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Buzz Busby’s body finally gave out a couple of weeks ago. After 69 years and a tumultuous musical life whose blaze helped spark the bonfire that became D.C.’s bluegrass scene, Busby, ravaged by diabetes, Parkinson’s disease, and decades of alcohol abuse, succumbed to cardiac arrest in a Maryland nursing home on Jan. 5.
“He essentially started the bluegrass scene in D.C., putting bands together and playing constantly,” says music writer and bluegrass specialist Joe Sasfy. Indeed, at the height of his career, Busby’s onstage charisma and stunning mandolin playing drove a high-lonesome bluegrass style that captivated Washington’s musical ear and was nearly unmatched for its combination of musical skill and emotional rawness.
From 1951 to 1953—he’d arrived in the capital from his native Louisiana in ’51 to pursue an FBI career—Busby honed his singular mandolin technique, marked by what Grand Ole Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs calls a “machine-gun tremolo,” while working with fiddler Scotty Stoneman, guitarists Jack Clement and Pete Pike, and bluegrass legend Mac Wiseman in the bars and clubs that were then the lifeblood of D.C.’s thriving country music scene. In 1954, shortly after Busby joined forces with Stoneman and Pike as Buzz Busby and the Bayou Boys to enter a country-music competition, the group was offered feature status on a new WRC-TV show called Hayloft Hoedown.
After its September debut, the live daily program became a watershed in D.C. music history, turning legions of fans on to authentic bluegrass and inspiring countless bands and players. Though Hayloft Hoedown lasted only a few months, Busby’s popularity skyrocketed, and he parlayed his success into a 1955 stint on Louisiana Hayride (then at its peak, with Elvis as star attraction) and a recording contract with Starday Records.
A vicious auto wreck on Independence Day 1957 altered bluegrass history, though, leaving Busby in a coma, barely alive, and banjo player Bill Emerson with obligations for the Bayou Boys to perform. While Busby underwent a painful convalescence, Emerson formed a band that became the Country Gentlemen, an outfit that would become one of the most prominent in bluegrass.
Busby never regained his elite stature within the bluegrass community. Though he went on to record some timeless sides for Starday—the holy trinity of “Cold and Windy Night,” “Where Will This End?” and “Lonesome Wind” represents some of the most intense high-lonesome bluegrass ever waxed—he spent much of the ’60s and ’70s battling alcohol and amphetamine addiction, even serving time in prison. He still exhibited occasional flashes of his old brilliance (including some rockabilly-style electric guitar work), but Busby’s demons forced him to live the desolate sentiments he sang about.
Sadly, evidence of Busby’s historical place as quintessential D.C. bluegrassman—and one of the genre’s finest mandolinists—is barely available, even in our digital age. Aside from scattered anthology tracks and scarce original LPs, the only place an interested seeker can readily hear evidence of Buzz’s genius is on Stubbs’ weekly radio show on WAMU-FM. But there are plans to bring his legacy into proper focus: There are continuing efforts to get him inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Honor, and a Starday reissue of close to a dozen classic Busby and the Bayou Boys sides is due later this year. —Patrick Foster