Highlights of the McConnell Library Appalachian Music Collection- Butch Robins Part 2

(Used with permission from Bud Bennett, photographer)

I started the first part of the Butch Robins posting with a story about how and when I met Butch.  Since this is the second part of the posting I will now continue the story.

Three of four years ago I was telling someone the amusing story about the day that Butch Robins called me on the phone.  Usually when I end that story I say something like “So if you have anyone famous you would like to meet you should just look in the phone book because they might be in there.”  Looking down at my desk I noticed a phone book so just for fun, I picked it up and thumbed through the “R” section and guess who was there?

I could not believe what I saw- Butch Robins.  I immediately called the number and an answering machine picked up.  I was not completely sure this was THE Butch Robins but I left a message and expected to not hear from whoever it was I had just called.  Truth is I think I must have forgotten about it entirely.  I felt almost confused when my phone rang and the voice on the other end  started talking- “Hello this is Butch Robins and I am calling to talk to Bud Bennett about the banjo….”

Not only did he call me back on my cell phone, but he also called my home phone number and left a message there so he would be sure and reach me.  I was overjoyed, but more about that later.  Back to our story now……

While Butch was nearing the end of his time playing with Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, he started filling in for Bill Monroe’s current banjoist, Bill Holden.  Butch and Bill Holden had become friends and so when Bill turned in his resignation notice to Bill Monroe, his next call was to Butch to let him know the job was opening.  Since he had been filling in already, Bill Monroe asked Butch to rejoin the Bluegrass Boys and my guess is that Butch didn’t have to spend much time thinking about it!  On Labor Day 1977 in Rosine Kentucky Butch played his first show in his second stint with Bill Monroe- a job he kept from 1977-1981.

Being a professional banjo player with one of the most demanding bosses in the business, Butch soon learned that he needed a better instrument.  Good banjos are not cheap and at the time they were not overly easy to come by but Butch heard through the grapevine that Gary Price (who today makes some of the best banjo tailpieces and cases in the business) had sent a banjo to George Gruhn (of Gruhn’s Guitars in Nashville, TN).  The banjo turned out to be a nearly mint condition 1934 RB-4 Gibson Mastertone.  Butch borrowed $6,000 and purchased the banjo and I happen to know he still owns it.  This banjo is loud and strong and has a wonderful tone.  Did I mention it can be very loud?  Well it can be.

In 1980, Butch recorded a solo album called The Fifth Child.  This album was to be a very solid and very traditional album (in contrast to Fragments of my Imagnicnation!) and included such players as Alan O’Bryant, Blaine Sprouse, Sam Bush and others.  I bought it soon after it was released and spent many hours listening to it over the next several years.

I am sure that life on the road with Bill Monroe had it’s ups and downs.  The touring schedule was intense and a lot of the jobs were not close together, so many hours were spent in the band’s bus- The Bluegrass Breakdown (Peter Rowan tells a particular story about one time when the bus broke down and he always says something like: “The bus was called the Bluegrass Breakdown and folks, it really lived up to its name…).  Living together in such close quarters for so much time could apparently be hard on people’s moods and there are many stories of arguments and fights on that bus, but then again, there are also stories of playing cards and music and having fun.  Speaking of touring though, some of the jobs the band was booked for were very high profile.  During his time with Bill Monroe, Butch played for the President of the United States at least two times, played all over the country and toured internationally also.  A combination of the stress of the road, living in close quarters and both Bill Monroe and Butch being very direct and opinionated eventually came to a head and sometime in 1981Butch left the band to continue his musical journey elsewhere.

Despite that, Butch remained close to Bill Monroe over the years and would often visit him and talk with him.  The two had created a bond that proved strong and lasting.  In their time together musically, Butch stood beside Bill Monroe and carried and supported him musically.  When Bill Monroe passed away, Butch was there beside him once again helping to carry him to his final resting place.

This brings me to the part of the story I first described in Part 1 of the post, the part where I got a surprise phone call from Butch- 1981.  After leaving Monroe, Butch formed The Bluegrass Band with Alan O’Bryant (guitar), Blaine Sprouse(fiddle), Eddie Dye (bones, dobro), David Sebring (bass) and Butch.  (This was the band that I had been plugging on my radio show.)  I saw this band in my favorite establishment in Blacksburg, Virginia on a tiny stage and it was wonderful.  One particular highlight I remember was them playing Alabama Jubilee complete with Eddie Dye playing the bones.  I liked that so much that I went out and bought their album and learned the song off of it.  Sadly it was many years later that I actually played with others who knew and wanted to play the song but it did eventually get played (MANY times too!) and I can trace it directly to that night in Blacksburg that I heard Butch and his new band do it.  During the set break that night, Butch sat at the bar with me and we talked about music, Bill Monroe and other things.  When the evening wrapped up I left happy and was thankful for the time I got to spend with one of my banjo idols.  Little did I know then that in later years I would actually be sitting on his couch in his living room watching him play songs I wanted to learn.  But back to Butch….

One thing led to another and Butch left the music business for a while.  Dabbling in real estate and other business ventures in his native Southwest Virginia provided him with a somewhat quiet life but music still held a part of it and would soon return for Butch.

In 1989 he met up with Kerry Hay who wanted to start up a record label.  Butch and Kerry did their research and did indeed form a label and Butch recorded several albums there, starting in 1990 but most notably Grounded, Centered, Focused which was released in 1995.  The album is very good and notable because Butch had Bill Monroe sit in as a special guest and that ended up being the last time that Monroe recorded anything.  The album has three obscure Monroe songs on it, Tanyards and (my favorite) Old Ebenezer Daingerfield which is actually a two song medley of Old Ebenezer Scrooge and Old Daingerfield.   Among others, the album has musicians Sammy Shelor, Mike Compton and David Grier.  The music on this is rock solid and the obscure Monroe songs are true gems.

This post began with me telling a story and then looking in a phone book and that is where I would like to go now, to a short time after I got that phone call from the one and only Butch Robins.

So, Butch and I set up a time for me to come to his house with my banjo so we could talk and he could show me some things.  He wanted me to play something for him so he could know where I was coming from musically.   When he told me that, the first thing that came to mind was one of his own songs that I dearly loved and had been playing since the early 1980s- Rural Retreat.  I mentioned this in the first Butch Robins post I know so I won’t go too much into it.  Suffice it to say that I had been playing it slightly wrong for about 30 years!  The thing I was doing wrong wasn’t huge but when Butch pointed out the problem and I made the change, the difference was huge.  Anyway, sitting on the couch across the room from Butch Robins is truly a wonderful experience.  Butch knows a lot about bluegrass music, about banjos and about Bill Monroe and he will talk about those things for as long as you will let him.  During my visits at his home, I heard many fascinating stories and got many musical tips that improved my playing and I treasure all of both.

One of the things that Butch talked about to me was his dream of forming an International Bluegrass Band.  Butch wanted to collect up players from all over the world and put on a series of shows with them and was actually working on doing just that at the time.  On September 26, 2007 The World International Bluegrass Band made its debut in Dublin, VA.

The band was composed of Kazuhiro Inaba from Japan playing guitar, Hamish Davidson from Australia and Jan Johansson from Sweden both on fiddle, Arnold Lasseur from the Netherlands on mandolin, Sean McKerr from Ireland on bass and Butch on banjo and taking on the MC duties.  (Here is a short video clip showing the band singing and playing. Butch Robins’ World International Bluegrass Band  )As I recall, the band had only gotten together to practice once or twice, but they still managed to put on a wonderful show.  The event was packed and it was great to see Butch well received by a sold-out crowd in his own hometown (Butch even introduced his barber who was sitting in the audience!).

The next (and current) band that Butch worked with was called Butch Robins’ Imagicnation.  This band was made up of Tom Ohmson (of Flat Five Recording Studio), Kris Hodges (of Floydfest), and John McBroom.  This band plays a variety of music ranging from Bossa Nova to Bill Monroe and should not be missed.  They can be seen at festivals and music establishments in the Southwest Virginia area.

 (used with permission from Bud Bennett, photographer)

Here are a few more listening recommendations from the library’s collection of Butch Robbins’ CDs:

The Bluegrass Band–  This band features Butch on banjo, Rickie Simpkins on fiddle and mandolin, Ronnie Simpkins on bass, Larry Stephenson on mandolin, Wyatt Rice on guitar, Wayne Henderson on guitar and Arnie Solomon on mandolin.   This CD is a collection of bluegrass standards.

Once again, from the top. Vol. 1 [sound recording] / The Bluegrass Band
Bluegrass Band (Musical group)
Blacksburg, VA : Hay Holler Harvest, p1990
Location Call No. Status
Recordings-CDs – Level 4 M1630.18.B58 O53 1990 AVAILABLE

Old Joe Clark–  Anyone who has ever played music with me knows this is one of my favorite songs to play.  Butch and the band play a VERY solid rendition of the song here.

Billy in the Lowground– I don’t think anyone has ever said one negative thing about a just a fiddle and banjo playing together.  Both instruments compliment and support each other in this track and it’s a winner.

Nine Pound Hammer–  This song has great vocals and rock solid instrumentation.

Once Again From the Top Vol 2-

Once again, from the top. Vol. 2 [sound recording] / Bluegrass Band
Bluegrass Band (Musical group) Performer.
Blacksburg, VA : B Natural 1/Hay Holler Harvest, p1990
Location Call No. Status
Recordings-CDs – Level 4 M1630.18.B5 O6 1990 AVAILABLE

Katy Hill-This is an old fiddle tune. I like fiddle tunes and I think you probably like them too.  I really enjoy hearing Butch switch from Scruggs type playing to melodic playing in this song.

Polka on a Banjo–  I can’t explain why or even defend myself about it but I’ve always enjoyed hearing this song even though it’s goofy and silly.  I like it and maybe you will too but you won’t know until you give it a listen.

Farewell Blues–  This song is probably familiar to a lot of people, I have always loved it and this version is a good one.  Butch is tearing it up on this track!


2011 Butch Robins’ Imagicnation Sketches Banjo Flat Five
2002 compilation Oh Sister 2 banjo ROU-0506
2002 compilation The Angels Are Singing banjo ROU-0485
2001 Dale Reno Renovation liner notes SLR-1002
1995 various artists/compilation Hand-Picked: 25 Years of Bluegrass on Rounder Records banjo Rounder
1995 Butch Robins Grounded, Centered, Focused banjo, producer Hay Holler 108
1995 Kathy Chiavola The Harvest banjo MYLABEL-1002
1994 Bill Monroe The Music of Bill Monroe: From 1936 to 1994 banjo MCA-11048
1994 Wayne Henderson Wayne Henderson and Co. banjo Hay Holler 107
1993 Kenny Baker Master Fiddler banjo COU-2705
1993 Kazuhiro  Inaba Goin’ Across the Sea banjo Hay Holler 104
1991 The Bluegrass Band Shine Hallelujah Shine, vol 1 banjo, vocals, co-producer Hay Holler 201
1991 The Bluegrass Band Shine Hallelujah Shine, vol 2 banjo, vocals, co-producer Hay Holler 202
1991 The Bluegrass Band Shine Hallelujah Shine, vol 3 banjo, vocals, co-producer Hay Holler 203
1990 The Bluegrass Band Once Again From the Top, vol 1 banjo, vocals Hay Holler 101
1990 The Bluegrass Band Once Again From the Top, vol 2 banjo, vocals Hay Holler 102
1990 The Bluegrass Band Second Cut banjo, vocals Hay Holler 100
1981 The Bluegrass Band Another Saturday Night banjo, producer Voyager LP 330-S
1981 Bill Monroe Master of Bluegrass banjo MCA
1981 Butch Robins The Fifth Child banjo, producer Rounder 0130
1980 Bill Monroe Bean-Blossom 1979 banjo, vocals MCA 3209
1979 Blaine Sprouse self-titled banjo, producer Rounder 0117
1978 Bill and James Monroe Together Again banjo MCA 633
1977 Buck White and the Down Home Folks Down Home Feeling banjo, producer
1977 Butch Robins Fragments of My Imagicnation banjo, 5-string Dobro, acous. guitar, mandolin, producer Rounder 0104
1976 Butch Robins 40 Years Late banjo, 5-string Dobro, producer Rounder 0086
1976 Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper self-titled banjo Rounder 0066
1976 Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper Sings the Carter’s Family’s Greatest Hits banjo Starday 980
1976 Kenny Baker Frost on the Pumpkin banjo County
1976 Tut Taylor Dobrolic Plectral Society banjo Takoma C-1050
1975 Tut Taylor The Old Post Office banjo Flying Fish 008
1975 Blake, Taylor, Bush, Robins, Holland, Burns, and Clements self-titled banjo HDS Records
1974 Ronnie Reno For the First TIme banjo Tally Records
1973 Leon Russell Hank Wilson’s Back Vol.1 5-string dobro SW-8923
1972 Vic Jordan Pickaway bass API Atteiram 1027
1972 Charlie Moore and the Dixie Partners Charlie Moore Sings Bluegrass Gospel banjo Vetco LP
1972 Charlie Moore and the Dixie Partners Charlie Moore Sings Good Bluegrass banjo Vetco LP 3011
1971 Charlie Moore and the Dixie Partners The Rebel Soldier banjo 45RPM–Wango ARP 1665
1970 Kenny Baker A Baker’s Dozen banjo County 730
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1 Response to Highlights of the McConnell Library Appalachian Music Collection- Butch Robins Part 2

  1. Lovely post, part 2.Lovely. Thanks for sharing your story.i love ready stories and to listen to people-what do they do, how do they get to where they are.
    Good you picked that phone and called Butch Robins. And the fact that he rang you back shortly, its even better leading to a meet up. Glad to hear you met with him, shared storeis, had a chat and had this amazing experience!
    Best of luck to a wonderful professional banjo player!

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