Wright Brothers

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Censorship in the broadcasting medium normally takes the vague form of a ban on certain words or expressions, sometimes extending to an idea or philosophy. There are few instances of censorship that are…
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Censorship in the broadcasting medium normally takes the vague form of a ban on certain words or expressions, sometimes extending to an idea or philosophy. There are few instances of censorship that are as specific as what happened with the song "Island Creek Mine Fire," recorded for the regional Ohio Golden Leaf label by the brother-duo bluegrass band the Wright Brothers in the late '50s. The record was based on an account of a horrible local tragedy, certainly a respected tradition in songwriting in the Appalachian tradition as well as the British, Irish, and Afro-American music that influenced old-time music so heavily. Initially, the recording literally burned its way up the Ohio country charts, getting as high as number three before being pulled, apparently in sympathy for family members of the victims of the horrible mine fire that inspired the song. The Golden Leaf label -- which perhaps might have been more appropriately called "Fig Leaf" because of the censorship issue -- was one of the few small record firms run by women in the '50s, in this case producer Gerry Lee. Already under-funded, the label could not survive the debacle of having such a popular song yanked off the radio. "If they hadn't banned it, it would have helped us a whole lot," mandolinist Len Wright recalled in a later interview, representing a sharp contrast with normal music business developments, in which the censorship of a record usually makes it start selling like hotcakes.

Like the inventors of the first airplane, the bluegrass Wright Brothers were originally associated with North Carolina. The village of Beech Mountain was their home before relocating to Cleveland, sometimes known as "the mistake by the lake." Len Wright began going wild with country music at the age of nine, gluing himself to the family radio in anticipation of the next song by Ernest Tubb, Roy Acuff, or Bill Monroe. Banjo was the first instrument that Len Wright had access to, but his initial enthusiasm for the "five-banger" died out once he caught sight of his cousin's mandolin, at that point available at the low, low price of 3.98 dollars from the Sears catalogue. In the meantime, brother Tommy Wright picked up guitar; and the brothers' initial professional efforts were in the group of L.C. Smith, playing in the late '40s around Johnson City, TN, and no doubt dodging the speeding vehicles of both moonshiners and government agents chasing them, all an important part of the Johnson City economy.

By 1951, the brothers had relocated to Cleveland where their touring activities under the name of the Wright Brothers took them far and wide, including shows in Hollywood as well as some of first bluegrass gigs in Detroit. The group won several talent shows on television and was courted by MCA, at that point a booking agency only. A lucrative contract for a year's work in Toronto, Ontario, was apparently kiboshed when brother Tommy Wright decided to get married. This move set the stage for what would eventually be the brothers' withdrawal from the music business. Len Wright became a mechanic but began performing in a gospel group with his son in the '70s, while Tommy Wright worked as a foreman at an electric company and pulled the plug on playing guitar. Len Wright and son's later interest in gospel was less about faith than about staying out of the clutches of the notoriously intrusive Ohio musician's union, which for some reason does not get that involved in the activities of gospel groups. "Island Creek Mine Fire" is part of the wonderful collection of music eventually reissued by Rounder in the series entitled The Early Days of Bluegrass; the Wright Brothers can be found on the second volume of the series. The group also recorded several difficult-to-find Starday singles in conjunction with the duo Harlin & Stanley, including the indecisive number "What Can I Do?"