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Josh Williams: Flatpicking Country

8 January 2013

At last year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival Josh Williams took some time to talk with us about his musical background. His observations were frank and detailed:

Climbing the Fretboard

Folks with only a passing awareness of bluegrass are always surprised to learn that its history as a distinct musical genre is so brief. As a kid growing up in North Carolina, I had the same impression: like the Loblolly pines and the red clay, bluegrass was just part of the landscape, so it was easy to assume that it had always been thus.

The same went for flatpicking on steel string guitars. I recall spending a week in the mountains of Tennessee when I was in my teens. I had learned a few chords on the guitar, but there was a boy sharing a cabin with me who could pick bluegrass runs like greased lightening. I was aware of Flatt & Scruggs and Doc Watson, but this was the first time I had observed flatpicking up close. Once again, I assumed that this tight, fast technique had always been part of bluegrass in particular and traditional string music in general. Unbeknownst to me, as I tried in vain to emulate that Tennessee stud’s deft licks, I was at that very moment missing the Flatpicking Express that was just then leaving the station.

In his interview, Williams provides a succinct history of modern flatpicking. His earliest idols, Flatt & Scruggs, weren’t flatpickers per se: both used thumb and forefinger to pick and strum the guitar as performers like Charlie Monroe and A.P. Carter had done before them. It was their contemporary, the blind phenomenon Arthel “Doc” Watson, who forever changed the landscape of bluegrass guitar. Watson mastered everything from African-American country blues to honky tonk swing, and he brought all those styles together in a fluid technique that often featured brisk runs neatly articulated with a flat pick.

At the same time that Watson was wowing audiences at bluegrass festivals and college hootenannies, a young man was growing up in sunny California who would take Watson’s flatpicking technique and run with it. Clarence White played with a variety of musical acts, but in bluegrass circles, White is probably best remembered for his tenure in the Kentucky Colonels (another musical influence cited by Williams). White’s life was cut tragically short, so it was left to another West Coast-raised picker, Tony Rice, to carry on White’s legacy. It might seem a tad reductive to trace contemporary flatpicking technique back to the confluence of just three figures— Watson’s Appalachian roots infusing the jazzy Californian inflections of White and Rice— but as you can hear from Williams own account, those are indeed the key influences that shaped the technique of his generation of pickers.

Catching Up With the Past

In mentioning guitarist Tony Rice, Williams also brings up J.D. Crowe, the banjo player and bandleader with whom Rice collaborated for many years. Williams has often cited J.D. Crowe’s catholic tastes in material as a model. Back in the 1970’s Crowe’s penchant for borrowing tunes from the pop and country charts was seen by some as a threat to the traditional bluegrass sound. That response seems more than a little ironic today, since now it’s the groups that draw on what is often called “traditional country”— the music of George Jones, Merle Haggard and Buck Owens— that have formed a conservative bulwark in the bluegrass repertoire.

While Williams makes it clear that he appreciates a broad palette of music (Michael Jackson! Metallica!), that old country sound holds a special place in his heart. While he will probably always be best know for his flatpicking pyrotechnics, he can also match the heroes of heartache when it comes to putting across a country ballad. You get a little taste of Williams’ vocal abilities in the video clip as the band warms up backstage with a rendition of a song popularized by Gene Watson, “Speak Softly (You’re Talking to My Heart.)” For a full dose of pathos and romance, check out Williams singing another tune associated with Watson, “The Great Divide,” which we captured in a performance a couple of years back. You can review that post here.

While some of Williams’ heroes have retired or passed on, Gene Watson is still very much with us. In fact, he just celebrated fifty years as a performer. Though still carrying the country music banner, for years, Watson has performed as part of various bluegrass showcases, revues and festivals. It’s therefore not surprising that he has been touring with bluegrass stalwart Rhonda Vincent lately. What is a bit unanticipated is the recent announcement that Josh Williams had climbed aboard the Vincent/Watson bandwagon. Near the end of the year, Williams announced that he was rejoining Vincent’s band, The Rage, an outfit he toured with from 2004 to 2007. Williams’ return to The Rage line-up can therefore be seen as a homecoming on a couple of fronts, reconnecting him not just with a former bandleader but also with one of the standard bearers of the traditional country music Williams holds so dear.

Yer Pal— Curly

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4 comments

  1. Well….a history of bluegrass flatpicking that doesn’t include Don Reno is kind of incomplete. He was picking guitar leads from the mid-50s on, and Doc Watson cited him as a major influence…


    • As always, a good point, Jon. I can only say in my defense that I was really just trying to annotate the influences that Josh Williams cited— Watson, White, Rice. In any case, in overlooking Don Reno’s contributions to flatpicking, I have lots of company. That’s just an observation, not an excuse. I often wonder why Reno’s star doesn’t shine brighter in the bluegrass firmament. Any thoughts are always welcome.


      • Yes, Reno’s overlooked in many respects, but perhaps most egregiously as a guitar player. A number of reasons for the general neglect come to mind, including the fact that he was never on a major label (even the Stanleys were major label artists for a decade); he was geographically out of the mainstream for most of his career, and for a good long stretch (i.e., virtually all of his partnership with Red Smiley) the music was perhaps best described, as one friend puts it, as a country band with a banjo, and hence less than optimal for bluegrass-firsters.

        By the way, I’m going to disagree with you on one assessment: I think it’s virtually guaranteed that, in the long run, Josh will be better known as a singer than as a guitar player. He’s a fine player, for sure, but he’s an exceptional vocalist.


      • Great input on Reno, thanks. As for Williams’ legacy, I don’t really disagree– his voice is one for the ages. My feeling, however, is that he’s lodged in some folks minds first and foremost as a Guitar God, simply because he was a picking prodigy and his singing developed later.



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