This will be part 1 of a multi-part post on local legend Butch Robins.
In 1981, while a student at VPI, I had a show at WUVT, the college radio station there. The show was from 6:00-9:00 AM Monday mornings and was called “Bugle Call Bluegrass”. Back in those days people who had radio shows would lug around huge stacks of records from their house to the radio show and play songs on record players- there were records at the radio station already of course but at least for college radio the DJ (DJ= disc jockey, or one who would play records which were sometimes called discs in the radio studio that would be heard on the radio in listener’s house or car) the station would often not have the particular record that he or she wanted. That was the case for me anyway and I would be seen early Monday mornings lugging huge stacks of LPs (that’s short for Long Playing and refers to those giant black plastic devices that music used to be sold on) from my house to the radio station and back. In those days the DJ could pretty much play whatever he wanted and could talk about whatever he wanted and what I liked to talk about was what musicians were coming to Blacksburg to play and I would then play songs off of their records.
I noticed one day that one of my favorite musicians, Butch Robins was coming to Blacksburg and since I already played a lot of his music on my radio show I started talking him up and playing even more of his music. On the Monday before he was to be in Blacksburg I played a lot of his music and talked about him a lot. Why not I figured, it was my radio show and it was 6:00-9:00 AM on a Monday, who would know. After that show I went back home lugging my giant stack of LPs and when I walked in my roommate was standing there with the telephone in his hand waiting for me. Things went a lot like this at that point:
Keith: Its for you. (gesturing at me with the receiver- which was the part of the telephone that you held pressed to your face so you could both hear and be heard by the other person in the conversation and was connected to something attached to the wall by a long curly cord).
Bud: (somewhat annoyed because I had just lugged a giant stack of heavy LPs across campus and negotiated stairs and doors while doing it) Who is it?
Keith: its Butch Robins
Bud: Sure it is.
Keith: (gestures with the receiver more urgently)
Bud: (slightly annoyed after putting down the LPs) Hello
Phone: Hello Bud, this is Butch Robins and I wanted to thank you for talking about my show on the radio this morning.
Bud:…… How did you know?
Butch: I just heard it on the radio?
Butch: Yes. I live in Radford you know.
Well actually I didn’t know that and it was quite a surprise to me to learn that one of my banjo heroes grew up in the Radford/Dublin area and frequently came back to visit or stay for a while. We chatted on the phone a while and when he came to Blacksburg to do the show I of course went and I sat and talked to him during the band breaks and had a great time but was sorry to hear he was getting ready to move again. At least I had my moment to visit with him in person.
So who is Butch Robins and why was he (and still is) one of my banjo heroes?
Butch Robins was born in Lebanon, Virginia on May 12, 1949. Because of various jobs his father took to support the family, he lived in various places throughout Tennessee and North Carolina. At a young age Butch decided he wanted to learn to play the banjo so his music loving father bought him one and started looking for someone to teach his boy to play. Butch must have learned fast because in the spring of 1963 in Asheville, NC Butch had won his first music contest. A year filled with music followed and then in 1964 Calvin Robins (Butch’s father) moved the family to Pulaski County, Virginia where he taught at what would later become New River Community College.
One of the things that Calvin Robins firmly believed was that if he heard of any good bluegrass musicians even remotely close to where he was he needed to take Butch to hear, meet and play with them. because of this, Butch learned from and played with many “greats” and many who would in later years be “greats”. ( Tommy Jarrell, Jimmy Arnold, Ricky and Ronnie Simpkins (of Christiansburg), Don Reno and many others.)
In 1965, Carlton Haney held the first ever multi-day outdoor music festival and both Butch and Calvin went to it. While there, they learned that Bill Monroe was auditioning banjo players and Butch gave it a try. As his luck would have it, Butch was still in high school at the time and so Monroe told him to come around after he had graduated and he would see what happened then. Believing in his son, Calvin Robins made sure to send Bill Monroe Butch’s graduation announcement. One Saturday morning a surprised Butch got his own unexpected phone call when Bill Monroe phoned asking if he was ready to play some music with him. He accepted the offer!
Here is a photo of Butch at a festival in Union Grove, North Carolina in 1967 playing a beautiful Ode banjo.
Unfortunately this first stint with Bill Monroe didn’t go well. Butch was basically shown the seemy underbelly of the music business and he quit the band shortly after joining it and drove back home to Pulaski County and took a job at the Radford Army Ammunition Plant.
Over the next few years Butch met and played with many more people, perhaps the most influential was Snuffy Jenkins (who was one of Bill Monroe’s ex-banjo players as well- perhaps the two knew a lot about each other because of that?) Snuffy Jenkins was credited by Bill Monroe for starting the three finger picking that would later be developed into Scruggs style picking. He also met Charlie Moore and became his banjo player for several years. Life on the road being hard on a person’s body and mind plus a health scare with Butch’s wife made him quit the band and return once more to Virginia.
In late 1972 Butch moved to Nashville and there fell in with a different sort of crowd- innovators, trail blazers and free thinkers. Folks like Vassar Clements, Sam Bush, Mark O’Connor, Norman Blake, Leon Russell and many others. Butch played a lot and his bouts into improvisational music increased to the point where he was one of the busiest musicians in Nashville. Meeting these folks opened the door for him to tour with Leon Russell (1973)and was the first time Butch played for giant audiences- sometimes 35,000-60,000 strong!
After touring with Leon Russell and a few other big name bands, Sam Bush from the New Grass Revival called Butch to see if he would join the group as their bass player. They had recently lost Ebo Walker and needed someone familiar to fill the position, so Butch did that for a while but was not exactly satisfied being the bass player so when John Cowan came along, Butch left to explore other things. Lucky for us, while there he did some recording with them and one is a double banjo piece with Courtney Johnson that is really spectacular (Doing my time.).
Butch had by this time in his life adopted a different kind of lifestyle than he started out with. His hair was very long and he enjoyed recreational drugs quite openly. He still had a foot planted in traditional music though. These two things met in an interesting way when he was asked to join Wilma Lee and Stony Cooper’s band. Butch intentionally did not cut his hair, one could almost say he had a chip on his shoulder about it even. Much to his surprise though, he was never asked to cut it either. He knew Stoney Cooper did not approve, but Stoney also respected Butch and let him make his own decisions about his appearance and lifestyle. I think this meant a lot to Butch because he did cut his hair and did his best for Wilma Lee and Stoney.
During the time he was with Wilma Lee and Stoney, Butch recorded two solo albums. The first of his solo albums, Forty Years Late was named for the song of the same title that he wrote about his old friend Snuffy Jenkins. The musicians on this album were actually almost three different bands. Butch decided to showcase his various sides so he got together a traditional group, a jazzy group and a more improvisational group. The result is a wonderful collection of music where Butch was secure enough to not always be in the forefront of the song. Part of being in a band is that you need to let others be in the limelight sometimes and Butch is a master at that. He leads, he follows, he guides and steers and at every turn he is a solid and professional musician.
The second solo album he recorded in these years is one of my very favorite albums ever- Fragments of My Imagicnation. I bought this album shortly after it was released (the mid-1970s) and I listened to it so many times that I wore it out. I learned a few songs off the album and played one so many times over the years that my children actually thought it was one that I had written! (An interesting aside- I used to go visit Butch sometimes and once I played this particular song for him. I had practiced is a lot in preparation and looked forward to his assessment of my playing. I sat down in his living room, picked up my banjo and started the song. Seconds later he stopped me because it wans’t right! Instead of being upset I was happy to get such minute corrections from the man himself. The things I was doing were very slightly wrong but when I did them right, I could hear a REAL difference!) the musicians on this album were his old friends from Nashville- Sam Bush, John Cowan, Bela Fleck, Curtis Burch and Jimmy Brock. This was a decidedly Newgrass recording and it is one of the finest examples of excellent songwriting and musicianship that came from the genre in the mid-1970s.
The next exciting event in the life of Butch Robins came when Bill Monroe called him again but that will ave to wait until the next installment and it will include some personal photos, videos and a complete discography of Butch’s work! In the meantime, PLEASE listen to these CDs from out Appalachian music collection. (I REALLY WANT YOU TO!) These three albums are some of the best music Butch has ever done and are among my favorite albums ever recorded in this genre.
Want to read more? Part 2 of this story continues HERE!
Fragments of my imagicnation [sic] [sound recording]/ Butch Robins
Highlights of Fragments of My Imagicnation-
Rural Retreat- This is the song that I played for Butch I described above. To me it is a beautiful song and knowing that it is an instrumental written about a place near us makes it all the better.
Music in the Air- I have always loved the lyrics to this song. I think the song was written for Butch’s son but I am not exactly sure. Whatever the song subject actually is, it is a happy tune and I like it.
I’m Going Away- Another song with lyrics and Butch singing. I like how this song builds and I like Sam Bush’s mandolin work in it.
Slipping on Ice- Bela Fleck was asked to play the banjo lead on his number. The song is aptly named because I can actually envision that when I listen to it!
Recordings-CDs – Level 4 M121.R63 F73 2009 AVAILABLE
Highlights of Grounded Centered Focused
Old Ebenezer Daingerfield- I totally love this pairing of actually two Bill Monroe songs. The songs, Old Ebenezer Scrooge and Old Daingerfield go together REALLY well and Butch has paired them up brilliantly.
Tanyards- Bill Monroe wrote this song but I think he never recorded it until he made his guest appearance on this album. I know it meant a lot to Butch to have Monroe on this album and on this song.
Cuckoos Nest- I have always loved this old Irish song, it’s fun and fast!