The Galway Sessions music festival swings into gear next week and one of the definite highlights is the appearance by bona-fide bluegrass great Curtis Blackwell, one-time sidekick of Bill Monroe and, with his band The Dixie Bluegrass Boys, one of the most popular acts on the US bluegrass scene for over 40 years.
Blackwell grew up in a musical family in rural South Carolina and, along with his brother Haskell, began playing and performing in public in his mid-teens. They were later joined by Junior Crowe and, in 1960, the trio won a radio talent contest the prize for which was an appearance at the fabled Grand Old Opry. “I was 17 years old, when I walked out on that stage, I was scared absolutely to death,” Blackwell chuckles as he recalls the gig today, speaking by phone from his home in Otto, North Carolina. “But they got a big spotlight up there and they put it right in my eyes and I couldn’t see anybody and so I began to calm down a little bit and everything went well after that.”
Things indeed went well for him in the years ahead – in 1965, Blackwell put together the first incarnation of The Dixie Bluegrass Boys and the group rapidly became one of the most sought-after acts for bluegrass events throughout the eastern United States. “We had a pretty good band, we played a lot of the festivals at the time,” Blackwell states. “Al Osteen, who was our banjo player, has passed away now and a lot of the older members are not travelling anymore, they’re not able. But I’ve had a great life, I’ll be 70 on September 13th – me and Bill Monroe have the same birthday – a different year of course!”
Mention of the great Bill Monroe naturally leads Curtis to recall his own stint touring as guitarist and singer with Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, which he was invited to join to replace Del McCoury. “It was in March of ’67 that I played with Bill,” he reveals. “It was like going to college, he really taught me a lot about stage appearance, the way to present yourself, and the way to put the song to make the people like it. After that tour though I had to leave because I was not actually making enough money at that time to feed my family and when you get to that point you’ve got to make a decision and and I think I made the right one. I wish I could have stayed longer but that’s beside the point, I had to get a job and go to work and feed my family.”
Blackwell resumed performing with his Dixie Bluegrass Boys and the group’s popularity has remained undimmed right up to the present day. Curtis himself is a member of the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame, and was recognized in 2010 as one of the official Legends of Bluegrass by the International Bluegrass Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky. “I’ve had a great career,” he declares contentedly and hastens to salute his band members; “I’ve had a lot of good pickers with me and in my opinion that’s what it takes to make any group, I don’t care who it is they’re no better than the guys who are picking behind them, the band behind them makes the artist.”
Joining Curtis for his Irish tour – his first time visiting these shores – is Chuck Nation (fiddle ), Susan Nation (bass ) and Jim Pankey (banjo ). The band will play at The Crane Bar on Friday, June 15th, at 9.30pm. Tickets are €15.
For more information and tickets contact The Crane on 091 - 587419 or see www.thecranebar.com