Buzz Busby was a founding father of the D.C. bluegrass scene. But will anyone remember him?
Photographs by Charles Steck
July 4, 1957.
The warm evening air danced across Buzz Busby’s face. Beside him, Sonny Preston kept the black 1951 Mercury cruising down Old Marlboro Pike at an even 70 mph.
Buzz held tenuously to consciousness, hampered by the massive quantities of alcohol he had imbibed earlier. He and part of his band, the Bayou Boys, had spent the day on an epic bar crawl through North Beach, Md. The others were giddy with the anticipation that fills most Washingtonians on the Fourth of July. Buzz smiled as Eddie Adcock and Vance Truell joked and laughed about the day’s events and the evening’s possibilities. Beside him, Sonny, a friend of Eddie’s, gave the car an extra kick of speed.
Buzz had been leading the band since he started it, in 1954. Members had come and gone, but there was always some upstart musician who wanted a spot beside this powerhouse mandolin player with the high tenor voicethe man who had done the most to make bluegrass a Washington, D.C., institution.
The Bayou Boys had a regular gig at the Admiral’s Grill in Bailey’s Crossroads. It wasn’t the best gig Buzz had ever had, but it provided stable income, free drinks, and a little time in the limelightthe essentials. Buzz had toughed out hard times before, and he knew that he would be back on top in a year at most.
But he didn’t concern himself with that tonight. Independence Day was about the closest thing Washington had to the Mardi Gras of his native Louisiana. Tonight was for drinking.
Suddenly, Sonny swerved right. He quickly regained control, but Eddie stopped joking with Vance and demanded that Sonny pull over so he could drive. Sonny ignored him but dropped the car back down to 70. Eddie sighed reproachfully and resumed his conversation.
Buzz finally fell asleep. Luckily, he did not have to witness the horror of driving head-on into a utility pole at 70 mphwhich is what Buzz and his buddies did a few minutes later.
The best way to describe Madam’s Organ is as a burlesqued T.G.I. Friday’s. The walls look as though they may collapse at any moment under the weight of countless street signs, rusty instruments, and stuffed game birds. Above me a mallard hangs lopsided from a length of fishing line.
Bob Perilla finishes setting the equipment for the gig that his band, Big Hillbilly Bluegrass, has had at Madam’s Organ every Wednesday for the past four years. His pork-chop sideburns, ragged jeans, and red cowboy boots belie his Georgetown University education, though his conversation does not.
“Bluegrass,” Perilla begins, “was the very first music that was designed, from its very inception, to be amplified. Now, a single microphone and a bluegrass band gathered around it is not the same as a Telecaster through a twin reverb. But the truth of the matter is that bluegrass was designed to be electronically processed from the very get-go. I mean, it really only predates rock ‘n’ roll by a couple of years, and the heavy emphasis on the backbeat is really a huge precursor of rock ‘n’ roll.”
Perilla and I talk through the early evening, watching the place begin to fill up with a crowd of mostly white folks out to grasp the small bit of identity that Perilla provides them through his music. They range from working-class to upper-class, auto garage to State Department. I ask Perilla what he makes of his audience.
“That’s what made D.C. a great bluegrass place. Because you had the phenomenon of country folk who came here during the war, and they were playing their music and were perfectly positioned to catch the ear of educated liberals who had grown up under the influence of the hootenanny folk revival.”
Tad Marks, the band’s fiddle player, has a different take on the matter. “Bluegrass is schizophrenic,” he states plainly. “It just has such rapid ups and downsit appeals to that kind of mind.”
The mental health of Washingtonians aside, bluegrass has been one of the city’s biggest and most successful cultural exports since the ’40s. The music has thrived here with the support of the educated listeners who have become attached to it. Washington has produced some of the most popular bluegrass bands and performers in the nation, among them Roy Clark, the Country Gentlemen, and the Seldom Scene.
Those two bands were known for their charismatic frontman, John Duffey, whose untimely death in December 1996 was reported on the front page of the Washington Post. Under Duffey’s direction, the Seldom Scene pushed the limits of the bluegrass form, giving it a dynamic range that few had thought possible. “It was specifically Duffey, in my estimation, that really brought thousands of converts to the music,” says Perilla. “He was a great man. And a quirky sonofabitch.
“The Country Gentlemen were always hot shit, but everything they were doing starts with Buzz [Busby],” Perilla continues. “Buzz has always been kind of a legendary figure. He expanded the form while maintaining the emotional integrity of the music in a way very few people could. Always a tremendous musical competence, though sometimes a little less control exerted on his personal life. But he fathered the scene.”
At 9 p.m., Big Hillbilly Bluegrass hits the stage. The crowd of young World Bankers and old-time Virginians halt their conversations as Mike Marceau lays down an up-tempo 4/4 bass line. Suddenly, the band jumps on the beat, and the spirit of Buzz Busby is invoked.
Busby died on July 4, 1957. But, like many of the setbacks in his life, death didn’t stick. Medical technicians brought him back, though he remained in a coma for two days.
“I felt awful,” Busby recalls. “I didn’t know whether I was going to live or die. They didn’t, either. I couldn’t get no satisfaction from anybody. My brother came to visit me. I said, ‘Wayne, am I going to live or die?’ He says, ‘You’ll be all right. Just be quiet.’ I said, ‘I know I’m going to be all right, but am I going to live or die?’”
Busby notices my apparent confusion at his last comment and explains: “I’ve been baptized by the Holy Spirit, which is pretty hard to explain to people. I’m not one of these holy rollers that goes around blah-blahing about it. But I’ll tell you in a straight, sensible way, it’s there.”
Busby sits like a king in a large La-Z-Boy throne in the control room of Tom Mindte’s Patuxent Records studio in Rockville. Despite the clearly advanced stage of Parkinson’s disease that has seized his body and causes him to shake uncontrollably, there remains about him an air of regalityof a man who knows his value, regardless of his current circumstances.
Busby manages to keep himself apprised of what goes on in his empire through various sources. He grants audiences to a variety of visitors at the Catonsville, Md., convalescent home where he lives, but prefers to receive them at Patuxent when he can.
The conversation turns to his family. He had two children with his ex-wife, but neither remains in the Washington area. “My youngest is 41. He plays the piano. My oldest one is 45. He’s kind of a funny guy. I don’t even know where he is….He don’t want nobody to know where he’s at. Maybe he’ll get straightened out. Maybe he won’t. Just have to hope for the best. Sometimes that’s all you can do.”
Busby was born Bernarr Busbice on Sept. 6, 1933, in Eros, La., to Otis and Fay Busbice. He was the youngest of nine children growing up on a struggling family farm. He went to school for most of the year and picked cotton at harvest time. “We had to raise everything we ate and everything we made money off of, and it was horrible,” he chuckles. “Best I can say for it.”
Music came to Busby over the airwaves. For many rural Southerners in that era, the centerpiece of weekly entertainment was the Grand Ole Opry on WSM out of Nashville every Saturday night. The family also listened to the Louisiana Hayride, a show that Busby would headline in later years. Radio introduced him to some of the greats of early country: Roy Acuff, Webb Pierce, Carl Smith.
His brothers, Wayne and LeMoyne, began teaching him guitar when he was 8. The three played the popular country tunes they heard on the radio. Busby first heard bluegrass at 12, in an act of disobedience: “The Opry was a big event at our house on Saturday nights, and when the Prince Albert show went off, my mother would turn off the radio and make us all go to bed. So I thought I’d stayI was 12 years oldI thought I’d stay up a while and listen to it further and see what came on. After Prince Albert came a bluegrass show. Bill Monroe with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. The original bluegrass band. I liked it much more than I did anything else.”
Young Bernarr was hooked. He continued developing his skills as a guitarist, but it was the furious sound of the mandolin that really drew him in. When he was 14, he ordered an $8 Silvertone mandolin from the Sears catalog and began practicing incessantly, copying Monroethe father of bluegrass and a mandolin virtuosonote for note. Within a year, he and his brothers were playing three times a week at local bars for $5 a night.
Otis Busbice had died in 1943 from the long-term effects of the poison gas he had been exposed to in World War I. The family was thrown into dire poverty. Busby continued working the farm, at the same time excelling in his studies. He graduated from high school as class valedictorian and received a partial scholarship to Louisiana Polytechnic Institute. Although his mother bravely insisted that the family would somehow find the money to send him to college, Busby declined enrollment. Instead, he responded to the pitch of a recruiter for the FBI. The promise of a stable job as a fingerprint technician on a special-agent track appealed to him. “My mother didn’t want me to go with the FBI. She wanted me to stay at home and go to college. She said, ‘We’ll figure some way.’ I didn’t have the faith she had, so I went on and took the money,” he explains.
So in 1951, at the age of 17 and not even a month out of high school, Busby left his family’s Louisiana farm to make a life for himself in Washington, D.C.
“It’s a funny thing: Washington, D.C., people coming from other places say it’s hard to find their way around,” Busby says. “I knew how the city worked within two weeks. I thought it was awful crowded, though.”
Busby found more than a bustling metropolis. It didn’t take long for him to realize that he wasn’t the only country boy in the cityhe was in the most active country-music scene outside of Nashville. A young banjo player from Anacostia named Roy Clark played Washington bars, and a young songbird from nearby Winchester, Va., named Patsy Cline was dazzling locals with her dewy and evocative soprano voice.
Washington had been a country-music center since the late ’20s. Poor rural Southerners (mostly from the eastern side of southern Appalachia) had been arriving periodically since the turn of the century, but they had flooded the city during the Depression years. Hungry and ragged, these desperate people looked to the nation’s capital as a Jerusalem of sortsa place where they would find salvation.
Many turned to their musical traditions to supplement their incomes, playing mostly for their kin and for other migrants. One family, the Stonemans, offers a remarkable example of the migrant experience in Washington.
Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman was born near Galax in Carroll County, Va., on May 25, 1893. An American-style renaissance man, Stoneman was an expert carpenter, miner, machinist, and multi-instrumentalist. Stoneman built a reputation as a talented hillbilly musician in the ’20s: He regularly traveled from Galax to New York City to wax phonograph recordings for OKeh, Edison, Vocalion, and Victor. And, unlike many of his contemporaries, Stoneman saw his records sell well enough for him to support his burgeoning family.
But the Depression halted his recording career and crippled the economy of Carroll County, so Stoneman moved his family to Washington in 1931. There he relied on his carpentry skills as his primary source of income, playing music when work was available. His family, in the meantime, was steadily growing. Over the next two decades, Ernest and his wife, Hattie Stoneman, would have 23 children, 15 of whom would survive infancy. Each child would be encouraged to pursue music.
World War II pulled the Stonemans and other Appalachian migrants from poverty. Ernest found regular employment at the U.S. Naval Gun Factory and set about improving his family’s life. He began by improving the condition of the family’s one-room house in Carmody Hills, Md. (Ernest and Hattie slept in a half-dug basement for two years.) And, most important, he began performing again.
By the end of the war, the Stonemans were back on their feetwiser, stronger, and, by then, legion. There were so many Stonemans that the family comprised as many as four bands at any given time, all playing various shows throughout the Washington area. While the Stoneman Brothers played at Strick’s bar in Prince George’s County, the Stoneman Family might be working an officers’ club in Anacostia.
It was the latter band that won a talent contest at Constitution Hall in 1947, beginning the family’s rapid musical ascent. They began to appear on local television broadcasts, such as legendary country music promoter Connie B. Gay’s Town and Country Time. They were also a regular feature on local radio station WARL in Arlington.
The Stonemans drew liberally from the variety of styles lumped together as “country” music at that time: bluegrass, Western balladry, white gospel, and old-time mountain music. Bluegrass was only then beginning to be defined, the word itselfderiving from the name of Bill Monroe’s seminal band, the Blue Grass Boysnot coming into common use to describe the genre until the mid-’50s.
In August 1952, Pop and Scotty Stoneman were playing at the Famous Bar, then located at 1st and L Streets NE, when Buzz Busby sat down at a table in front of the stage, nursing a beer and listening intently.
Busby’s co-workers at the FBI didn’t particularly care for his given name, and a nickname quickly came into use. “At first I resented ‘Buzz.’ I thought it was belittling,” Busby says. “Then, after I got in music, I realized I had to change my name. Bernarr Busbice wouldn’t do it.”
Busby quickly proved himself a hard worker in the FBI crime lab and was firmly on track toward becoming an agent. He enrolled as a part-time student at George Washington University, taking classes that the Bureau would favor for promotion. By night, he was playing bars and clubs, picking up some extra money and enjoying himself at the same time.
Busby quickly gained a reputation for his mandolin playing. Though he initially learned to play by mimicking Monroe, he developed a distinct style, incorporating a lot of double stops and a stiff-armed staccato executed so quickly that few performers have the stamina to duplicate it. “Buzz is a genius, plain and simple,” says American-music scholar and WAMU bluegrass broadcaster Dick Spottswood. “There are maybe three mandolin players with truly distinctive styles. Bill Monroe is one, Jesse McReynolds is another, and Buzz Busby is the third.”
Busby had been in Washington for about a year when he met Scotty Stoneman. Stoneman was widely considered to be the finest fiddler in the city and was only one year Busby’s senior. “I liked him a real lot,” says Busby. “He’s the first person I heard that played the fiddle right, the way a fiddle should be played. Not just ’cause he played bluegrass. He really dug it.”
The two forged a friendship that can only be described as volatile. They were both die-hard hellraisers. Both had become semiprofessional musicians in their teens, and both had spent a good part of their formative years in honest-to-God shitkickin’ bars. “In Louisiana, they never question you about a beer in a bar,” says Busby. “As long as you stand up and put your money on the bar, you got a beer. And you didn’t dare walk in there looking nobody too straight in the eye in Louisiana. They’d get offended and knock the hell out of you.”
Busby, Stoneman, and guitarist Jack Clement soon formed a band, the Tennessee Troopers, and Busby realized that country music was popular enough for him to make as much money playing as he was working, if not more. Clement, today one of the most respected producers in Nashville, realized it, too.
“We were a great band,” Clement recalls. “Buzz is the best I’ve ever heard, and I’ve heard a lot of mandolin players,” begins Clement. “Bill Monroe was rough compared to Buzz. Buzz played that Bill Monroe stuff better than Bill Monroe ever thought about playing it.”
So, “after a year and a week,” Busby left the FBI behind in 1952and college soon after that. “I was about to become an agent right before I quit,” he says. “The FBI would have been all right for normal people, but I wasn’t normal. I couldn’t settle down to a job like that. It just wasn’t meant to be.”
For a stage name, Buzz Busbice decided to adopt an older family name: Busby. “Back in the old days, when my grandfather was a young manI won’t go into no details about it, but he shot a man in Georgia,” Busby explains. “It was self-defense, but the man was unarmed. He was hitting him with a stick or a pole. My grandfather had a pretty bad temper. And so, to escape trouble with the law, he left Georgia and wound up in Louisiana. His name was Busby, and he changed it to Busbice.”
Thus renamed, Buzz Busby set about building his career.
In 1952, Busby married Patricia Padgett, a woman he had met through the Stonemans. Of all the aspects of his life, his marriage is the one he is most guarded about: “All I got to say about her…One minute she loved me; the next minute she was cutting me down.”
“I think she got pregnant and then they got married,” offers Clement. “She got Buzz on the rebound, and it never was a very happy marriage that I could tell.”
In 1953, Busby was playing a motorcycle club called the Campus in Carmody Hills. The group was making about a hundred dollars a week until the manager learned that Stoneman and Busby were both underage. Clement stayed; Busby and Stoneman were a duo once more.
With a new wife and a child on the way, Busby could not afford to be out of work. He recalled a job offer he had received from bluegrass pioneer Mac Wiseman, who had a gig at a bar at 14th Street and Florida Avenue NW. Busby and Stoneman drove over one evening to seal the deal, but Wiseman needed only a mandolin player. Busby made the terms of his employment clear: Stoneman and Busby were a package deal, period. Wiseman, true to his name, promptly gave notice to his fiddler.
“Mac was a good guy to work for, although he didn’t pay a lot,” Busby says. “I worked with him for about six months. My wife was expecting our first baby. I didn’t think I could make ends meet. She wanted me to quit, anyway. You got to understand womenthey don’t want you on the road. They think you’re running around on them or something. I’d get accused whether I did or not.”
Busby, Stoneman, and Clement played together intermittently in area clubs after that, dabbling in electrification and playing what Busby calls “hopped-up” music. “It was sorta like rock ‘n’ roll before you had rock ‘n’ roll. And you play it like you’re high on something.”
Busby was, indeed, often high on something: alcohol. The seeds of a devastating drinking problem were planted during these stressful early years. WAMU DJ Gary Henderson recalls the first time he ever saw live bluegrass, when he made his father bring him to see Busby and guitarist Pete Pike at the WGAY radio studio, in 1954: “They were completely hungover. They probably got off work at Pine Tavern at 2 the night before, drank a little bit, and then went home and slept for a couple hours and had to get up at 6 to get to the station by 7. It must have been hard, but they pulled it off.”
In 1954, Busby, Stoneman, and Pike entered the National Country Music Championship Competition in Warrenton, Va., as Buzz Busby and the Bayou Boys. The Warrenton competition was widely known for the high caliber of its entrants (such as young Roy Clark and Patsy Cline). The Bayou Boys won a prize in every category, Busby himself taking second place in vocals.
The results of the competition appeared in the Post the following day and piqued the interest of programmers at WRC-TV Channel 4, who were well aware of the popularity of “hayride” shows in other areas. Thus was born Hayloft Hoedown, which went on the air in September 1954 with Busby and the Bayou Boys as the centerpiece. The show, broadcast every day from 1 to 1:30 p.m., was more successful than anticipated. Letters poured in by the hundreds, and Busby became a local celebrity overnight.
“I’d become a household name. It was great,” Busby recalls. “I’d go to a restaurant and I wouldn’t even have to pay for my food. I was a celebrity. I had all kinds of money.”
Sponsors, though, were skeptical. The idea that the music of hillbillies could possibly have such appeal in the relatively sophisticated urban environment of the nation’s capital seemed unlikely. Worse, infighting broke out between the program’s host, Mike Honeycutt, and Busby and Pike over who should be getting paid more. “I just knew somewhere in the back of my mind I’d be a millionaire if I could hold out,” says Busby.
After just six months, production was halted, despite a valiant effort to keep the show on the air. The producers actually brought sacks of fan mail to the NBC headquarters in New York to prove that the show was a success.
Yet even after the show was canceled, Busby’s popularity in the city continued to rise. Club work became more available than it had ever been, not just for Busby, but for any bluegrass band playing in Washington. “I was only getting a hundred dollars a week for my part [on Hayloft Hoedown], but I was making more on shows,” Busby says. “We’d play a show, we’d be packed. We were working every day. Goodness gracious, we’d make two or three thousand a week.”
But the loss of the television show had been more of a blow to Busby than he cared to admit at the time. He thought he needed to do something to show everyone, himself most of all, that he was not a failure.
So along with friend and guitarist Bill Harrell, Busby packed up his car, set off for his home state, and auditioned for the Louisiana Hayride in March 1955. The show had politely spurned Busby the first time he had tried out, three years earlier, but this time the response was different. “I made an appointment this time. I wrote them a letter, I believe. I drove down there and made them a deal. Greatest deal I ever made.” The demo tape that Busby submitted was polished and professional; Busby and the Bayou Boys were hired on the spot.
The Louisiana Hayride was second only to the Grand Ole Opry in national popularity. Bluegrass was now being recognized as a genre distinct from country, and more time was being set aside for it on shows across the country. During his nine-month stay on the Hayride, Busby met and played with some of the most respected figures in country music.
With a string of successes under his belt, Busby decided that the time was right to begin recording his original songs in earnest. His first commercial recording was cut for Jiffy, a small Louisiana label. The 45 featured Busby’s most popular song, “Me and the Jukebox,” with “Lost” on the B-side.
“I wrote ‘Me and the Jukebox’ when I was 20 years old, and it’s haunted me ever since,” Busby says. “It just squeezed in there and never would go away. That’s what I’m remembered by. It wasn’t a very inspired song, to be honest with you, as far as I was concerned. ‘Lost’ was sorta inspired. In ‘Lost,’ what makes it is the arrangement, not so much the words.”
“Me and the Jukebox” and “Lost” in fact, the better part of Busby’s original compositionshold a unique place in the bluegrass canon. Often referred to as “honky-tonk bluegrass,” Busby’s songs spoke to a different audience than the old standards. He departed from the “Little Cabin Home on the Hill” mentalityhis songs are not laden with images of misty mountains and lush farms. They were forged by a harsher geographya place where, without family and community, nothing could be trusted for support or comfort, save alcohol and music. Busby spoke to the country boy lost in the city, trying to make a life in an environment often colder and more lonesome than the mine shafts and sprawling fields back home.
“Bluegrass, to me, has a spiritual quality,” says Busby. “I wanted to write something weird. Bluesy, you know, that fit the sound of the music. ‘Grassy,’ I call it. After World War II, a lot of people come along putting out honky-tonk songs. Webb Pierce. Hank Williams. And I just thought, Well, I see what they identify with and maybe I can get them to identify with mine.”
While on the Louisiana Hayride, Busby worked alongside two ambitious young lions: Jimmy Davis (future governor of Louisiana) and Elvis Presley (future king of rock ‘n’ roll).
“When I went there, I knew Elvis was there,” Busby says. “I didn’t like his music; I thought it stunk. When I got there, I heard about how big he washow big he thought he was. I just made up my mind that I ain’t going to even speak to him. And he come up and shook my hand and welcomed me. And I thought, you know, He’s not the one being a prick. I’m the one being a prick. So he won me over there. I thought that if he had enough nerve to do that, I got enough nerve to be his friend.”
Indeed, country musicians on the Hayride had good reason to be standoffish with Elvis Presley. 1955 was the beginning of the end for a lot of them. Presley’s unprecedented successand the success of the spate of rockers who followed himchanged the course of country music. To compete with musicians who could straddle the lines of genre, country performers began to homogenize their sound. “I said to two of my boys, ‘Don’t make over Elvis; he’s just a flash in the pan,’” Busby recalls. “But he wasn’t.”
Patricia Busby decided to return to Washington at the close of 1955; Buzz followed her in the summer of 1956. Once back, he found bluegrass flourishing: The short-lived Hayloft Hoedown had influenced many musicians in the area, and the number of bands had grown significantly.
Busby signed a recording contract with Nashville-based Starday Records in 1957 and recorded “Lonesome Road,” an original composition that displayed the same bleak worldview that had become his signature. Busby wails, speaking to himself as much as his audience:
Turn back young man
From your life of sin
Turn back before it’s too late
Don’t drink the devil’s gin
Please change from your life of sin
Or this long and lonesome road will be your fate
Then came the car accident. “They couldn’t find no pulse,” Busby says. “My right leg was broken, and my rib cage was all crushed in. I had a brain concussion, and I was in a coma.”
Busby had overcome numerous setbacks since childhood: the loss of his father, financial hardships, missing college, the cancellation of his TV show, marital troubles. But the accidentand the chronic alcohol abuse that underlay itmarked a phase of decline for the troubled musician, a phase that would stretch over the next two decades.
Busby was in the hospital for a little over a month. He and Vance Truell decided to stay with Truell’s family in North Carolina until they recuperated. When Busby returned to Washington in September, he found it a less hospitable place: There was no longer enough work for him to support himself playing music full time. Not only was rock ‘n’ roll competing with every other genre, but the number of bluegrass bands in D.C. was still increasing. Busby’s life started spinning out of control.
While Busby was laid up, his guitarist, Bill Emerson, formed the Country Gentlemen to fill all the show dates of the Bayou Boysand soon eclipsed them. Although guitarist Charlie Waller would ultimately lead the Country Gentlemen, it was John Duffey who dominated the stage. The Bethesda-born son of a Metropoliton Opera singer, Duffey is widely regarded as one of the most important figures in bluegrass history. His progressive sensibilities and angelic high-tenor voice brought the Country Gentlemen the kind of international acclaim that Busby could only envy. “Buzz’s music was definitely in a progressive direction,” says Spottswood. “Would that music under Buzz’s direction have attained the prominence of the Country Gentlemen? Absolutely not, because Buzz had a hillbilly music sensibility, and Duffey was hip and urban.”
Busby reflects, “The Country Gentlemen split off from me, and I didn’t worry about it at the time. It kind of hurt my feelings that they would leave me high and dry while I was in the hospital, but I got over that.”
Busby was still under contract with Starday, for which he continued to wax records, but club dates were sparse. He began making deliveries for a bakery to earn a steady income, playing music when work was available. But his bluegrass gigs were so infrequent that Busby began playing electric lead guitar for area rock bands.
Soon Busby began taking amphetamines, which allowed him to drive the bakery truck by day and play by night. He attributes an accident in which he totaled the truck to lack of sleep. “In country groups, uppers are a big part, unfortunately, of the lifestyle,” explains DJ Henderson. “You get drained driving 300 miles between dates, and then you have to perform and be at your best. It was tough. But that was sort of kept low-key; it wasn’t known to many people.”
In 1959, addicted to both alcohol and amphetamines, Busby, only 26, began having cardiac spasms that made him a regular at area hospitals. Some radio work and intermittent club gigs carried him through 1960. But 1961 was a devastating year: First he and his wife divorced, and then he was convicted of forging a prescription for amphetamines. He drew a three-year prison sentence.
His brother Wayne Busbice, then a major in the Army, was living in the Washington area and had bargained with the judge to reduce his brother’s sentence. Busby himself did a little networking as well. “I wrote Jimmy Davis, the governor of Louisiana, to help me out,” he recalls. “I had backed him up on the Hayride once. He wrote the governor of Maryland, and I was out after six months.” But, as a condition of his parole, he had to return to Louisiana for two years.
In Louisiana, Busby continued writing songs in the vein of “Me and the Jukebox”songs of dejection and uselessness. One of them, “The Dream,” recounts the story of a man who dies and is brought before God for trial. Satan presents a strong case against him, recalling how the man disappointed his parents and seldom refused a drink. The man finds an unexpected defense:
Then I heard a voice somewhere up above
“Your honor, I’ll be his lawyer, for him I love”
I wondered who this benefactor could possibly be
Then with my eyes I saw it was Christ that
had shed his blood for me
He spoke in a voice loud and clear
Saying: “Father, I know this boy
Why, he has brought many happiness
The song is eerily somber; in fact, Busby does not sing the words, but speaks them.
Returning to Washington in 1964, Busby stopped recording, but he got a job driving a truck for a music-distributing business. He was still drinking and would often wake up shaking uncontrollably; eventually, he lost the truck-driving job after wrecking too many vehicles.
No longer involved in music and seemingly unable to function in society, Busby checked himself into a local psychiatric hospital. But when he was released after a short stay, he didn’t feel as if he had made any significant progress. All that he had developed during that time, he says, was a hatred for the city of Washington.
Months of drifting, drinking, and cheap gigs in seedy bars in Nashville and Louisiana followed.
“I started going from town to town,” Busby says. “I was living like a hobo. I never rode the rails, but I stayed at the Salvation Army with people who did. And missions. It’s a sad way to live.” He hitchhiked from Monroe, La., to Little Rock, Ark., selling pints of blood along the way to buy “booze and haircuts.”
When Busby got to Little Rock, in 1965, he was burned out. He found shelter at a mission, where he was allowed to stay indefinitely. To earn money for food and drink, he sold more blood and began collecting discarded bottles, but eventually he found employment driving a soft-drink truck. He lost that job after another drinking binge, but his employer put him in touch with someone from Alcoholics Anonymous.
Busby was initially very skeptical of AA. His experience at the psychiatric hospital had been neither pleasant nor helpful, and he was consequently wary of self-help organizations. But he decided that he had few choices left. “You get down so low so there ain’t no way up. There ain’t no way to help yourself.”
And so, in the fall of 1965, Busby took his first step up a flight of 12.
When Busby returned to Washington in early 1966, he felt renewed. His year of personal travail had brought him to the depths of the human experience, but he had survived. “[In AA], they were really good, nice to me. That surprised me. And I didn’t believe it would work, but it did. In AA, you got to work the system. If you don’t work it, it ain’t going to work you.”
District bluegrass was getting its second wind as well. And so, for a brief moment, things for Busby started looking up. He started a record-distributing business. He won a spot playing mandolin with a highly capable band called the Virginians, and then another job, which reunited him with Scotty Stoneman.
But by this time, Stoneman was a complete slave to alcohola circumstance that lured Busby to begin drinking again. The new band eventually split up after Stoneman and Busby became too much of a liability. Stoneman returned to his family in Nashville; Busby would never see him again. Stoneman died on March 4, 1973, at the age of 40.
In 1968, Busby was charged with assault, but the charges were dropped after yet another intervention by his brother Wayne. Busby checked himself back into the mental hospital, but after a six-month stay he remained unimproved.
In October 1970, Busby was sent to prison for six months for assaulting a police officer. “I was drunk, pillsboth,” he says. “I was giving him some sass, I guess. He was going to arrest me, and I didn’t want him to.” After a parole violation, Busby was sent back for his longest prison stretch yet: 17 months.
Once again, Busby returned from an extended absence from the local bluegrass scene to find it profoundly altered.
Washington is known throughout the bluegrass world for the quality of its “part-time professionals.” In 1971, Duffey (who had left the Country Gentlemen in 1969) started a band with an Army surgeon, a National Geographic cartographer, a graphic artist, and a mathematician to play shows for fun in the Washington area. Country Gentlemen frontman Charlie Waller once jokingly remarked that a band composed of musicians with such serious outside careers would be “seldom seen.” In January 1972, the Seldom Scene, led by Duffey, took to the stage at the Red Fox Inn in Bethesda.
The Seldom Scene quickly became the most popular band in the city, drawing capacity crowds every week and earning raves on the festival circuit. Within two years, Duffey’s new band had usurped his old band’s title as the most popular in the nation. Like the Country Gentlemen, the Seldom Scene drew from popular music for their repertoire, but the expertise of their lineup was unparalleled in the genre. The arrangements were stunningly textured, each musician was unmatched for virtuosity, and Duffey’s high tenor voice was untouchable.
When Busby was released from prison in August 1972, he felt like a king deposed. No matter how well he did, he could not stop comparing his present life with his earlier accomplishments. Duffey’s climb to prominence was just salt in the wound.
After another go at AA, Busby quit drinking again, got a place in College Park, and began playing music with local pickup bands. After more than 20 years of pushing himself to be the best, Buzz Busby decided to just be. He recalls this period as the most serene, albeit boring, of his life.
That boredom ended in the fall of 1977, when Busby was visiting Boston and wandered into the notorious Combat Zone area of the city. “I got into a fight,” Busby says, “and the guy’s buddy jumped out of the car with a baseball bat and come up behind me and hit me with it. I went unconscious. I woke up in the hospital, and my [right] eye has been blind ever since.” He was in the hospital for over a month.
When he got back to College Park, he began collecting unemployment, rarely leaving the house: “I just didn’t know what to do anymore.”
In 1978, Eddie Stubbs found his way to Busby’s apartment. Stubbs, a WAMU DJ and now the announcer for the Grand Ole Opry, had listened reverentially to all of Busby’s old recordings and actively sought Busby’s tutelage for himself and his traditionalist band, the Johnson Mountain Boys. “They were incredible records,” Stubbs explains. “They still, to me, rank among some of the best high-lonesome bluegrass ever waxed, bar none. There’s so much soul, so much intensity, so much pain.”
As the Johnson Mountain Boys’ popularity grew, they couldn’t play with Busby as often, but they had given him a glimmer of hope. “It made me feel good,” says Busby, who recorded with two of the players, Stubbs and Dudley Connell.
The material that Busby recorded with Stubbs and Connell on Webco (a label started by Wayne Busbice in 1981) betrayed his hard life. His mandolin playing was stronger than ever, but sparsejust enough to make his point. The voice was still powerfuland more deeply resonant, as though its words carried the weight of the world. But after more than two decades of hard singing and even harder drinking, he could no longer reach the high tenor parts.
In 1981, Busby finally honored his mother’s wishes and returned to college, with the intention of becoming an alcoholism counselor. “She was a schoolteacher, so she was adamant about itwe should get a college education,” Busby says. “And I did, finally. I made a 3.4 average. I hadn’t opened a textbook for 25 or 30 years. I’m surprised I did that well, frankly.”
Good intentions not withstanding, Busby began drinking yet again, and he was charged several times with drunk driving. He continued living a hand-to-mouth existence, taking whatever kind of work he could find.
“I didn’t play much after then. I just couldn’t get things swinging right. I’ll just fade into the background. It’s inevitable,” Busby says.
Perhaps not. Henderson, Stubbs, and Patuxent Records’ Mindte are lobbying to get Busby admitted into the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Honor in Louisville, Ky. “The Hall of Honor has only been in existence since 1990, and only one artist is inducted per year,” says IBMA director Dan Hays. “While Mr. Busby’s contribution is significant, earlier artists have been given more consideration. Busby has been considered in the past and will be again in the future.”
But Busby’s future remains uncertain. He was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1996. That, in conjunction with the diabetes, high blood pressure, and myriad other ailments he’s acquired throughout his life leave Busby to wonder how long he will be around to enjoy being honored by the musical community he helped found.
“He was a pioneer,” says Stubbs. “The majority of his work was in barrooms. They really weren’t nice places. Everybody playing in this town owes Buzz a debt of gratitude for sweating it out in those bloodbuckets.”
Pinecastle Records, which bought Wayne Busbice’s Webco label in 1993, is considering the re-release of its Busby material as an installment in a series titled “Webco Classics.” Most of Busby’s other material, including his masterful Starday recordings, are now the property of industry behemoth IMG. Busby’s work is now in limbo.
District bluegrass is in a similar condition.
Bluegrass Unlimited, a national magazine with local roots, has become the industry’s premier publication. Yet, although it still reflects local tastes, it is no longer as committed as it once was to promoting unsigned local bands.
WAMU is now the only major radio station in the city that features bluegrass programming. Once accounting for most of the station’s content, bluegrass has been drastically cut in recent years. But WAMU continues to devote more than 30 hours a week to the genre, most of that during the valuable drive-time hours between 3 and 6 p.m.
As the bluegrass audience has moved to the suburbs, so has the music. The Capitol Area Bluegrass and Old-Time Music Association organizes concerts throughout the region, as well as a biweekly picking session in Alexandria. But Madam’s Organ is the only venue inside the city that still hosts live bluegrass every week.
Perilla cites the lack of a well-established local bluegrass label as the main reason for the lull of activity. “Tom Mindte is doing his utmost to try and create something and chronicle people whose work he thinks is important,” Perilla says. “There are a lot of good pickers around the city. I’m always hopeful that bluegrass is getting ready to undergo a big revival. I think we’re going to see a high time in the music. The popularity of [national acts] like Ricky Scaggs and Alison Krauss bodes very well.”
In the meantime, Perilla is trying to keep the torch burning at Madam’s Organ. He and the band take the stage for their last set of the night. Sitting in on banjo is Channel 4 anchor Doug McKelway, who keeps the tradition of the “part-time professional” alive. Perilla launches into a bluegrass cover of “Route 66.”
And suddenly, the spirit of Buzz Busby is there. CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Photographs by Charles Steck.