Back in the late ‘80s, Artie and I were playing an in-store CD release promotion at a Barnes and Noble in Albany while Bob was doing a sold-out concert at the Palace Theater. We hightailed it over there after our gig just in time to hear the last song, “Like a Rolling Stone.” Bob was already out of there long before the applause died out, but Victor Maimudes, Bob’s long-time road manager, spotted us and invited us to come down to West Point, where Bob was playing the next night. He graciously gave us backstage passes along with great seats for us and our family, and suggested we come to sound check to say hello to Bob.
The year was 1956. I had just graduated from high school and was already a dyed-in-the-wool folkie, having learned guitar, banjo and a large repertoire of songs from the recordings of Pete Seeger, the Weavers, Burl Ives, Josh White and other popular folk singers of the day. This led me to the more traditional (and more authentic) old-time music of the Southern Appalachians. I fell in love with the sounds of banjos, dulcimers and fiddles, and was intrigued by the long, often bloody ballads that could be traced all the way back to Elizabethan England. For a kid born and raised in The Bronx, the sounds from those distant mountains were as mysterious and otherworldly as radio signals from another planet.
In June of 1978, I was getting ready to go on tour in Europe with my group, the Woodstock Mountains Revue, when I got a call from Griff McKree, the studio manager of the famed Bearsville Sound Studio in Woodstock, a mile or so from my house. Griff said that some musicians would be working there and they were looking for “some kind of a harp” for one of their songs. Could I suggest something?
There's a tiny club right on Mill Hill Road, the main drag going through the village of Woodstock, called the Harmony Cafe. (It's attached to a Chinese restaurant called Wok 'n' Roll!) Like clockwork, every Thursday night a local group called the Bluegrass Clubhouse takes over the joint - and pretty good bluegrass it is, too! Consider that their banjo player is none other than Bill Keith, one of the finest players in the world. It was Bill who invented the "melodic" three-finger technique, often called "Keith Style," which influenced most of the younger wizards (including Béla Fleck and Tony Trischka) playing today. During Bill's long musical career he has recorded and toured with Bill Monroe, Jim Rooney, the Kweskin Jug Band, the Woodstock Mountains Revue and innumerable others. He also invented the Keith Tuner, widely considered the Cadillac of banjo tuning pegs.