The New Tradition
Reprinted from Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine
August 1973, Volume 8, Number 2
“Tradition — Something handed down from the past; an inherited attitude, culture, etc.”
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary
It was 9:30 at night on Saturday, June 2nd, at the Indian Springs Bluegrass Festival near Hagerstown, Maryland. Since Friday at 7:00 p.m. the ever-swelling crowd had been entertained by some of the real heavyweights in bluegrass: The Shenandoah Cut-ups, Cliff Waldron and the New Shades of Grass, Walter Hensley, Bill Monroe. According to the program, it was time for Don Reno and Bill Harrell to perform, but then, for the first time in two days, the group onstage was called back for an encore. The group … The New Tradition.
The band is made up of four men, and although the group is relatively new, at least two of its members are familiar faces in bluegrass. Jimmy Gaudreau, once of the Country Gentlemen and the IInd Generation, plays mandolin and Keith Whitley, well-remembered from Ralph Stanley’s band, is the guitar player. Making up the rest of the group are Bill Rawlings on bass and Jimmy Arnold on the five-string banjo. I asked Keith Whitley why he thought The New Tradition made such a hit with the crowd.
“We try to do a mixture of modern bluegrass and traditional bluegrass, and not to do too many slow songs or too many fast songs, just enough to appeal to everybody.”
Jimmy Gaudreau had some other ideas: “There were a lot of curiosity seekers out there that wanted to see just exactly what we could do together. Some of them had seen us separately but hadn’t heard us as a group, and I think we impressed them. Also, we were probably a little looser than the next group. We don’t have an up-tight attitude about it. We go out there to try and put on a helluva show, and when everybody’s feeling good, we just loosen up and play and sing, sing.”
Keith Whitley and Jimmy Gaudreau: The New Tradition. Even the name is a contradiction in terms. If something is, as Webster says, handed down from the past, how can it be New? What have these two musicians done to an “inherited culture” to create a sound both new and refreshing? Jimmy and Keith couldn’t have come from more different backgrounds, with Jimmy from Rhode Island and Keith from Sandy Hook, Kentucky. “I was afraid there might have been some trouble singing the duets, with our different accents,” Keith said, “but there hasn’t been. It’s worked out just fine.”
Keith Whitley’s experience as a guitar player and entertainer goes back about as far as he can remember. “I started singing in talent shows and things like that when I was about three years old. Then I learned to play the guitar when I was six, and I’ve been playing ever since.” He is now all of 18-years-old.
Jimmy didn’t even touch a mandolin until he was sixteen, almost as old as Keith is today. I asked him how a kid from Rhode Island happens to get into bluegrass: “I was a lead guitar player in a rock-’n-roll group, and I took up the mandolin when I was about 16 to start a bluegrass group with Bill Rawlings, our bass player. There wasn’t much bluegrass in our area, so we were probably one of the very first ones around there. We all started about the same time learning the instruments. I never had any intentions of being a mandolin player right from the beginning, I sort of fell into it by accident. I messed around with Dobro and banjo for a little bit, and got very frustrated with both of them. At least the mandolin seemed a little bit more like a guitar. It’s a straight pick to begin with, and everytime I put finger picks on, I’m just completely lost!
“I learned to play the mandolin when I was with a group called The Twin River Boys in Rhode Island. There was a fellow by the name of Fred Pike with us, and he was a master musician, he could play absolutely anything flawlessly. He taught me all these fiddle tunes on the mandolin. He’d be playing on the guitar and I’d be playing on the mandolin. And every time I’d miss a note he’d stop me right there and say ‘hold it, pal, don’t bluff it. If you’re going to play it, play the tune.’ So I just sat there for endless hours, playing things until they came out note for note.”
So here we are, with two young men from totally dissimilar backgrounds, both turning into outstanding pickers. How they got together to form the New Tradition means following the careers of both, up and down some fairly rocky roads. Since Keith is younger, his story is shorter:
“I worked for Ralph Stanley steady for about two years, and then when I was going to school I worked about a year with him. Altogether it was about three years. After Ricky (Ricky Skaggs, now with The Country Gentlemen) left Ralph Stanley, I wasn’t really happy, ’cause all the guys I was playing with were much older than me. So we just got to talking one day; Jimmy wasn’t too happy with what he was doing either, and we just decided to get together and start a new group.”
It took Jimmy Gaudreau a more roundabout route to get to The New Tradition, beginning in 1969 with the Country Gentlemen. “Rebel Records has a distributor up in New England, and he told Dick Freeland (President of Rebel) about me. At the time I hadn’t touched the mandolin in about a year. I had gone back to playing country and western music with Bill Rawlings in the clubs around the area. And I was in school at the time in Providence, Rhode Island. My intentions were of being a technical illustrator, since I have some artistic talents and I like to draw, so I thought that was where my career lay. But the Gentlemen called me on a Wednesday to be there the next day, and I was there by Friday. That’s how fast I had to make up my mind.”
Jimmy went with the Gentlemen, playing his first show that Saturday night. After putting in his time with them, he joined Eddie Adcock, another former Country Gentlemen, and they formed the IInd Generation. “The original group was scheduled to be Eddie, and Tony Rice who plays with J. D. Crowe now, and Bill Rawlings was supposed to be the bass player, and myself. It was supposed to be a four piece male group, but things happened and it didn’t turn out that way.”
How did Jimmy end up with Keith Whitley? According to Jimmy: “When things didn’t work out with the IInd Generation, still in the back of my mind was this four man group. The thing is that I like singing tenor. And with that group (IInd Generation) I wasn’t hardly getting any chance to sing tenor. I was singing lead and high baritone, which is in the same range as tenor, but I like singing the tenor part to a male voice. So I got the idea for this group. I knew a bunch of other dissatisfied musicians around, and I contacted them.”
Starting a new group is never an easy task, and it becomes even more difficult when you try to put together disgruntled musicians. Keith comments on how they went about starting the group: “I knew I was having it pretty easy with Ralph Stanley, and I knew it would be rough, but it was just something I had to do, just to see if I could. First, we had to prove ourselves. You know, the big names in music want to hold on as long as they can, and we come along and have to prove ourselves. We had to decide what style we want to play, and that determines who you get to play with you. We decided to stick with just a four piece group, a mandolin, guitar, banjo and bass, and we decided we wanted to go more toward a modern, country sound on the singing, and use accoustical instruments. Nobody in the trio was really a hard-core bluegrass singer, even though we do a lot of traditional material. We knew we didn’t want to go toward folk or rock, but more of a country and western style on vocals. Nobody has ever attempted that in bluegrass except for the Osborne Brothers, and anybody who ever tries it ends up sounding just like the Osborne Brothers. So we want to have a country style trio without sounding like the Osborne Brothers.”
Keith and Jimmy agree on the sound they are striving for. Jimmy says: “We’ve listened to a lot of the Osborne Brothers’ stuff. The only thing we’re not doing is high lead. We’ll do tenor over lead and baritone over lead. We’re trying to get perfection in harmony, and I mean decibel for decibel, so that nobody overrides the next guy. We would like to have three people who sound like one.”
Originally the New Tradition was called The Country Store, according to Jimmy, and, in addition to Gaudreau, Whitley and Rawlings, they had Carl Jackson playing banjo. “Carl had been with the Sullivan Family, down in Mississippi,” Jimmy said. “He was dissatisfied with what he was doing and wanted to get back to playing more serious bluegrass. But when Carl went with Glen Campbell, that practically put us right out of business. We were searching for banjo players, and literally have been ever since, to find the permanent one that fits.
Then, when Carl left, Rawlings went back to Rhode Island. He couldn’t afford to wait around until we found a banjo player. He’s in the antique restoring business, Model A Fords and things like that, and it was costing him money just waiting around until we found a banjo player. That set us back a long time. In fact, the basic reason that the trio revolves around Bill, Keith and myself is that we were having so much trouble with banjo players we just said we’ll do the trio this way. Nobody says that the banjo player has to sing baritone. But I think we have our permanent group now.
I asked Keith what were their plans for the future, now that they have their band together, and are beginning to get the credit they deserve. “We’ve booked quite a few festivals this summer,” he said, “to try to get as much exposure as we can. We’re playing three nights a week in the D.C. area now; we play Monday and Tuesday nights at the Shamrock, and Wednesday night at the Red Fox Inn in Bethesda. And we should have an album out, just as quick as we can get a few more original songs, say, within a month and a half.”
And so there emerges a bluegrass group, The New Tradition, contradictory in almost every way. Keith Whitley, blond, 18-years-old, from Sandy Hook, Kentucky, always smiling, who has been playing the guitar since he was six, and who admits that he gets “chill bumps” whenever he hears George Jones sing; joins up with 28-year-old Jimmy Gaudreau, a handsome, dark-haired city-billy from Rhode Island, a technical illustrator who was taught to play the mandolin when he was sixteen, and who confesses that when he first joined the Country Gentlemen he was saying “pahk the cah.” Together, with Bill Rawlings and Jimmy Arnold, they are getting closer and closer to the perfect harmony they want, and, if the festival at Indian Springs is any example, they are certainly proving themselves a substantial force in the bluegrass community.
** Editor’s Note — At our press deadline The New Tradition have decided to return to the use of their original name…The Country Store.