The very first bluegrass band to exist in greater Northern California was Vern & Ray and the Carroll County Country Boys. As early as 1959, Vern Williams (mandolin) & Ray Park (guitar) were playing with banjo player Luther Riley. The addition of Clyde Williamson on guitar later that year (and Ray’s switch to fiddle) truly solidified the group into a bona fide bluegrass band. But I’m getting ahead of myself; let me start at the beginning!
In 1950 Ray Park moved with his entire extended family from his 1933 birthplace of Treat, Arkansas back to Stockton, California (they had first come in 1941, then moved back to Arkansas) to look for work. Finding employment in the shipyards near Stockton, Ray’s family, including even his mother Lettie, helped put ships together. For most of the 1950’s Ray also played music with a country band in Stockton. Following a successful audition, Ray played with The Happy Hayseeds for seven years on KGDM radio and for a year on Channel 13 television. The Hayseeds used stand-up bass, fiddle/steel (6 string electric dobro-type) played by Ray, electric guitar, and rhythm guitar played by host Logan Laam himself.
In 1955 Ray also signed with Capital Records as a solo country act. He recorded four songs in Hollywood, but for business reasons, only one, called “You’re Gon’a Have to Bawl, That’s All”, was released. His band on the recording included Cliffy Stone and Ronny Booth, and otherwise essentially comprised Merle Haggard’s band. “My record sales started out slow and went down from there!” joked Ray, modestly (the single actually reached number 40 on the country music chart).
Originally from ‘just up the creek’ from Ray, born in 1930 in Newton County (Treat), Arkansas (though they had not known each other), Delbert Lavern “Vern” Williams, Sr. had played music back home with his mother, father and six siblings, including younger brother John Jr. (deceased 1990), as a teenager in the late 1940’s at home and at dances. “They’d get some moonshine, clear out the family room, spread some corn meal or sawdust on the floor and someone would get a fiddle and they’d have a little dance”, Vern remembers. Little Lavern played guitar at first, but moved to mandolin at age 17, doing duets with his brother “Junior”. Vern and Junior eventually entered a couple of contests, doing Carter Family and like numbers. But eventually Junior proved far too bashful to continue performing publicly.
Vern left Arkansas with Junior for California in 1950, Vern having been drafted by the United States Marine Corps and Junior looking for work. Junior landed in Northern California’s Linden, finding a job as a caretaker of a large walnut ranch on the Calaveras River in Bellota, CA. Vern went down to Camp Pendleton in Southern California with the Marines, where Ray Park was coincidentally also stationed at the same time (although the two did not meet since they were part of different outfits). After a two-year stint, Vern moved northward in 1952 to be closer to Junior and work in a meat-packing plant in Stockton, CA. He married Marjory Vogler in September of that year, in Peters, CA.
By 1956 Ray had decided he also wanted to make records, so he bought a state-of-the-art $700.00 Ampex tape recorder. About a year later Ray’s cousin Jeff Page mentioned to Ray, by that time fancying himself a talent scout and recordist, that there were “a couple of old boys up there [nearby Ray, in Linden, CA] that sing real good. You oughta hear them.” Jeff told Ray. So Ray went up to listen to Vern (mandolin) and Junior (guitar). The Williams’ were doing brother duet type material and, as Ray insisted, “they were good!” But when Ray offered to record the Williams brothers, Junior “got real backward and he wouldn’t sing no more, for some reason.” So Ray said “lemme have that damn guit-tar.” Soon Ray and Vern began jamming every evening.
Twenty-four miles east of Stockton, on the Valley Springs Highway, in the mid 1950s was the Oak Grove Dance Pavilion where on Saturday nights a regular dance was held from 9pm-2am. As Ray put it “Dance started at 9:00 and the fights started at 9:30.” Logan Lam (of radio fame, above), led the house band, which he later turned over to Ray, who later began to include Vern in the band to play electric/acoustic mandolin. The group was hired to play country music, which they did most of the time, but when a friend from Sacramento, CA (originally from Hazard, KY) Luther Riley sat in on banjo in 1958, what the band played sounded like bluegrass. “It used to make all the people mad; they wanted slower dance music, and we were trying to play Rawhide.” laughs Ray.
Vern remembers that Vern & Ray’s first performance together (sans banjo) was a New Years Eve dance in Wallace, CA in 1958. At some point soon thereafter, Vern and Ray decided to form a dedicated bluegrass band. Ray played guitar with Vern from the beginning because they could not find anyone who could meet Ray’s high standards for rhythm guitar playing. Also, at that time, singing parts and instruments were fixed together and Ray was the lead singer, which required guitar playing. But Ray always longed to play his first loved instrument, the fiddle.
By 1959 Vern and Ray finally found an acceptable, even down-right good, guitar player, so Ray was able to move back to fiddle. Clyde Williamson, originally from Oklahoma and living in West Sacramento, CA (now famous for writing the bluegrass classic “Cabin on a Mountain”) filled the slot. Because bluegrass bass players were scarce, the foursome basically used whoever they could find to fill-in on stand-up bass. Nonetheless, with the addition of Williamson in 1959, the configuration of Williamson’s guitar, with Ray on fiddle and lead vocals, Vern on mandolin and tenor vocals, and Riley picking banjo, they finally constituted a bona fide bluegrass ‘band’.
Later in 1959 the band had its first professional booking with these four key members. A disc jockey called Black Jack Wayne had a TV show out of Oakland and ran a dance hall at the Dream Bowl near Napa, CA. The band auditioned and Wayne put them on television right away. Although they were never actually paid for their work, they had the opportunity to back top national touring artists passing through town, including Jimmy Dickens and Mac Wiseman. Also while performing at the Dream Bowl, Vern & Ray met local “city boys” the Redwood Canyon Ramblers, the Bay Area’s first bluegrass band. “RCR” mandolinist Scott Hambly had heard about Vern and Ray, and searched out Ray at the show, coaxing him out to his car to show him his mandolin licks. Neil Rosenberg, RCR’s banjo player and later author of the original text on bluegrass, Bluegrass: A History, met Vern at one of Hambly’s famous basement jams in Berkeley at Christmas of 1961. The relationship between the two bands would flourish, producing long lasting respect and friendship, as well as several memorable double bill shows.
The band already felt confident enough in their sound by 1960 to make a trek to a local recording studio. It was a success, resulting in their first release, a four-song 45 rpm extended play record (EP) sent to, and released on, Starday in 1961 (SEP 175) featuring “Bluegrass Style” (Luther Riley), “Cabin on a Mountain” (Clyde Williamson), “Carroll County Breakdown” (Luther Riley), and “Thinking of Home” (Ray Park and Vern Williams), under the name Carroll County Country Boys. On the session, Vern played mandolin, Ray the fiddle, Clyde guitar, Luther alternating between banjo and Dobro, and Bill Carter string bass. The recording took place in a chicken house in Modesto, CA on an Ampex tape recorder. Of particular note was a humorous exchange between producer/engineer Cal Veal and Vern. Vern is now known and loved for his particularly cutting tenor vocal style, but at the time, it was, shall we say, “unique”. Listening back to some vocal takes, engineer Veal said to Vern “Vern, I could take a little edge off that voice if you want me to.” Retorting without hesitation, Vern jibbed “Hell no, I’ve worked to damn long to get it that way!”
But things change, and by 1963 Clyde had had enough of playing in the band, so he left. This meant Ray would go back to rhythm guitar. Later in 1963 Luther left the band as well, reportedly because of excessive drinking, and Vern & Ray found themselves in need of a new banjo picker. So, for a period around 1964 Vern and Ray were informally retired, not being able to find a regular group. Finally in 1965, they found Riley’s replacement in Rick Shubb, from Berkeley, CA. (Of course, pickers will recognize the name Shubb for his immensely popular capos.)
By 1966, however, Vern and Ray had found the banjo player that was to become their most famous, Herb Pedersen, from the Pine Valley Boys band. Unlike most other local musicians, Herb was not shy about singing. “He sang, so he was in.” Vern claims. He had a sophisticated musical sense and really helped propel the duo by working out arrangements and complex vocal harmonies. This band, with Vern, Ray and Herb, fueled by the success of the Starday EP and a related anthology called “More Banjo In The Hills” (Starday SLP 169), became so ‘hot’ by 1967 that they decided this was the time to ‘go for it’ and make or break the group, so they headed for Nashville. Vern and Ray took off first, with Herb following close behind, piling his family into a VW Bug driving from California all the way to the Music City. But Nashville was not yet ready for the bluegrass revolution, and Vern and Ray were not successful in finding regular work there. In 1969 Ray returned to California after 18 months, Herb returned to L.A. to replace Doug in the Dillards and Vern back to his home state of Arkansas.
Luckily for Californians, Vern missed his favorite fishing holes back in the Golden State, and soon returned to the Stockton area, and of course falling back into playing again with Ray. In 1970, Ray drove past a 14 year old boy holding a banjo. The boy, named Keith Little, was not only accomplished in Scruggs-style bluegrass banjo, but knew much of the Vern & Ray material. Ray introduced Keith to his son Larry, and eventually the two young bluegrassers met up with Vern’s son Delbert (Jr.) to form their own band, which would play at Vern & Ray concert intermissions.
Vern & Ray stayed together through 1974 when, along with Herb Pedersen (banjo) Howard Courtney (bass), or alternatively (in a later session) Rick Shubb (banjo) and wife Markie Sanders (bass), they recorded and released “Sounds From the Ozarks” on Old Homestead (OHW - 10001). Vern and Ray’s relationship had been arguably unstable for years, but the frustrating process of recording and releasing that album was finally enough to cause the breakup of the two, and therefore the band, in 1974. The two did get back together off and on over the next two decades, with their last appearance together in 1999 at Dave Baker’s annual Wolf Mountain Bluegrass Festival in Grass Valley, California, where they were joined by former bandmate Herb Pedersen, with fiddler Ed Neff and bassist Steve Pottier. The band was in fine form, playing to a clearly appreciative crowd. As he was famous for doing, after the show Vern proceeded to jam all night long in the parking lot and at the campsites.
Much has been said about the stormy nature of the relationship between Vern and Ray, but at the time of this printing, Vern insisted to this author that he and Ray actually did not have such major differences and that “people talked up the problems”. Indeed, Vern confessed that since Ray passed away, each night as he lay down to sleep, he would sing “What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul” for Ray.
Later in 1974, Vern formed his own band with son Delbert on guitar and the aforementioned Keith Little on banjo. Vern trained them evening after evening in the kitchen of his house. At first the boys were too shy to sing, but before too long they got the hang of it, and they ultimately produced what some say are the best trios the state would ever hear. The Vern Williams Band was booked into the first CBA Grass Valley Festival in 1976, and went on to record one of the most influential bluegrass recordings from California, 1981’s “Bluegrass From the Gold Country” (Rounder 0131). “Gold Country” was the brainchild of Rounder Records co-Founder Ken Irwin, who contacted Vern in 1980 about doing a Vern & Ray recording, but found the two no longer working together. Irwin was quickly introduced to the singing and playing of Vern, Delbert and Keith by demo tapes (made right in Vern’s kitchen!), and asked the band to record a full length album. For this effort, they enlisted the talents of the top Northern California fiddler and bass player Ed Neff and Kevin Thompson, respectively, recording the album at the famous Bay Studios in Berkeley, CA. Further recordings featuring this dynamic trio backing Rose Maddox in “Rose of the West Coast Country” (Arhoolie 5024) (which also included Ray) and then “Beautiful Bouquet” (Arhoolie 5030), both from the early 1980’s. Their last performance together was in 1992, also at Wolf Mountain. In 2002, Delbert (Jr.) started a new band called True Blue, also including ex-Vern Williams Band member Ed Neff.
During their tenure playing, Vern Williams and Ray Park would have an indelible mark on the development and future of bluegrass music in California. In 1997 the duo received the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Distinguished Achievement Award (formerly known as the Award of Merit) for their contributions to the music. From Vern’s high volume, biting tenor singing, and Ray’s remarkable talent on the fiddle, to the duo’s authenticity and dedication to hard core traditional bluegrass music, and now classic song repertoire, landmark California musicians never hesitate to wax poetic and heartfelt on the incredible influence Vern & Ray had on them as musicians.
"For many of us bluegrass pups on the West Coast in the early and mid 60's, Vern and Ray were our connection to 'the real thing'... we were pretty isolated out here. Vern and Ray were not only the genuine article and a source of inspiration, but were very supportive of the efforts of the local pickers to learn to play the music. We owe them a lot.” Butch Waller, keeper of the Monroe-style mandolin flame, and leader of California’s longest running bluegrass band “High Country”.
Herb Pederson, former Vern & Ray bandmember, current L.A. studio wizard and Laurel Canyon Ramblers band leader: "Vern & Ray's music and style effected everybody on the West Coast who still plays bluegrass. I know personally, every time I sing certain lead lines, it's because of Ray's phrasing, and when I sing tenor, I think of how Vern might attack it. I was 20 when I started with them back in '64, and they're still teaching me things almost 40 years later."
Songs made known by Vern and/or Ray have been recorded by Lost Highway, Laurie Lewis, Kathy Kallick, Open Road, and perhaps most notably by turn-of-the-millennium supergroup Longview, who have adopted at least three Vern and/or Ray chestnuts. These recordings, along with the originals, serve to preserve the memory of these highly influential musicians, who formed the first bluegrass band in Northern California, forever more.
* Matt Dudman is a bluegrass fanatic, picker and occasional writer who would like to thank Ray, Vern, and Del Williams for their invaluable help providing facts for this piece. This article is meant as a tribute to California’s most influential bluegrass musicians and is dedicated to the memory of Ray Park (1933 - 2002).