Based out of the musically hyperactive mountain area of Galax, VA, this band's early recordings are considered as important to the early beginnings of bluegrass as the first records by mandolinist Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys. How and why old-time music turned into bluegrass and just how, where, and what made it do that are the topics for endless debate, much of it unfortunately carried out under the influence of moonshine. There are those that believe the term bluegrass simply came into play because fans wanted to have a way of requesting certain tunes by the popular Monroe group without irritating his obviously competitive fellow musicians, many of whom might be ex-members of his band with a chip on their shoulder. Since Monroe's band was called the Bluegrass Boys, one could ask for a bluegrass tune and most likely get the point across without having to mention Monroe's name.
Bandleader James Lindsey preferred describing his group as playing mountain music, making the name Mountain Ramblers descriptive not only of the band's geographical home base but of their musical style, which evolved with various changes in direction and membership over more than 20 years. By maintaining its existence over such an extended period of time, the group became to classic bluegrass what combos such as the Drifters or the Coasters are to rhythm & blues and doo-wop, although the mountain music genre seems to have inspired a trifle less franchising and band-cloning.
Leader Lindsey has always remained a constant, providing a kind of training ground for a variety of musicians who have passed through the band and gone on to careers of their own in folk and country music. Lindsey was born in 1921 near Hillsville, VA, only about ten miles east of Galax. He has remained in this community all his life, performing with other musicians from a working class background. He is considered just a normal guy although known as a musician around his region, despite the legendary status his name is often granted in conversations amongst bluegrass buffs spread around the world. He actually accessed what has come to be known as bluegrass via country music and not through the often-followed old-time roots. The premiere version of the group, at first nameless, was formed in the early '50s and was basically a country cover band of the day. Vocalist Frances Diamond was the frontwoman and the band also featured dual electric guitars plus pedal steel. Definitely not an old-time music combo. The nameless ones became the Mountain Ramblers after a dance one night in the local Old Moose Hall. The audience had actually taken part in a name-the-band contest that night, writing their choice on slips of paper. Nobody actually wrote the name of the Mountain Ramblers, but so many people wrote something to do with "ramblers" that it was considered an omen. The rest of it came from the fact that they were in the mountains. Lindsey actually has said that in retrospect he wishes he had been able to use all of the band names that had been submitted, linking him up with Texan bandleader Gibby Hayes in terms of obsessing about having an endless supply of band names. The newly named band was able to perform not only live but over the radio over the next few years in an area extending into North Carolina as well. The group was still performing covers, including songs by country artists such as Carl Smith, Hank Snow, and Ray Price.
In 1956, the group imploded, creating an opportunity for Thurman Pugh, then in his early twenties, to approach Lindsey about collaboration. The group carried on under their careful partnership, a multigenerational affair, as Pugh is 14 years younger. He comes from more of a pure folk tradition, having won many contests for unaccompanied balladry. He continued this type of performing through his career, taking first price at the Galax festival in 1975. Pugh was also a big fan of Ray Price when he set out to convince the older musician to form a band with him, so once again there was the country music connection. The new band even sounded good enough to lure back former singer Diamond, although she eventually dropped out of the country croon-dom to become a housewife. The grand entrance of fiddler Fred Mulkey into the band in 1956 heralded the musical change that had been hinted at as the instrumentation began to change from electric back to predominantly acoustic.
Although Mulkey had a musical influence, it was his departure from the group that actually set the pace for a while. In other words, other members of the group also began vamoosing until at one point it was only a three-piece. As anyone knows, the only thing that makes a country band actually sound like a country band is the pedal steel, and so when Bill Bowls cut out, the remaining players smelled the coffee. It could no longer be a country band. New blood came into the band in the form of Cullen Galyean, a fiddler and banjo player who pushed things further in a traditional direction. He encouraged use of the banjo in the group, despite initial opposition from the leader, who was still obsessing about the Louvin Brothers. The trio decided to try out doing three-part harmonies after hearing the popular efforts of the Monroe Brothers as well as other classic early bluegrass music, much of it performed by "brother" duets. This direction was a comfortable fit for the band and it began creating its own distinct bluegrass sound, the next logical step being adding in full-time mandolin player Ivor Melton in 1957. It was Melton that suggested the band perform at that year's Galax Festival, a connection that had somehow never been obvious to Lindsey or Pugh. The Mountain Ramblers took first place in a group of 15 bands in their premiere crack at the competitions. An electric guitar was still allowed at that festival in 1957, although Lindsey played acoustic in that appearance and pretty much switched over to it completely around this time. A few years later, he was also one of the musicians involved in getting the electric axe officially declared taboo at the Galax fest. The next year, Galyean suggested adding one of his banjo students, Charles Hawks, into the group. This decision had a double effect on the sound of the group as it allowed Galyean to play either fiddle or indulge in twin banjo hijinks. Another frequent contest winner in the Galax area, Hawks plays banjo in the Earl Scruggs bluegrass style. He performs prolifically with different bluegrass groupings, many of them including his own students.
The band was recorded in 1958 by Alan Lomax, out on one of his many music gathering and recording explorations. He was fortunately able to record tracks featuring the group with its prime lineup of players. Well, almost. Bluegrass or folk music enthusiasts would invariably nod their heads knowingly at the mention of Lomax, but to some members of this group he meant nothing and in fact, guitarist Herb Lowe said he would rather go to a dance than waste time hanging around a recording session. As a result, these recordings feature a substitute guitarist, the young Eldridge Montgomery. It was his first performance with a group of any kind, so the praise that normally is bestowed on these Mountain Ramblers tracks should be doubled to count for this obvious handicap. Titles from these sessions include "Shady Grove" and "The Old Hickory Cane." These recordings eventually were released on the Atlantic album Blue Ridge Mountain Music. This particular album had a big impact as an early bluegrass release, almost historically important in some markets. For example, it was the first bluegrass album ever released in Australia. Fans of fiddler Galyean are fond of his romping takes of "Big Tilda" and "Big Ball in Boston." Mandolin duties became a shifting seam, as disinterested guitarist Lowe came back in the band for a bit after the Lomax no-show, but this time to play mandolin. When he overheard the boss practicing mandolin one day, Lowe realized his situation might be insecure and left for good. The album's success created a reputation for the band's name that the remaining players were able to take proper advantage of over the following decade, until Lindsey put the randomly chosen name to rest for good in the mid-'70s.