The Adcocks: An original blend that's unmistakably bluegrass

Eddie and Martha Adcock will Tom Gray play at the Cultural Arts Center on Thursday, April 27, at 6:45 p.m.

Two-Grass soaks up old fashioned rock 'n roll, gospel music, jazz and folk and pop.

Martha Adcock coined the term to describe the modern manifestations of a 33-year collaboration with her husband, Eddie Adcock. The duet, which performs some 100 shows annually, has been described as both "Sonny and Cher" and the "loudest little band in bluegrass."

"We don't try to limit ourselves or try to do a particular style," Martha explains.

They never have. In fact, the Adcocks once used Two-Grass ingredients to cook up the most experimental bluegrass band of its era: II (Second) Generation, a '70s outfit that wavered between five and seven pieces, sparked a departure from tradition, paving the road for popular bands like New Grass Revival.

As it happens, Eddie's musical contributions are not as well known as they perhaps should be.

Martha is fully aware. She has a tendency to put things simply: II Generation, for instance, "was very cool."

When her husband rises in a question, on the other hand, she rings like a bell.

"Eddie never did many interviews," she notes. "I'd like to help make sure he gets the credit he deserves."

Beginnings

Raised in Scottsville, Va, Eddie Adcock, born in 1939, itched for a life off the farm by the time he hit his teens. At 15, he responded to an advertisement: Smokey Graves & His Blue Star Boys needed a five-string banjo player.

Adcock had been playing mandolin; regardless, he wrote Graves a letter asking for an audition. In the meantime he bought a banjo, which he played "night and day" for two weeks.

"I can tell you're a musician," Graves said to Adcock when the day arrived. "You're just not a banjo player."

Yet Graves knew it would only take a few months for Adcock to cut his teeth. He signed him on in 1954, and in little time, carted him off to play the Saturday night dances around Virginia and just about everywhere else in-between.

During this time Adcock played with the likes of Mac Wiseman, Bill Harrell and Buzz Busby.

From the beginning, "I insisted on playing (banjo) my way," he says. The motivations were utilitarian: "The biggest reason was how awful it was to find people to play who you could learn from."

Even the father of traditional bluegrass, Bill Monroe, decided not to intrude when Adcock landed a job with The Bluegrass Boys in 1957. "If you had conviction that was ironclad he would let you do your own thing ... He would recognize it as quick as anyone," recalled Adcock.

To make ends meet, Adcock worked with sheet metal, as a truck driver, and did farm work. He worked as an auto mechanic for major dealers in Arlington and Falls Church. He earned money as a semi-professional boxer and racecar driver, collecting 34 straight wins at one point.

The job with Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys, for one, failed to provide a living. Folk was coming into vogue, which translated to rough times for bluegrass. Monroe could not pay his band what he originally promised.

"Tired of starving," Adcock left the band after only a year to work full time.

It wasn't long, however, before The Country Gentlemen were knocking on the door.

Adcock was reluctant to join. He wouldn't do so unless they agreed to try a new and progressive approach. Jim Cox, John Duffey and Charlie Waller agreed.

For Adcock, the inclination to press the envelope was not a personal vendetta, it was simply what bluegrass needed to survive.

"I felt like it was the only choice we had to eat and have a house like everyone else," he says.

Members of The Country Gentlemen scoured the Library of Congress, digging up long-forgotten material. They propelled bluegrass into realms, putting a fresh spin on old standards, incorporating contemporary country, rock, and folk, including Bob Dylan.

Yet bluegrass remained in a downward spiral. There were few places to play. Even the well-known bands weren't making money.

Some of the best, like Mac Wiseman, "saw it coming," Adcock says, and opted for a steady paycheck.

But in the D.C. area, college students, who knew little about Monroe or Ralph Stanley, were starting to catch on.

"Away we went," Adcock says, growing in popularity on a college circuit that mainly perpetuated itself through word of mouth.

Bluegrass had never made an attempt to appeal to young people or the cities. This may not seem like a big deal in hindsight; however, it should be noted that the term "bluegrass" was just coming into use, less associated with music than something fed to horses. Even Monroe mostly called it "country" or "hillbilly."

Adcock firmly believes that if the Country Gentlemen had not forged this path, other bands -- even Monroe's -- may have been forced to fold.

The Gentlemen wore "gaudy bowling shirts" to fit in. They engaged audiences with stage presence and comedy.

Not all of the purists were happy. It was certainly good, many agreed, but not bluegrass.

Meet Martha

Martha Hearon was trained in classical music. She studied piano for more than a decade, until her interests turned to folk and string music.

"It was only a short jump to bluegrass," she says.

The epiphany took place at a festival in Union Grove, Va., during a rendition of "Rocky Top." The song was still fairly new.

"It grabbed me, raised the hairs on my neck," she said.

Hearon came to admire the likes of Mac Wiseman, Jimmy Martin and The Osborne Brothers.

Add The Country Gentlemen, particularly Waller, whose powerful yet subtle rhythm guitar provided her a model.

Only five feet two inches tall, her "fingers not very long," Waller bestowed Hearon the confidence to pick up a 6-string guitar, to lay down the tenor and baritone ukulele.

Her future husband, meanwhile, had already left the Gentlemen and moved to California. While the band may have been progressive at the time, Adcock seemed to be on a different level. He felt constrained.

Donning disguises, long hair, Clinton Codack (an anagram for Adcock) was playing country rock with a twist of jazz and folk and pop he called "redneck jazz."

Hearon, meanwhile, was starting to write songs. She moved to Nashville -- the sight of an alternative country scene -- in 1973, and took a job at Old Time Picking Parlor, doing instrument inlay and repair.

Adcock walked in one day, "plopped himself down and introduced himself," she recalls. "It's weird to say this but it felt like I knew him in another life."

He and Bob White, A.L. Wood, Wendy Thatcher, and Jimmy Gaudreau had recently formed II Generation. Hearon ran sound for a few months until a guitar spot opened.

With Hearon on rhythm guitar and writing songs, II Generation's lineup essentially jelled in '73. She and Adcock married in '76.

II Generation offered extended jams and solos backed with explosive harmonies. "This is newgrass," the band would commonly announce.

A set might consist of only four or five songs. "We were free spirited," Adcock says. "You would get up onstage and play your thoughts the way they were coming out at the moment, all of us would at the same time; you would do anything you want."

The rift it caused was easily observed from their vantage point. As they tuned up at festivals, the old crowd would file out, "a sea of blue hairs" -- college students and hippies -- would move in.

"Bluegrass was well on its way when the kids were behind it," Adcock claims, noting that it was not uncommon for festivals to be attended by as many as 10,000.

"It was nice to get up and display your art and have people acknowledge you were there." Better than "feeling like you are a jukebox," Eddie says, which he has on occasion.

Adaptation

The Adcocks have witnessed and experienced bluegrass' undulating popularity. Intuitively avant garde, they sought pure art when it was a viable possibility, when bluegrass was popular with college students.

But when the hipsters ditched the scene it left the original audience: diehards in one sense, purists in another.

In the years since II Generation folded in 1980, the Adcocks have adapted to shifting tastes and sensibilities.

"You can play what you want in front of an audience without committing suicide," Eddie says.

Martha adds, "We like to explore all of our options."

Upon the demise of II Generation, a duo morphed into a country rock trio, Talk of the Town, with Missy Raines. Eddie made a "gitbo," a doubleneck electric guitar and banjo to complement a drummer and Martha on rhythm. Other configurations include The Eddie Adcock Band, The Masters (with Kenny Baker, Josh Graves, and Jesse McReynolds), the Allstars, All Thumbs, and Adcock, a country rock group.

In the mid '80s, Eddie and Martha teamed with David Allen Coe.

"We would play a couple of hours of bluegrass," Martha says, "then we would hit'em with 130 GBs."

This evening, at the Cultural Arts Center, The Adcocks will team up with legendary bassist Tom Gray, formerly of the "classic" Country Gentlemen. Gray, based in D.C., generally hooks up with the Adcocks a couple times each year.

In 2006, the Adcocks, it seems, have fused experimental roots with a pull towards acoustic music and a firm commitment to musicianship: A long list of influences produce an original blend that's unmistakably bluegrass.

Martha's lyrics are robust and clear. She offers impeccable rhythm and most of the lead vocals. Eddie offers the instrumentals, banjo licks best described as pure Adcock. He harmonizes underneath in a soft yet penetrating tone.

"Our blend has come home to us," Eddie says. "It took awhile, but I think it's there."

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Eddie and Martha Adcock with Tom Gray will perform at the Cultural Arts Center, 15 W. Patrick., on Thursday, April 27. The show starts at 6:45. Doors open at 6. Tickets, available at the door, are $17.50. Call 301-694-3535. On the Net: www.sundaybluegrass.com.

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