Eddie & Martha Adcock with Tom Gray
Personal relationships that last a lifetime are wonderful and rare these days. It’s even more extraordinary for a musical partnership to endure in this way, particularly between two people who are married to each other. But that’s exactly the kind of relationship Eddie and Martha Adcock have. After more than four decades together, they’re still in love and still happily making music together.
Long-lasting friendships—the kind in which two individuals can repeatedly veer off in separate directions but always return to pick up right where they left off—are also few and far between. And, going back over half a century, that’s the type of relationship that exists between Eddie Adcock and his former Country Gentlemen bandmate Tom Gray.
Eddie and Martha have continually refreshed their music by playing what they enjoy, adding elements of folk, country, blues, gospel, rock, and jazz to their bluegrass. Their personnel configurations from II Generation to David Allan Coe have ranged from a duo to a seven-piece group. They had been performing exclusively as a duo when, in 2005, they invited Tom to join them on some shows. They found the connection was still there, both for audiences and for themselves, and they began to perform together on a semi-regular basis as a trio.
Each contributes an essential ingredient: Martha’s expressive singing and powerful rhythm guitar playing; Eddie’s dazzling instrumental solos and smooth vocals; and Tom’s dynamic bass playing. With roots in many genres, these three bring a wealth of influences, skills, and experience to the table. Their broad repertoire has positioned them at the forefront of the expansive modern bluegrass movement.
Eddie Adcock was born on June 21, 1938 in Scottsville, Va., a tiny town about twenty miles south of Charlottesville. His rural family of ten survived by doing farm work. During World War II, they had no record player and only a worn battery for their old radio, so Eddie’s early love for music grew mostly from the live musicians he heard playing at the local theater, Victory Hall. By age seven or eight, he began to try his hand at playing instruments that were at home, church, and school, including accordion, pump organ, piano, harmonica, guitar, fiddle, and mandolin.
Fortunately, his sixth grade teacher, who was a professional singer, recognized Eddie’s love of music and his budding talent. She made a special effort to expose him to recordings of music he might otherwise not have heard. Eddie recalls, “I never heard a musical instrument that I didn’t like something about it.”
By the time he was ten or eleven, Eddie was playing mandolin in a band called the James River Playboys. At age 16, he left school and began his journey as a nomadic musician. “I heard that a band that I listened to on WSVS in Crewe [Va.] needed a five-string banjo player for their Saturday night dances,” he said. “Two weeks later, I had bought a banjo and was saying, ‘I’m a five-string banjo player.’” The bandleader, Smokey Graves, wasn’t fooled, but saw that Eddie had potential and gave him time to learn and expand beyond his single-string, flatpick-style.
From the beginning, Eddie blazed his own creative trails. He was one of the first (along with Don Reno) to play single-string solos on the banjo in bluegrass. He also incorporated sounds from other instruments into his playing. “I play pedal steel [licks] on the banjo and on the guitar,” he says. “And I play Travis-style on the banjo.”
Though he didn’t necessarily set out to be an innovator, Martha explains, “He didn’t know what he wasn’t supposed to do. Eddie’s style has always defied both categorization and emulation, because he’s not limited to playing recognizable riffs and rolls. He’s always just played music. He wasn’t limited to one instrument or even one style. It’s far more challenging to be a free bird musically, and yet make a lot of real statements, as Eddie has done over the years. It doesn’t fit into the box.” Eddie adds, “I don’t do anything any harder than anybody else. Just, what I do is so unique, it scares people. I’ve always been a very restless sort of musician.”
A look at his career timeline reveals he has repeatedly straddled the line between bluegrass and more progressive music styles. In the 1950s, his stints with bluegrassers Mac Wiseman, Bill Harrell, Buzz Busby, the Stoneman Family, and Bill Monroe were interrupted by a job on television in Norfolk, playing rock’n’roll. “I did a four and a half hour TV show on Saturday nights,” he recalls. “Elvis had just hit, and the station was jumping on it. I was playing electric and acoustic guitar.” An ad in the Winchester Evening Star for a music event at Watermelon Park in Berryville in August 1957 touted Eddie as “Norfolk, Virginia’s New and Great Rock-N-Roll Singer and TV Star.”
Eddie was also playing some rock’n’roll with Bill Harrell & the Rocky Mountain Boys and with the Stonemans, although he was doing it on a banjo. “Scott Stoneman and myself were playing plain, unadulterated rock’n’roll with bluegrass [instruments],” Eddie says. “He would introduce me as ‘the only rock’n’roll banjo player alive.’”
In the spring of 1959, 21-year-old Eddie joined the fledgling Country Gentlemen, which had formed in July 1957. He spent the next 12 years with The Gentlemen, helping to create their trademark sound, along with founders Charlie Waller on guitar and John Duffey on mandolin.
In 1960, 19-year-old bass player Tom Gray joined the band. While in high school, Tom had started a group called the Rocky Ridge Ramblers, and had gone on to perform briefly in bands with Bill Clifton and Buzz Busby. He was a fan of the Country Gentlemen, and regularly attended their four-night-a-week performances at the Crossroads Restaurant in Bailey’s Crossroads, Va. He sometimes filled in for bass player Jim Cox who had health issues, so when Cox left the band, it was an easy transition for Tom to take over.
Waller, Duffey, Adcock, and Gray, who have become known as the Classic Country Gentlemen, revolutionized bluegrass. They incorporated material from other genres such as jazz, folk, and rock, and embraced instrumental improvisation. They made bluegrass palatable to the urban audiences of Washington, D.C., and the Northeast, not only with their choice of material, but with sophisticated stage banter and outrageous antics. In so doing, they became one of bluegrass music’s most revered and influential groups.
“Musically, they were such individuals,” Martha says. “When you put those particular guys together, it was more than the sum of its parts. They were at the top of what they did, vocally and instrumentally. The material was grounded in traditional bluegrass, but with a twist. It just made a tremendous impact. It was immediately more desirable to more people than bluegrass had ever been before.”
Tom adds, “I think we were the most aggressive players in bluegrass at the time, and we were young and full of energy. Bluegrass had always been by—and for—country people from the South. We were playing in a city, for urban audiences. So, at that time, already seeking a new identity—being Gentlemen, rather than country boys.”
Eddie contends it was the band’s collective boundary-pushing, spurred by the individuals’ wide-ranging musical interests, which naturally led them to seek an audience beyond traditional bluegrass listeners. “We all knew our identity was something other than ‘Mountain-River-Valley-Boys,’” he states.
Although the band was turning heads and gaining a strong following, making a living in bluegrass music was challenging. Tom Gray left the band in 1964 for financial reasons. After getting married in 1963, he and his wife Sally were starting a family, and he felt the need to return to the stability of his day job at the National Geographic Society. Tired of “saving up to go on tour,” as he put it, Duffey left in early 1969, and was replaced by Rhode Island native Jimmy Gaudreau. Adcock was feeling increasingly restless, and a year later, he departed the band.
“My frustration to play more towards rock’n’roll was showing,” he recalls. In need of a change, Eddie moved to California, dusted off his electric guitar and played country rock under the name Clinton Codack. But after about a year, he found he missed bluegrass. He headed East to Bill Monroe’s festival in Bean Blossom, Ind. There, he encountered Gaudreau, and the two decided to form a band.
That new group, II Generation (pronounced Second Generation), pioneered a new movement in bluegrass that, appropriately, came to be known as “newgrass.” It allowed Eddie to live his dream of playing “rock’n’roll bluegrass” and opened the door for the next generation of musicians—young people who had grown up listening to both bluegrass and rock—to enter the playing field. As one of the most exciting and virtuosic groups of its time, II Generation’s impact is still palpable today.
For several years prior to joining forces with Eddie, South Carolina-born Martha Hearon had been immersing herself in bluegrass. She came from a musical family and began studying classical piano at age five. She soon took up the ukulele and then guitar. As a young teenager, she began performing as a folk singer, but after attending bluegrass festivals in the late 1960s, she was hooked. In 1973, she moved to Nashville to work with luthier Randy Wood, doing pearl cutting, inlay, and instrument repair work at the Old Time Pickin’ Parlor. It was there that she first met Eddie, and the two felt an immediate and deep connection. Martha joined II Generation as sound engineer and soon became its rhythm guitarist. In 1976, she and Eddie were married.
Although things have changed radically in recent years, in the 1970s there were very few women performing in featured roles in bluegrass bands. Martha recalls, “At bluegrass festivals, there might as well have been a sign on the door that said ‘No women allowed.’” But Martha wasn’t intimidated. Her musical heroes on vocals and rhythm guitar were Charlie Waller, Jimmy Martin, Mac Wiseman, and Bill Harrell, and she set out to walk alongside them, with full support from Eddie.
After six groundbreaking albums on the Rome, Rebel, and CMH labels, II Generation disbanded in 1980. Eddie and Martha had begun performing and recording as a duo, still with one foot in bluegrass and the other in more progressive music forms. They even spent a little more than a year in 1984-1985 touring and recording plugged in with outlaw country star David Allan Coe. As Coe’s bandleader, Eddie played the Gitbo, his double-neck electric banjo and guitar invention. After their stint with Coe, the Adcocks returned to an acoustic format, touring as a trio or quartet, first under the name Talk Of The Town and later as the Eddie Adcock Band.
In 1989, Eddie reunited with his former bandmates Charlie Waller, John Duffey, and Tom Gray to make their first recording in 25 years, Classic Country Gents Reunion, for Sugar Hill Records. The foursome had been appearing together on stage occasionally since the early ’70s, when Duffey and Gray had begun performing at festivals with the newly organized Seldom Scene. Martha recalls that Carlton Haney originally came up with the reunion idea, and soon other promoters followed suit. “Nobody wanted to give up the Country Gentlemen—what they had done and what they had been,” she says. “Everybody had been so impacted by it that they never wanted it to go away.”
The Sugar Hill album captured that classic sound, but with fresh new material. “I think it’s a wonderful landmark album,” Martha states. “I’m so glad they were able to do it when they were all still of great ability and interest in what they were doing.” The project was named IBMA Recorded Event Of The Year in 1990.
In 1996, the Classic Country Gentlemen were inducted into the IBMA Hall Of Fame. “We were the first entire band to be inducted,” Tom notes. “Up until that point, it had always been individuals or pairs, but this was the first time an entire band was inducted, so I was very honored and pleased that that happened.” Sadly, just a few months after the induction, John Duffey passed away unexpectedly, ending any chance of additional reunion performances. Charlie Waller, who had eventually taken over leadership of the Country Gentlemen, died in 2004.
By that time, Eddie and Martha had returned to performing as a duo. Tom had exited the Seldom Scene in 1987 and was performing with other groups. Then, in 2005, the Adcock and Gray stars aligned. “We were all okay with not working together all the time,” Martha says. “There was a lot of freedom, and yet there was that sense of being able to depend on somebody when you really wanted to. Our duet is the primary focus, but everybody loves Tom’s bass playing, and we just thought we could make a heck of a trio.”
Eddie enjoys playing with Tom. “He’s a pro. We knew that when he got on stage, he’d give a hundred and ten percent.” Martha adds, “He’s a marvelously easygoing fellow and one of the true jewels to work with. One thing we value highly about Tom is that he’s willing to tackle anything. Eddie can bring up the most outrageous tune, and Tom’s right there. Eddie’s always surprising him on stage. He’ll look at him as if to say, ‘Take a break on this,’ and it could be something Tom never thought he would be asked to take a break on. But he’ll jump right in.”
Tom says, “We have a lot of history together. I get a warm feeling playing with my old friends and getting a chance to play in ways that I can’t do with other people. When Eddie gets into his stride of Travis picking on the banjo, I can play a bouncy walking bass line in a way that I really can’t with other players. And, fortunately, Eddie is giving me a long leash.” Martha confirms, “Everybody gets to stretch out as much as they’d like to, and folks really seem to like that. And there’s a lot of the old Country Gentlemen cachet that goes along with that.”
In 2007, an unexpected opportunity for another Country Gentlemen reunion presented itself. Charlie Waller’s son Randy, whose voice sounds remarkably like his father’s, had taken over leadership of the band after Charlie’s death. He invited Jimmy Gaudreau to join him on a festival performance. Pleased with the result, Gaudreau suggested they add Adcock to the mix. Eddie called Tom, and the Country Gentlemen Reunion Band was complete. Soon, they were in the studio and Eddie was booking shows. Produced by Eddie and Martha Adcock on their own Radio Therapy Records, a 13-song CD was released in the spring of 2008. That year, the group played at concert halls and festivals from Ohio to Florida.
That same year, Eddie took time out to undergo Deep Brain Stimulation surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville to treat the debilitating hand tremors that had plagued him for several years. This was groundbreaking surgery, even more so because Eddie was awake and playing the banjo during the procedure so the surgeons could fine-tune the electrode they had placed in his brain. The procedure received worldwide attention, including segments on ABC’s Good Morning America, CNN’s Headline News, and countless other media outlets. The implant was successful, restoring Eddie’s dexterity and precision of movement, although several adjustments have been required in the years since.
In 2009, Tom joined the newly formed Darren Beachley & Legends Of The Potomac. Jimmy and Randy pursued other commitments, and Eddie and Martha returned to performing strictly as a duo. As they began to think about their next recording project, they decided, as Martha says, “It would be nice to do some of the old Country Gentlemen songs, because nobody else was doing them. I personally felt that the things they had done were far too good to just let them sit as a piece of recorded evidence. Those songs are so wonderful, they needed to have a chance to live again.”
The songs they chose to record are some of the most popular from Eddie’s tenure with The Gentlemen, including “Bringing Mary Home,” “Matterhorn,” “This Morning At Nine,” “Two Little Boys,” “Down Where The Still Waters Flow,” “Helen,” “He Was A Friend Of Mine,” and “New Freedom Bell.” One of the things that makes this collection unique, fresh, and enjoyable is that Martha did much of the lead singing. In some cases, that required a change of key, but with others, Martha found that she was able to sing in the same key as Charlie Waller’s original lead vocal, but an octave higher.
“I found out that a lot of those songs were more challenging than I had imagined,” she attests. There’s no limited vocal range in any of those songs. Some of them go really low and really high, for instance, ‘New Freedom Bell.’” Tom Gray notes, “That’s a song where John Duffey claimed to have sung higher than any other male.” In the Adcocks’ version, the verses are in the key of B-flat and the first chorus is in E-flat, but the second chorus is sung a full step higher in F. “Martha arranged that and I thought it was better than the original,” Eddie says. Martha adds, “It just felt like the song is so strong that it needs to increase here. And it adds even a little more impact.”
“Matterhorn” was comfortable for Martha to sing an octave higher than the Country Gentlemen version, while still retaining the powerful impact of Eddie’s distinctive banjo playing in its original range. “His introduction and his break on that—it’s played in a D chord, but capoed up at the seventh position on the banjo was, to me, essential for the sound and the feel of that song,” Martha stresses. “It happened that singing it an octave higher suited me just fine. That enabled Eddie to be able to play that intro that still knocks people over.”
The Adcocks had enlisted mandolinist Gene Johnson (a II Generation alum who went on to perform with Diamond Rio) and bass player Missy Raines (who performed with them from 1985-1993) to help with the project, which was recorded at SunFall Studio, their 24-track basement studio. About that time, the Legends Of The Potomac disbanded. Tom called Eddie saying, “I would love to do some shows with you guys again.” Pleased to have him back, the Adcocks arranged for Tom to replace Missy’s bass parts (with her approval) on about half of the songs. He also added baritone vocal harmony to eight songs.
Many A Mile by Eddie & Martha Adcock with Tom Gray and Friends was released in 2011 on Patuxent Music to enthusiastic reviews. Banjo Newsletter declared, “This CD belongs in your collection.” Dave Freeman of County Sales called it, “a really nice CD. The selection of 14 songs on this disc is exceptional.” Bluegrass Unlimited’s Robert Buckingham praised the vocal harmonies, adding, “Martha Adcock is a fine singer. She brings a depth of feeling and her special something to each lyric.” David Morris of Bluegrass Today stated, “All of the hallmarks of The Gents in their prime can be heard here: Eddie’s clear-as-a-bell banjo, a folky sound, and Tom’s signature walking bass lines.” Of Martha’s vocals, he asserted, “Her interpretations are stellar.”
Eddie feels that Martha has been underappreciated as a guitar player. “In my opinion, there’s never been a rhythm player as good as Martha,” he says. “She’s a human metronome.” He stresses that, as a lead player, he relies on Martha to provide the foundation that allows him to soar creatively. “I don’t play a lot of runs,” Martha explains, “because I want him to have space to do whatever he wants to do, and I don’t want to clash with that. If he goes out on these limbs, I’m going to be there when he gets back. That’s my job.”
In 2014, Eddie was awarded the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass. Martin had created the award in 2010, and Eddie was its fifth recipient. For Eddie, the $50,000 prize could not have come at a better time. In recent years, various health issues, including emphysema, heart surgery in 2004, and a series of brain surgeries had put a strain on the Adcocks’ finances. If that wasn’t enough, in February of 2015, they were involved in a serious auto accident when a truck pulled out in front of them on a busy street near their home in Lebanon, Tenn. Eddie and Martha were both hospitalized with multiple injuries, and their car was a total loss.
Through all of this, the Adcocks soldiered on, but the Martin prize has helped them rebound and given them a new lease on life and music. “It enabled us to do some things that we really needed to do, such as get another car,” Martha says. “Eddie was able to purchase a portable oxygen concentrator so he can now play shows in relative ease. When good things happen like that, your whole outlook changes and your creativity increases, so it’s been a godsend for us.”
Eddie, Martha, and Tom have plenty of creative energy left in the tank. They are planning their next trio recording and possibly another Country Gentlemen Reunion Band project. Eddie is working on a banjo album, a guitar album, and an instruction video, in addition to teaching at banjo workshops. Martha plans to record a collection of her original songs. She’s also nearing completion of a full-length biography of Eddie, which has been over a dozen years in the making.
The Adcocks hope these projects will remind bluegrass audiences and promoters that some of the best music is still being played by those who pioneered the way for the up-and-coming bands of today. Martha says, “We see ourselves as continually viable in the marketplace, despite the fact that the emphasis is so great on youth now. It’s been our enjoyment for the last few years not to be the crazy people of bluegrass, which we certainly seem to have been at one point in our lives, playing things faster than anybody else could and going further out on limbs than everybody else. I think we’re as hard to categorize as we ever were. I think our music has become more palatable to more people. We’re into the sweeter side of things.”
Tom Gray might never have had a career in bluegrass music had it not been for the babysitter. Tom was born in Chicago and spent his first seven years there. He recalls, “Mattie Bowers, who was from Tennessee, liked to babysit at the Gray family home because we had a strong radio that could pick up the Grand Ole Opry [on WSM in Nashville]. Mattie liked to sit with me on her lap and listen to the Opry. I was born in 1941, so I’d have been four years old when the original bluegrass band [Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chubby Wise, Howard Watts] played.”
In 1948, Tom’s family moved to Washington, D.C. At age nine, he became interested in playing an instrument, beginning with accordion, then adding piano and ukulele. Around 1955, he discovered Arlington, Va., station WARL, which programmed the same kind of music he’d heard on the Grand Ole Opry. He felt an immediate connection. “As soon as I discovered hillbilly music, I bought a guitar,” he says. “About a year later, I got a mandolin.”
Announcer Connie B. Gay of WARL was also a concert promoter and, in 1956 or 1957, he brought Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys to perform at an amusement park in Glen Echo, Md. Tom found a spot right in front of the stage, and there he encountered a classmate, Monte Monteith, who was also a bluegrass fan. The two boys soon formed a band, the Rocky Ridge Ramblers, along with banjo player Bob Lindter and fiddler Ron Roswell. Tom was playing mandolin, but he was developing an interest in the bass fiddle. “I was always attracted to the bottom line of any kind of music I heard,” Tom says. “I really did want to be a bass player, as opposed to some pickers who wind up playing bass because it’s the only way they can get a gig.”
While browsing for records at Arlington Music, Tom met mandolin player Jerry Stuart, who had come to D.C. from North Carolina to study electrical engineering. He invited Jerry to jam with the band. “When I realized how good he was,” Tom recalls, “I said, ‘Jerry, why don’t you join our band and I’ll move over and play bass.’ So I thank Jerry for making me become a bass player.”
The Rocky Ridge Ramblers stayed together for about two years, during which time they played locally at band contests, taverns, and fairs. They also frequented music parks, including Sunset Park, New River Ranch, Watermelon Park, and Oak Leaf Park, where bluegrass headliners such as Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Reno & Smiley, and the Stanley Brothers performed. “My hero was George Shuffler,” Tom says. “I loved the way he played walking bass in those early Stanley Brothers Mercury records, and I wanted to play like George. But then I started hearing some jazz, and my jazz bass playing hero was Keeter Betts, who played locally in D.C. with the Charlie Byrd Trio.”
In 1957, Tom began to follow the newly formed Country Gentlemen. He saw them at WARL’s Saturday afternoon lawn parties and at their regular gig at the Crossroads Restaurant in Bailey’s Crossroads. Soon, he began to sit in with them and, in 1960, he joined the band, which at that time included Charlie Waller, John Duffey, and Eddie Adcock. He was with them when they played at Carnegie Hall in 1961. “That was a thrill,” he says. “We’d heard so much about the acoustics being so perfect at Carnegie Hall. After the sound check, Eddie said, ‘Tom, take this guitar pick and when I tell you, drop it on the floor. I’m going up to the highest balcony to see if I can hear it.’ And, sure enough, he heard it loud and clear.”
Tom left the band in 1964, after an argument with John Duffey during a recording session. He relates, “‘A Cold Wind A-Blowin’ was a folkie protest song about conditions in America, and I said, ‘We should not be running down our country singing this song.’ John said, ‘This is the most commercial kind of thing we can do, and you’re either going to have to play this song or get out of the band.’ I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to leave.’ After that conversation, I went out to my car and cried. I knew that for financial reasons, I was going to have to leave soon anyway. I had made that statement and I had to stick by it, and on that recording of that song, John Duffey overdubbed the bass himself.”
Though he returned to a day job at National Geographic, Tom also continued to play music on the side, working in the late 1960s with Benny & Vallie Cain, Buzz Busby, Bill Emerson & Cliff Waldron, and others. In 1971, Tom reunited with John Duffey to form another groundbreaking progressive band—the Seldom Scene. Evolving from a weekly jam session in banjo player Ben Eldridge’s basement, which also included guitarist John Starling and resonator guitarist Mike Auldridge, the Scene soon became one of the most popular and successful groups of the contemporary bluegrass movement. They went on to make a string of highly acclaimed recordings on the Rebel and Sugar Hill labels, toured internationally, and even played The White House.
After 16 years, Tom left the Seldom Scene in 1987 when the group sought to modernize by incorporating an electric bass. He performed with a number of acts over the next twenty years, including Paul Adkins & Borderline, the Gary Ferguson Band, Hazel Dickens, John Starling & Carolina Star (sometimes backing Emmylou Harris), and the Federal Jazz Commission (a Dixieland jazz band). Now, in addition to performing with Eddie and Martha Adcock, Tom tours with Valerie Smith & Liberty Pike.
Tom purchased his primary bass fiddle at Weaver’s Violin Shop in Washington, D.C., in 1973. He named it “Bessie,” after Bessie Lee Mauldin, who played bass with Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys during the 1950s and ’60s. The bass was made about 1955, by the Meisel Company in Mittenwald, Germany, a famous violin-making center. “It’s the only hand-carved bass I’ve ever had,” Tom says. “I can be a far better player when I’m playing Bessie than I can on almost any other bass.” When traveling by airplane, Tom often takes his “skinny bass,” an Eminence hollow-body electric instrument. “The pickup is on the surface of the hollow acoustic body,” he explains. “So it gets its sound from the vibration of the wood, not from the strings themselves. So it has a sound like an acoustic instrument.”
Tom is a two-time IBMA Hall Of Fame member, having been inducted in 1996 with the Classic Country Gentlemen and in 2014 with the Original Seldom Scene. In addition to those honors, his list of career highlights includes performing at Carnegie Hall with the Country Gentlemen, touring Europe with the Seldom Scene in 1987, participating in The Scene’s 15th anniversary concert at the Kennedy Center, and performing with Emmylou Harris in 2006-2007.