Elster "Red" Ratliff

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Red Ratliff was a Kentucky mandolinist who began his professional career plenty early, as if he knew something important was looming on the horizon. That turned out to be bluegrass, and Ratliff was in…
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Red Ratliff was a Kentucky mandolinist who began his professional career plenty early, as if he knew something important was looming on the horizon. That turned out to be bluegrass, and Ratliff was in on the action from the git-go, beginning his professional career at the age of 13 and hearing the music being invented practically right in front of him. He was a forward-thinking musician who got the message quickly, and even at this young age was able to adapt to the new dimensions of bluegrass as it moved beyond the sound of old-time music. Ratliff continued to be innovative in his career, which continued for more than half a century.

By the time he was playing with the Chicago Bluegrass Band in the '90s, he was now being referred to as the senior member of the band. Quite a few years had passed since he began touring and recording at the age of 15 with Buster Pack & His Lonesome Pine Boys, cutting sides for legendary indie bluegrass labels such as Rich R Tone and Lucky with players such as the fine fiddler Jimmie Farmer and the rhythmically ingenious bassist Blake Steltner. The leader of this outfit hardly decided to Pack lightly for only a bluegrass trip; he eventually began recording his own twisted version of rockabilly, encouraging Ratliff to play the then-almost-unheard-of electric mandolin. In the '70s and '80s, bluegrass pickers who were into the new grass or progressive styles began amplifying, and the electric mandolin became more commonplace, and indeed a necessity as volume levels got up to the fusion jazz level. But, at the time of these '50s sides with Pack, the sound of the amplified instrument must have come across as extremely novel.

Ratliff also recorded early on with the charismatic frontman Hobo Jack Adkins, who despite his name was fond of posing for publicity shots wearing a nice suit. Adkins was a popular performer who helped the mandolinist get his foot in the door at Starday Records, a firm responsible for some of the most gorgeous early country music, and some of the most incoherent in terms of liner notes or explanatory credits. The label made up for this confusion by reissuing and repackaging this material as much as possible. Thus, the discography of Ratliff will probably remain mysterious, especially the part pertaining to Starday studio sessions. The mandolinist also worked with fiddler and bandleader Kenny Baker, the Prairie Union Bluegrass Band, Breakwater Bluegrass, and New Cut Road. The 1999 CD Steel Rails in the Tennessee Night with the Chicago Bluegrass Band was his last recording. He truly went out in style, since this was a totally happening combo in which the mandolinist was in the fine company of Windy City bluegrass fiends such as guitarist Peter Nye, banjoist Jeff Krause, fiddler Brad Kennedy, and bassist Chip Covington. In the '70s, the Rounder label reissued some of the early sides with Pack and Adkins on two different volumes of the wonderful Early Years of Bluegrass series.