‘Being two black people, it was very unique to be playing that kind of music,’ says Brent Williams
If you lived in Nova Scotia in the late 1950s, you knew when The Birch Mountain Boys had rolled into town.
The bluegrass trio travelled around in a station wagon with a large upright bass strapped to the roof.
They played in school houses, halls and theatres to a dozen or so people, humble beginnings for a band that would go on to make music history in Canada.
The group is believed to be one of the first to play and record bluegrass music north of the border, according to a new episode of The Folk, a podcast that traces the history of folk music in Canada.
The episode on Maritime bluegrass was released Thursday and is available to stream for free on the podcast’s website.
“We weren’t even thinking about whether there was anybody else doing it or not,” said Brent Williams, who played fiddle and guitar in the band, and has had a long career in country and gospel music.
“We were just happy to be out there playing music that we enjoyed playing.”
Bluegrass musician Vic Mullen, who went on to join Don Messer’s Jubilee on CBC, recruited childhood friends, Williams and Harry Cromwell, for his band.
The three founding members started touring across the Maritimes around 1958.
“I’m sure it would have perked up a lot of people’s ears because it was a very new way of combining older elements of music in an exciting fast way,” Mike Tod, an ethnomusicologist and the creator of The Folk podcast, told CBC’s Information Morning.
Tod, who lives in Calgary, has spent the last several years interviewing musicians like Williams, who he calls the unsung heroes of folk music in Canada. He’s turned those interviews into 13 episodes that highlight the stories of the country’s musical pioneers.
Bluegrass music was born in the Appalachian region of the United States in the 1940s, and before long was being broadcast over the radio to Williams, a music loving kid in Hassett, N.S.
The Williams’ home just south of Weymouth didn’t have a TV, so the family’s connection to the world was through the radio.
“We didn’t want any more than what we had because we didn’t know there was anything more basically,” said the 79-year-old man, who now lives in Lakefield, Ont.
“We never went hungry or anything like that, and anybody that did come up short, we helped them out.”
When Williams wasn’t working on his family’s property or exploring the many lakes in the area, he was tuning in to WSM radio’s Grand Ole Opry broadcast out of Nashville, Tenn.
His mom would sing along to the gospel songs that spilled from the speakers on Sunday morning, and Williams would dream of one day joining the musicians he heard.
“I could visualize those guys on stage and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to be doing,'” he said. “And I knew that when I was seven or eight years old.”
Williams didn’t have to wait long for that dream to come true. He joined Mullen and Cromwell on the road when he was just 18 years old.
“They were certainly some of the best years, and it got me introduced to the business,” he said.
The Birch Mountain Boys toured small towns a year before the Fair Accommodations Act was enacted, which ended segregation in Nova Scotia — on paper at least.
“Being two black people, Harry and I, like it was very … unique to be playing that kind of music in the first place. But we never looked at colour when it came to music. We just looked at what we enjoyed playing,” Williams said.
Neil Rosenberg, professor emeritus in the department of folkore at Memorial University in Newfoundland, said the band would have been an inspiration to other young musicians.
“We need to respect people who stuck their neck out, who laid it on the line, who brought this music out in public at a time when other people didn’t know about it,” said Rosenberg, a musician himself who has written several books about the history of bluegrass.
Rosenberg said there was another band in Toronto called the York County Boys recording bluegrass music around the same time as The Birch Mountain Boys.
Fast forward six decades and there are now bluegrass festivals from coast to coast and a national association that represents musicians.
Williams was inducted into the Nova Scotia Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013 and received a lifetime achievement award from the African Nova Scotian Music Association in 2015.
He said people still ask him about the early days of bluegrass
“Wherever I go, people remember because we were so unique,” he said.
Williams’ musical tastes evolved to country and now gospel, but he says his bluegrass days aren’t entirely behind him.
He’s spoken to Mullen and Cromwell and said the trio is considering getting the band back together for another tour as early as next year.
You can listen to The Folk‘s episode on The Birch Mountain Boys and bluegrass music in Canada here: