Vern & Ray / Vern Williams

Vern & Ray with Herb Pedersen: San Francisco 1968

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Vern Williams and Ray Park were in the vanguard of the newly emerging bluegrass scene in the '60s, and although they were well respected within the bluegrass community, they were little known outside of it. They recorded a highly coveted four-song EP for Starday Records in 1962, as well as a scattering of other tracks that were later collected on the LP Sounds of the Ozarks, but the duo's studio output was minimal, which is part of what makes this pleasant live set from 1968 such a delight. Vern & Ray with Herb Pedersen: San Francisco 1968, recorded at San Francisco State College as part of the annual San Francisco Folk Festival, includes a young Herb Pedersen (banjo) and Howard Courtney (acoustic bass) joining Williams (mandolin) and Park (guitar and fiddle), and features a fluid bluegrass ensemble moving through an interesting set of genre standards. Although Williams and Park were both from Arkansas, they didn't actually meet until they found themselves living in Stockton, CA, which was hardly the bluegrass center of the universe, then or now. Like will eventually find like, however, and when Pedersen joined the pair, the trio began to feature some wonderful three-part Ozark harmonies in their shows. Bluegrass hadn't yet codified in the public's consciousness, and "Vern & Ray" (as they were usually billed) weren't as fuel-injected as some of today's combos get, and their set featured several selections that were just barely over the line from the genre's old-timey string band roots, but the pair's easygoing stage presence and visible love for the music, not to mention their considerable -- but not deliberately flashy -- chops, made them a popular festival act. Among the highlights of this well-paced, 37-minute set are Park's "How Many Times," the fast waltz "Sweet Fern," the half-bluegrass, half-string band feel of their take on the murder ballad "Poor Ellen Smith," and an interesting version of the bluegrass national anthem, "Orange Blossom Special" that surges, fades, and wheezes eerily in all the right spots. Except for the occasional reunion show, Williams and Park parted ways in 1974, but this well-recorded concert is testimony to the graceful music they were making during their run together.

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