Toby Stroud

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Toby Stroud, a superb fiddler who recorded an early independent bluegrass single version of "Jesse James" for the custom New Star label, came from a family that was heavily into old-time music. His father…
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Toby Stroud, a superb fiddler who recorded an early independent bluegrass single version of "Jesse James" for the custom New Star label, came from a family that was heavily into old-time music. His father was a clawhammer banjo player, a style usually classified as part of the old-time Appalachian music collection of moves, but to Stroud there was never that much difference between these styles and what would come to be known as country & western music. All of it could be grouped together in his mind as "hillbilly music," although this genre label has its negative connotations, especially seen in the light of latter-day developments such as the harrowing film Deliverance. At any rate, after Stroud's dad delivered a fiddle to his son as a present, the lad busily went at it learning tunes off the family's wind-up Victrola. Like so many fiddlers from this era, his first and perhaps greatest influence was the wonderful Fiddlin' Arthur Smith. By the time Stroud was about 11 years old, he had learned the fiddle and was moving on to the guitar. His abilities on a variety of stringed instruments is quite typical of old-time players, meaning he was able to jump into just about any position in a string band, from the low thump of the bass to the high trill of the mandolin. He also was talented in another area where many straight-faced and straight-laced bluegrass players don't have a clue: comedy. He developed a knack for doing skits and other amusing turns on stage, which he continued to make use of as a performer in his later years on the New Hampshire-based touring revue entitled the Doc Williams Show. He got onto this program in the mid-'70s following nearly a decade-long hiatus from the professional music business.

His start in the music business came at the age of 17, where he began a long tradition of performing on the Wheeling radio station WWVA, home to many a picker. In Wheeling, he often performed with players such as the fiddlers Buck Ryan and Herb Hooven, and had the pleasure of nabbing both the great banjo player Don Reno and the entertaining early bluegrass and country artist Red Smiley as sidemen in his band in 1951. These two artists worked for another Virginia radio station with a heavy bluegrass orientation, Roanoke's WDBJ. Tommy Magness was the bandleader that had helped cultivate the talents of both Reno and Smiley, cutting some sides in the early '50s for small regional labels. All three pickers sometimes joined forces with Stroud for an association centered around the Wheeling Jamboree that lasted into the mid-'50s, during a period when other up-and-coming players such as the dobro wizard Josh Graves also polished their styles under Stroud's capable guidance. From Stroud's band, Graves went on to join Flatt & Scruggs, and the rest was bluegrass history. The development of television began to slash away at the radio audience during this period, with the logical development that bean-counters at these stations began to do away with live music programming. Stroud headed north at the urging of the Hillbilly Ranch venue in Boston, and wound up staying there nearly two years. Other pickers that had located in New England such as fiddler-cum-rocket scientist Tex Logan became his steady associates. Stroud made quite an impact on the budding New England bluegrass scene, and has been mentioned as a strong influence in interviews with players such as the fine mandolinist and bandleader Joe Val. Economic considerations caused him to focus more on guitar and frontman action than fiddling, however. Like many players, he found he could only make a reasonable living as the leader of his own group, doing the singing. And in bluegrass, this job is usually reserved for whoever is strumming rhythm guitar, despite the reality that just about any instrumentalist could lead a band.

He came up with the name Blue Mountain Boys for his group when he happened to see a sign for the Blue Mountain tunnel on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The concept of bands pressing their own albums to sell at shows is often considered an innovation of the free jazz or punk rock eras of the '70s and '80s respectively, depending on one's point of view, but many bluegrass artists such as Stroud were involved in similar business activities in the '50s. New Star was basically a name cooked up to cover a single Stroud had pressed in New York city to sell at shows, and it wound up being the only recording he ever issued under his own name. His discography might have developed much further had things gone differently with a contract he was offered by none other than MGM following the death of their main hit country artist, Hank Williams. Stroud, however, claimed that his agent of the time "messed the contract up," and nothing ever came out under his name on the roaring lion's mega-imprint. In his later years, Stroud concentrated more on skits and old-time numbers such as "Sally Goodun," downplaying the bluegrass. With Doc Williams, he toured a circuit which included New England, the eastern provinces of Canada, and occasionally the Appalachian home turf.