Written by Terry Brewer on January 1, 2021
Vern Williams (December 9, 1930
– June 6, 2006)
Vern was a singer and mandolin player who was
instrumental in introducing Bluegrass music to the West Coast
of the United States.
Williams was born in Newton County, Arkansas (or Bullfrog Valley, Pope County, Arkansas), as part of a musical family, that played either the fiddle, the guitar, or the banjo.
‘I got hold of an old guitar and learned a few chords, and before you knew it, we was going to the old country dances”
Williams started on guitar, and later he was attracted to the mandolin and mail-ordered one from Sears, Roebuck, and Co at age 17.
In 1952, he was drafted into the United States Marine Corps and moved to San Diego, California for basic training. After serving at Twentynine Palms, California, he married Marjory Vogler and moved to Stockton, California. Where he heard Ray Park on the radio and remembered seeing him at a dance years before in Arkansas.
In 1956 Ray Park wanted to make records, so he bought a state-of-the-art $700.00 Ampex tape recorder. This purchase led to Ray meeting Vern Williams as he was told to check out two singers, Vern and his younger brother Junior, with the hope of recording the duo. The offer came to nothing, but Park and Williams became regular jammers.
Not long after, they were playing in a country band at a Saturday night dance at the Oak Grove Dance Pavilion, east of Stockton. Occasionally a banjo player would join them and this tended to shift their music towards bluegrass.
In 1958 Ray Park and Vern Williams performed together for the first time at a New Year’s Eve dance in Wallace, California. At some point after, Vern and Ray formed a dedicated bluegrass band and immediately got a job on a TV show broadcast from Oakland. In turn, they were hired to back top touring artists passing through town, including Jimmy Dickens and Mac Wiseman.
In 1960, Williams and Park formed the duo known as Vern and Ray and the band Carroll County Country Boys. The band, recorded four numbers – Cabin on a Mountain, Carroll County Breakdown, Bluegrass Style and Thinking of Home – released by Starday Records on an EP (SEP-175) in March of 1961.
In the Mid-sixties, Herb Pedersen joined Vern and Ray (Vern Williams and Ray Park)
“So there we were 38 years ago with all the raw energy Vern & Ray would bring to one of their shows. They were the ‘real deal’ folks I’ll never forget what I learned from them and I’m still proud to have been a part of it.” — Herb Pedersen
During the next 15 years, their influence on bluegrass pickers in and around San Francisco was significant and the duo became one of the most successful bluegrass bands in Northern California.
According to Tom Diamant, who hosts a country show on KPFA in Berkeley,
“Anybody who plays bluegrass in the Bay area and sings the tenor part has been influenced by Vern Williams. He was one of the greatest tenor singers in history.”
Vern and Ray recorded one studio album, “Sounds From the Ozarks”, on the Old Homestead label; which is now considered a collector’s item.
Playing with Vern & Ray in 1969, PeteWernick said he acquired
“a deeper understanding of what bluegrass was all about. They we’re both country guys who really knew all about bluegrass and felt it in their bones.”
The Vern Williams Band
The Vern and Ray duo broke up in 1974 and Williams formed the Vern Williams Band, which featured his son Delbert on guitar, fiddler Ed Neff and singer, banjoist Keith Little and became known as a “powerhouse
Keith Little, remembers Williams showing him that “the bottom line in music is emotion … I’m glad I got to see that.”
In 1980, they signed with Rounder Records and, shortly afterwards, recorded “Bluegrass from the Gold Country” which is now considered a bluegrass classic.
The legendary Rose Maddox was known as “The Queen of the West” and in 1962, recorded “Rose Maddox Sings Bluegrass” (Capitol Records) which is widely believed to be the first bluegrass album released by a female vocalist. Side musicians on the album included Bill Monroe, Don Reno, and Red Smiley.
Rose spent much of her later years playing with bluegrass bands and in 1980 she went into the studio with the Vern Williams Band to record ‘Rose Maddox with the Vern Williams Band – This Is Rose Maddox‘ and in 1982 “Rose Maddox with the Vern Williams Band – Beautiful Bouquet” an album of her gospel music favorites.
The band broke up in 1986 and over the years, Williams worked with many younger musicians, both in Vern and Ray, and within the Vern Williams Band, who went on to successful careers of their own including Jerry Garcia, Herb Pedersen, Laurie Lewis, Peter Wernick, Sandy Rothman, and Rick Shubb.
Williams continued to perform at festivals and was reunited with Park for several appearances before Ray Park’s death in 2002.
Laurie Lewis said of her time with the Vern Williams Band,
“I was in heaven, with the best seat in the house for that scraped-clean, unvarnished sound” and “Playing with them … has always been among the highlights of my musical career.”
In 1997, Williams was awarded a Distinguished Achievement Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA), and he was the first to be awarded an Honorary Lifetime Membership in the California Bluegrass Association.
WRITTEN BY, is a default by the Bluegrass Jamboree website template for the team member who creates the post.
I take no credit for writing this article and the sources for this post are listed below. ~ Terry Brewer
Because I grew up and still live in California, Vern’s contribution to bluegrass music on the west coast hit home for me. And I wanted to share his story with you and others who visit thebluegrassjamboree.com website
Vern Williams – Initial article by Matt Dudman, Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
VERN AND RAY Bio – Bluegrass Bios by Wayne Rice
Vern Williams, All Music Artist Biography by Bruce Eder
On This Day #12 May 15, 2002 Ray Park died, By Richard Thompson
ROSE MADDOX Bio – Bluegrass Bios by Wayne Rice