing some stuff...So, a little further down the line, maybe a year and a half later, I said I think maybe in another year and a half or so would be the time to do a record and all that."

With Rigsby on board, the nascent band had not only one of the premier mandolin players on the scene, but also one of the few tenor singers worthy of being described as "Monroe-style."

As Rock County began to form, Rigsby was nearing the end of his long-term association with the Lonesome River Band, and the time seemed right for him to make a move.

With veterans Dale Vanderpool (banjo) and Ray Craft (guitar) lined up, the band was rounded out with Robin Smith on bass, whose resume included stints with not only Del McCoury and Paul Adkins, but with Duncan as well."I first got acquainted with (Robin) when Larry (Cordle) and I had the Lonesome Standard Time band. We were looking for an upright bass player, and somebody said, 'You ought to hear this guy, Robin Smith.' So we were playing up there in Pennsylvania, and sure enough, he was great. So, he took the job, and he drove back and forth for four or five months, and then he moved down here (to Nashville). He's a really good string (instrument) repairman and all that kind of stuff, so he started making banjo necks...he makes all these necks for Stealth banjos and has a company called Heartland Banjo Company. They make tons of banjos...Timeless Timber banjos, and all that, that's his doing."

The sales and subsequent bookings from the first, self-titled Rebel release were good, and Duncan and Rigsby were both enjoying their Longview and Rock County associations. As they set their sights on the second album, Vanderpool departed the band and was replaced by yet another banjo picker with a long record of bluegrass achievement, Scott Vestal.

"The first time I worked with (Scott), we'd run into each other at different times, probably when he was with (Larry) Sparks, I guess. I did three albums with Doyle (Lawson), just as a session fiddle player, and Scott was on all three. Then, when I was with the (Osborne Brothers), he rode with us a time or two, and we'd all sit around and pick."Where some banjo players make their rep by simply mastering a set of "stock" licks, Duncan emphatically agrees that Vestal's style is distinctive and easily recognizable.

"The thing I've always really loved about Scott's playing was, I always thought of him as a really professional musician, as opposed to just a player of an instrument. He'd always play so musically, and whatever the song calls for, he'd play that. You know, he always plays just a very, very musical approach...I could always tell (it was him) the minute I heard him play. His instrument has its own voice, the tone, the phrasing and everything else, and I just really thought that he would be the perfect fit for what we were doing."

Though Ray Craft also departed following the sessions for "Rock Solid" (since replaced by Keith Tew), Duncan can't contain his enthusiasm as he talks about Craft's contributions to the disc, such as "He Died A Rounder At 21", a song Craft picked up during his time touring with Dave Evans. It's a song that seems custom-written for Evans' hard-bitten style, but Duncan was surprised to learn it was written by '50s-era country singer Jimmie Skinner.

"I thought I knew pretty well Jimmie Skinner's catalog frontwards and backwards, but that was a new song to me...I never heard Jimmie Skinner ever do that song, ever. I'd love to hear his take...when I first heard that song, I thought, oh man, this is really good. I'm sure (Ray) got it from Dave."

For his own part, Duncan's fiddle work is still chock-full of the pyrotechnics that have made him a "must have" session player and not only for country projects.

"Almost all my studio work these days, some 90 percent, is pop or rock or modern country."

In particular, he's among the best-known practitioners of the "double stop," the art of bowing two strings at once. It sounds simple, but it's an art form that few fiddlers ever really master.

"When I started playing the fiddle, I just always wanted to play two notes at once, I mean, I just loved that sound, so I was just naturally drawn to Buddy Spicher and like that, but then I heard Dale Potter play."

Potter, a Missouri native, was a session legend during the golden years of the '50s who also toured extensively with high-profile Opry stars like Carl Smith and Cowboy Copas, and Duncan considers him one of those Babe Ruth-like figures.

"You know, there's always, like, one guy, like Earl Scruggs is on the banjo, you know, 'before him' - there ain't no 'Almost Earl'. It's like Paganini, with classical music. It's sailing along and all of a sudden there's this seismic change, and then for a long time after that, that's the way you do it. When it comes to fiddling like we do, that double-stop style, even though we all play differently from each other, nevertheless, they all go back to Potter."

As "we," Duncan includes not only himself, but also those he considers prime influences on his own style - he mentions Spicher, Vassar Clements, Bobby Hicks and Richard Greene as just a few.

Although for all five members of Rock County, the band is only "part time" in a sense, for all of them, their "day job" is still musical. They are all full time musicians, in one way or another. Duncan still maintains a heavy studio schedule, though lately he tries to keep it to three or four days a week. Rigsby produces and sits in on numerous projects, while both Vestal and Tew own their own studios. And Smith, of course, continues to add to the banjo population.

None of them rely on the bluegrass circuit for their entire living, but Duncan continues to observe that bluegrass is becoming more and more a viable lifestyle.

"I think it's easier to make a good living playing bluegrass now than at any time in my whole life. There's some real good reasons for that. I think, number one, the direction of pop music and radio country, I'll put it that way, have left a lot of fans kind of disenfranchised, and bluegrass has, thankfully, been one of the art forms that's been able to fill that void."

He wasn't always so sure that the music would survive, though.

"Back in the mid-'80s, I was actually concerned, I was like 30 years old, and I thought, 'I don't see any kids, I don't see any people my age coming to any of my shows. These are people that are my parents' age or older'. Boy, that's not the case now, I cannot believe how many young people I see at a show, and that's wonderful. But the crowds are way up, way up."

Of course, in the years when Glen Duncan and Larry Cordle were touring with Lonesome Standard Time, being "online" meant talking on the phone, and with the dawn of the digital age, the naturally gregarious Duncan relishes the opportunity to be just that much electronically closer to the music's fans.

"I love the internet, I love email. We hear from a lot of folks who have seen us and drop us a line, and then the same thing from people who have bought the albums...and write to us. I like that, it's really, really cool to hear from people, to hear what they really did like. Very cool."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •