WASHINGTON – For 47 years, Charlie Waller was the voice and the rhythmic soul of modern bluegrass music, singing and playing guitar with the Country Gentlemen, the influential, widely traveled band he helped found in Washington in 1957.
By the time he died at age 69 last Wednesday of a heart attack in his garden in Gordonsville, Va., he had helped transport bluegrass from the front porches of the Appalachians to college campuses, concert halls and the nightclubs of Georgetown.
In the 1960s, when Washington was the capital of bluegrass, the Country Gentlemen were the undisputed kings of what was called the “new-grass revival,” recording albums that influenced younger musicians and launching bluegrass in a more popular direction.
If Bill Monroe, who died in 1996, was considered the father of the traditional bluegrass sound, Waller and the Country Gentlemen captured the ears and hearts of a new generation that never had listened to bluegrass before.
“The Country Gentlemen,” Washington Post critic Richard Harrington wrote in 1996, “probably made more bluegrass converts in the ‘60s than Bill Monroe himself.”
With Waller’s resonant baritone voice blending with the haunting tenor of John Duffey, the Country Gentlemen expanded the musical language of bluegrass by introducing elements of folk music, country and jazz to its blues and gospel roots.
Along with other members of the group, Waller was admitted to the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Honor in 1996. He was named contemporary bluegrass male vocalist of the year 10 times.
“He had one of the great voices in any kind of music,” said Len Holsclaw, who managed the Country Gentlemen from 1971 to 1998. “It stayed with him until the day he died.”
As other early members of the group – Duffey, banjo star Eddie Adcock, bassist Tom Gray – departed, Waller carried the flame as the sole original member of the Country Gentlemen, leading the group until his death.
His final local performances were in late July at the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va. In his review, Washington Post critic Mike Joyce praised Waller’s “unmistakable voice, still warmly resonant after all these years.”
Waller recorded more than 50 albums with the Country Gentlemen, including “Songs of the American Spirit,” to be released next week. An article in Bluegrass Unlimited magazine in 2002 described the Country Gentlemen as “one of the most popular, influential and important bluegrass bands to ever grace a stage or record a song.”
Waller was born in Joinerville, Texas, and moved with his family to Lake Charles, La., when he was 2 years old. In 1945, when he was 10, he followed his mother to Washington, where she ran a boardinghouse. Inspired by country singer Hank Snow, he got his first paying job as a musician when he was 13.
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