1996 Inductee – Charles Otis Waller
Born: January 19, 1935, Joinerville, TX
Died: August 18, 2004, Gordonsville, Virginia
Primary Instrument: Guitar
“One of the things that caught my attention early on was the way he held his guitar on stage…. With his feet planted wide, he would lean into that Martin with his right hand balled up and turned in toward the sound-hole as his arm stroked out the rhythm.
-Walt Saunders in liner notes to Joe’s Last Train, Rebel Records, 2004.
There is no record of Charlie Waller composing original material, but BMI credits him as an arranger or co-arranger of 35 songs and instrumentals, including:
“Calling My Children Home”
“One Wide River To Cross”
“Two Little Boys”
“Under The Double Eagle”
- Hank Snow
- Mac Wiseman
- Don Reno
- Bill Monroe
- Flatt & Scruggs
Came to fame with
- The Country Gentlemen
“Really we were kind of crazy on stage. You know, just by itself we were that way, but we figured it was more fun and especially if people are watching you. If you’re having a good time, they’re having a better time.”
-Quoted by Tom Henderson in “Charlie Waller: the Original Country Gentleman,” Muleskinner News, December, 1973.
- Earl Taylor & the Stoney Mountain Boys, 1954-1955
- Buzz Busby & the Bayou Boys, 1955-1957
- The Country Gentlemen, 1957-2004
Led the way
- During six decades, prominent vocalist and rhythm guitarist (and since 1992, leader) of the Country Gentlemen.
- Member of the first band to incorporate a large share of repertoire from other genres, an essential link between the early pioneers of bluegrass and the newgrass movement.
- Played a leading role in making Washington, DC, the most prominent capital for bluegrass music from the late 1950s through the 1970s.
- Bluegrass Hall of Fame, 1996.
By the Way
- As a teenager, parked cars in Washington near where Roy Clark worked. The two would jam while Charlie waited for customers.
- While his most resonant range was lower than most bluegrass vocalists, sang lead, baritone, bass, tenor, frog, duck, and girl parts (the last three on “Ain’t Got No Home”).
- Loved being on the water and even lived on his motorboat for a while.
- According to Tom Gray, suggested that two ex-bandmates name their new group “The Seldom Scene.”
- Mentored scores of young musicians who passed in and out of the Country Gentlemen, while Charlie remained the only constant – and therefore the defining – element of the band’s sound.
- Son Randy Waller (born in 1959) saw little of his traveling father during his childhood, but began touring with the Country Gentlemen in 2003 and continues to lead it today.
Charlie Waller was born in a now-tiny east Texas town named for Columbus Joiner, who drilled the first oil well there in 1930. Waller’s family must have experienced the bust, leaving Joinerville shortly after Charlie’s birth during the Great Depression. The Wallers moved to a farm in northern Louisiana, where Charlie remembered picking cotton.
At the age of 10, he purchased his first guitar – a Stella – for $15 and decided to make his career in entertainment. His mother, who had taken a job with Potomac Electric Power Company and ran a rooming house in Washington, D.C., sent for Charlie to join her. He left school in the eighth grade and landed his first professional music job in 1948 at the age of 13, with Richard Decker and Jack Jackson. Also working by day in a gas station and body shop, Waller picked up musical and performance skills from the slightly older Scott Stoneman.
In the early ’50s, Charlie played with Earl Taylor & the Stoney Mountain Boys in the bars of Baltimore until switching to Buzz Busby & the Bayou Boys. Buzz had also migrated from northern Louisiana, and the band (which also included Don Stover on banjo) decided to try out for the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport. There they appeared alongside Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, George Jones, the Browns, Johnny Horton, and Jimmie Newman and recorded classics such as “Lost” and “Me and the Jukebox.”
The Bayou Boys had returned to Washington and Eddie Adcock had replaced Charlie on guitar by the time an auto wreck hospitalized Busby and Adcock. Banjo player Bill Emerson hastily called together Charlie Waller, John Duffey, and Larry Leahy to fill in at the Admiral Grill in Bailey’s Crossroads, Virginia on July 4, 1957. Waller and Duffey had never met, but were pleased by the blend of their voices and musical interests. The group adopted the name “The Country Gentlemen” and self-produced Carter Stanley’s “Going to the Races” and Duffey’s “Heavenward Bound” on the Dixie label before beginning to lease tracks to the Starday label later in 1957.
For almost 15 years, the Country Gentleman appeared for two nights a week at the Shamrock Club in Washington’s Georgetown district. It wasn’t a fancy place, but the informal atmosphere and audience of southern country music fans, college kids, and government workers created an environment in which a variety of musical tastes, experimentation, and onstage rehearsal could forge a distinctive and appealing act.
By 1964, the Country Gentlemen’s recordings were nationally distributed on the Folkways and Mercury labels. Ruggedly handsome, sincere, and baritone-voiced Charlie Waller contrasted with the wiry and volatile wiseacre John Duffey, the flashy and aggressive banjo star Eddie Adcock, and the quiet and collegiate bassman Tom Gray – the “classic” edition of the band. Some of Charlie’s most popular solos from the early days included “Two Little Boys,” “Copper Kettle,” and “Matterhorn.”
The group took a new lease on life with a quite different sounding ensemble in 1971: Bill Emerson in his second stint on banjo, Doyle Lawson on mandolin, and Bill Yates on bass. Waller was the constant and increasingly the “star” vocalist, a role he had previously shared with John Duffey. Songs such as “Fox on the Run,” “Teach Your Children,” and “Legend of the Rebel Soldier,” won awards and became perennial bluegrass standards. Opposite from the experience of other country and bluegrass acts of the time, the Country Gentlemen’s popularity grew from a northern base into the south, midwest, and southwest, as outdoor festivals proliferated. This edition of the Gentlemen toured Japan and recorded a live album in Tokyo.
More band changes followed, but the group’s Waller-centric sound remained stable over three more decades. During this era, recordings on Rebel, Vanguard, Sugar Hill, and Pinecastle were best sellers and frequent visitors to the bluegrass charts.
Charlie Waller faced health challenges as the millennium turned, but he kept coming back to touring and recording. The end came unexpectedly. At 6:30 p.m. on August 18, 2004, his wife found him dead of a heart attack in the Gordonsville, Virginia, garden where his mother had also died.
“The thing we had going for us was we didn’t care to sound like the rest. We mixed in a few older country songs and folk songs; we did some jazz and movie themes.”
Quoted in obituary, Washington Post, August 19, 2004.
“With a straight face he would convulse audiences with witty off-the-cuff remarks. Once at the Shamrock Restaurant in Georgetown, D.C., the Gents were on stage when the door opened and an elegantly attired woman walked in – clearly over-dressed for her surroundings. Charlie took one look at her and barked, ‘I thought I told you to stay in the truck!’”
Walt Saunders in liner notes to Joe’s Last Train, Rebel Records, 2004.
“I’ve always loved Charlie’s voice, and it’s still wonderful. If I had to describe it I’d say, ‘Take Hank Snow and Bing Crosby, put them together, and you have a little bit of Charlie Waller.’ There are many excellent singers out there: some with terrific voices, some with great technique and phrasing, and others with lots of soul… but Charlie has it all.”
Eddie Adcock, liner notes to Charlie Waller and the Country Gentlemen, Songs of the American Spirit, Pinecastle Records, 2004.
“Music is an emotional thing. If you can’t sing a song from the heart, you haven’t sung it.”
Quoted by Tom Henderson in “Charlie Waller… the Original Country Gentleman,” Muleskinner News, December, 1973.