The CHURCH BROTHERS & Their Blue Ridge Ramblers: hot Bluegrass Bop from Carolina

Bopping.org is proud to greet one of the best mandolin payers in Europe (along with this Truffle Valley Boys), also one of the finest collectors/connoisseurs of 40’s/50’s Bluegrass music. Mr. Matt Ringressi has given to me the right to publish his detailed essay about the legendary Church Brothers & Their Blue Ridge Ramblers.

The Church Brothers & their Blue Ridge Ramblers

A short essay and complete discography by Matt Ringressi
– with acknowledgements to Clarence Greene, Ward Eller, Jeff Michael, Vivian Pennington Hopkins –

Hailing from Wilkes County, and precisely the Mount Pleasant community near Ferguson, NC, the Church Brothers are a prime example of an early Blue Grass group that developed an instantly recognizable, distinctive sound, and also produced excellent original material.
Born in a large family to Albert Church, a sawmill worker and also a fiddle and banjo player, and his wife Bessie, William Cears “Bill” (born 1922/09/08), Edwin (born 1925/07/29) and Ralph Arthur (1928/06/28) Church were always surrounded by music, and started playing instruments while still in their teens. Along with their first cousin Arthur Ward Eller (born 1930/05/24) and Drake Walsh (son of old-time banjo player Dock Walsh) they formed their first full band in 1946, after both Bill and Edwin had returned from the Navy. By Ralph’s own admission, “we always listened to Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs—we believed in Blue Grass”. Bill and Ward played guitars, Ralph played mandolin, Edwin was on fiddle and Drake played banjo.

They started out on radio station WILX in North Wilkesboro, NC, billed as the Wilkes County Entertainers, and soon met James Gar Bowers, who became their banjo player replacing Walsh. Sometime during 1948 they switched to radio WKBC, also in North Wilkesboro. It was then that they changed their band name to the Church Brothers and their Blue Ridge Ramblers. The station had been one of the first in the region to regularly feature Blue Grass acts – even the Stanley Brothers had worked there. One of the lesser known local bands working on WKBC, the Carolina Pardners, furnished the Church Brothers’ band with their next banjo player: Johnny Nelson (born 1931/06/28 in Caldwell County, NC). While at WKBC they also met another of their future associates, multi-instrumentalist Ralph Pennington, who became a steady member of the band shortly thereafter, and mainly played bass (he was also an accomplished fiddle and mandolin player).

In 1949, the band met Drusilla Adams

, budding songwriter from North Wilkesboro. An extremely prolific association was born – Drusilla provided the band with fresh original material, and the Church Brothers would perform and record her songs, showcasing her writing talents.
In the summer of 1950, the band made contact with Jim Stanton, owner of the Rich- R-Tone label out of Johnson City, TN.
Their first session was held in the latter part of 1950 at a radio station in Johnson City, TN (per Ralph Church, although it is possible it actually took place at WOPI station in Bristol, TN/VA, as did many Rich-R-Tone sessions).
The 1950/12/16 Billboard reports the Church Brothers signing a 5-year pact with Rich-R-Tone (shown in the picture on the left). This contract required the band to record 8 sides per year. The signing is again mentioned in the 1951/01/20 and 1951/06/09 Billboard.

The Rich-R’-Tone recordings

The first release from this session (RRT 1009) came around the Summer of 1951, and the second one (RRT 1017) followed in the Fall. These two records greatly boosted the popularity of the Blue Ridge Ramblers, who started to play more and more personal appearances in North Carolina and neighboring states.

The first release from this session (RRT 1009) came around the Summer of 1951, and the second one (RRT 1017) followed in the Fall. These two records greatly boosted the popularity of the Blue Ridge Ramblers, who started to play more and more personal appearances in North Carolina and neighboring states.

A Sweeter Love Than Yours I'll Never Know

by The Church Brothers

The October 27th, 1951 session (Buffalo Jonson, lead vocal)

The second (and final, as it turned out) session for Rich-R-Tone took place October, where the band also backed up country singer Buffalo Johnson for two numbers – and although their records were doing rather well, their thoughts were elsewhere. By this time, the band had pretty much decided to not work with Stanton anymore.

Roll In My Sweet Baby's Arms (Rounder LP)

by The Church Brothers (Bill, lead vocal)

The late 1951 session

Broken Vows And A Broken Heart

by The Church Brothers

Free from their commitment with Stanton, the band rushed into the studio of WKBC station, North Wilkesboro, NC, as 1951 drew to a close, and recorded their first Blue Ridge session. Their first release on the label (made up of two tracks recorded at the first session for Rich-R-Tone) was out in December 1951.
The band’s popularity grew even more, with Drusilla Adams relentless promotion. In 1952, the band had another session at WPAQ station in Mount Airy, and 2 more records came out on the Blue Ridge label.

In the meantime, in the Summer of 1951, Drusilla’s father, Noah Adams, had decided to start his own label to better handle the promotion of his daughter’s songwriting, and had quickly arranged a recording session by Virginian Jim Eanes.
In October or November 1951, Adams traded 4 of the Eanes masters to Stanton in exchange for the 4 Church Brothers masters that Rich-R-Tone had not yet released.
This apparently allowed the band an “exception” to the 5-year pact signed the previous year.

The November/December 1951 session

Sometimes in the Summer of 1952, Johnny Nelson was drafted in Korea, leaving the band without a banjoist. The Church boys called on an old friend, just fresh out of a tenure with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys – James Gar Bowers rejoined the Blue Ridge Ramblers, and even recorded a session with them in October 1952 (as well as a couple of tracks together with Ralph Church helping out Joe Franklin).
Things were looking up, but the band was reluctant to travel: family commitments kept them from long-distance touring. Their final Blue Ridge release came out in February 1953, and with the sudden passing of Johnny Nelson in a car accident in the same time frame, the flame started fading, and the band gradually dissolved.
Ralph Church and Ralph Pennington continued to play music until their passing, as does Ward Eller who is still alive and performing around North Wilkesboro, NC.
Note: I have to apologize to Xavier for the delay in the completion of the essay – work on my small-label Blue Grass 78RPM discography has kept me very busy in the past year. I hope all the readers enjoy it! Matt Ringressi

It’s been quite some work to arrange two discographies given by Matt: one as sessionography, the other in terms of releases. There was also the task of tunes recorded by Rich-R’-Tone and finally issued by Blue Ridge. I hope anyway the readers will enjoy the article.
My sincere thanks go to Matt and also Roland Keppner, who provided some hard-to-find sound files.

Releases Discography/span;

Note: The four-digit number in brackets were arbitrarily assigned to each master, and printed on the record’s dead wax to ensure the use of the correct label – these are NOT master numbers.

Rich-R’-Tone

1009 Church Brothers & their Blue Ridge Ramblers
Released 1951
I’m Lonely For You (Bill Church) [1302]
A Sweeter Love Than Yours I’ll Never Know (Bill Church) [1400]

1017 Church Brothers & their Blue Ridge Ramblers
Released 1951/09/17
I Know My Name Will Be Called Up There (Drusilla Adams – Bill Church) [1310]
We’ll Meet Up There (Drusilla Adams – Bill Church) [1408]

1019 Buffalo Johnson and the Church Brothers & their Blue Ridge Ramblers
Released November 1951
Day Dreaming (Gladys Gobble) [1312]
I Don’t Know What To Do (Gladys Gobble) [1410]

Blue Ridge
Note: Blue Ridge numbering is highly trivial in that it doesn’t have chronological coherency. Records are presented here ordered by assigned number and NOT release date.

101 Church Brothers & Their Blue Ridge Ramblers
Released early 1952
Darling Brown Eyes (Drusilla Adams – Bill Church) [1203]
Someone Else Is Loving You (Drusilla Adams – Bill Church) [1706]

209 Church Brothers and their Blue Ridge Ramblers
Released 1953/02/19
Way Down In Ole Caroline (Drusilla Adams – Bill Church) [0990]
Broken Vows And A Broken Heart (Drusilla Adams – Bill Church) [1109]

609 Church Brothers and their Blue Ridge Ramblers
Released December 1951
No One To Love Me (Drusilla Adams – Bill Church) [1211]
You’re Still The Rose Of My Heart (Drusilla Adams – Bill Church) [1717]

1208 Church Brothers & Their Blue Ridge Ramblers
Released 1952
An Angel With Blue Eyes (Drusilla Adams – Bill Church) [4069]
When Jesus Calls You Home (Drusilla Adams – Bill Church) [5031]

___________ __Session Discography ___________________
Note: this is an excerpt from Matt Ringressi’s upcoming discography of small-label Blue Grass 78RPM records. Reproduction unauthorized without permission.
Late 1950 – Johnson City, TN (or WOPI station, Bristol, TN/VA)
Church Brothers and their Hillbilly Ramblers
Bill Church: Guitar
Lead vocal (A)
Ralph Church: Mandolin
Tenor vocal (B)
Ward Eller: Guitar
Lead vocal (C)
Baritone vocal (D)
Johnny Nelson: Banjo (1)
Edwin Church: Fiddle (2)
poss. bass vocal (E)
Ralph Pennington: Bass (3)

Darling Brown Eyes 1-2-3-
(Drusilla Adams – Bill Church) A-B [1203] Blue Ridge 101-A
No One To Love Me 1-2-3-
(Drusilla Adams – Bill Church) A-B-D [1211] Blue Ridge 609-A
I’m Lonely For You 1-2-
(Bill Church) 3-A [1302] RRT 1009-A
I Know My Name Will Be Called Up There A-B-
(Drusilla Adams – Bill Church) D-E [1310] RRT 1017-A
A Sweeter Love Than Yours I’ll Never Know 1-2-3-
(Bill Church) A-B [1400] RRT 1009-B
We’ll Meet Up There A-B-
(Drusilla Adams – Bill Church) D-E [1408] RRT 1017-B
You’re Still The Rose Of My Heart 1-2-
(Drusilla Adams – Bill Church) 3-C [1717] Blue Ridge 609-B
Beneath The North Carolina Moon 1-2-
3-A [-] Blue Ridge – Unissued

Blue Ridge 609 released December 1951
Rich-R-Tone 1009 released ca. August or September 1951
Rich-R-Tone 1017 released October 1951
Note: this session was produced by Drusilla and Noah Adams for release on Rich-R-Tone, as a mean to showcase Drusilla’s songwriting. The Adamses had not yet started Blue Ridge records.

Note(2): “You’re Still The Rose Of My Heart” was believed to have been recorded at the first Blue Ridge session in 1951, however aural evidence, together with Ward Eller having stated he was drafted in 1951, clearly identifies it as from this one. Per Ralph Church, eight sides were recorded at this session. This is coherent with one of the clauses of the Rich-R-Tone contract, as reported by the 1950/12/16 issue of Billboard.

Note(3): in ca. October or November 1951, the Adamses gave 4 Jim Eanes masters to Stanton in exchange for the 4 unreleased Chuch Brothers masters in possession of Rich-R-Tone.
1951/10/27 – Unknown location (poss. WOPI station, Bristol, TN/VA)
Buffalo Johnson & the Church Bros & their Blue Ridge Ramblers
Buffalo Johnson: Lead vocal (A)
Lead vocal on verses (B)
Bill Church: Guitar
Lead vocal (C)
Lead vocal on chorus (D)
Ralph Church: Mandolin
Tenor vocal (E)
Johnny Nelson: Banjo
Edwin Church: Fiddle
poss. Baritone vocal (F)
Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms C-E-F [-] RRT – Unissued
Day Dreaming A [1312] RRT 1019-A
(Gladys Gobble)
Day Dreaming (alt) A [-] RRT – Unissued
I Don’t Know What To Do B-D-E [1410] RRT 1019-B (Gladys Gobble)
I Don’t Know What To Do (alt) B-D-E [-] RRT – Unissued
Rich-R-Tone 1019 released ca. December 1951 (mentioned in Billboard 1951/11/24)
Note: the 1951/11/24 issue of Billboard reports this session having been just cut. The band would have still been working for Stanton at the time of the session, and the trade of masters with Adams had probably not yet happened (or had just happened).
Note(2): in past studies, it has been contended that the banjo player on this session does not sound like Johnny Nelson. However, hard evidence shows Nelson played the following sessions (see following pages), so he was still with the band by that point. Furthermore, James Gar Bowers (who would have played banjo with the Church Brothers later in 1952) would have been working with Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys during this time frame (he recorded with Monroe the very day after this session).
Note(3): per Ward Eller’s recollections, he was drafted in the army in 1951 and stayed for two years. He most probably did not take part in this recording session, or the following ones.

ca. November or December 1951 – WKBC station, North Wilkesboro, NC
Church Brothers and their Hillbilly Ramblers
Bill Church: Guitar
Lead vocal (A)
Ralph Church: Mandolin
Tenor vocal (B)
Johnny Nelson: Banjo
Edwin Church: Fiddle (1)
Ralph Pennington: Bass
Someone Else Is Loving You 1-A-B [1709] Blue Ridge 101-B
(Drusilla Adams – Bill Church)
Someone Else Is Loving You (alt) ? [-] Blue Ridge –
Unissued
Tears Fall On My Broken Heart ? [-] Blue Ridge 302-A
Unissued
Blue Ridge Special [-] Blue Ridge 302-B
Unissued
Blue Ridge 101 released ca. early 1952
Blue Ridge 302 unissued

May 1952 – WPAQ station, Mount Airy, NC
Church Brothers and their Hillbilly Ramblers
Bill Church: Guitar
Lead vocal (A)
Ralph Church: Mandolin
Tenor vocal (B)
Johnny Nelson: Banjo (1)
Edwin Church: Fiddle (2)
poss. Bass vocal (C)
Ralph Pennington: Bass (3)
Baritone vocal (D)
Broken Vows And A Broken Heart 1-2-3-
(Drusilla Adams – Bill Church) A-B [1109] Blue Ridge 209-B
An Angel With Blue Eyes 1-2-3-
(Drusilla Adams – Bill Church) A-B-D [4069] Blue Ridge 1208-A
When Jesus Calls You Home A-B-
(Drusilla Adams – Bill Church) C-D [5031] Blue Ridge 1208-B
Blue Ridge 209 released February or March 1953
Blue Ridge 1208 released mid-to-late 1952
Note: “Broken Vows And A Broken Heart” is very similar to “An Angel With Blue Eyes”, and features a virtually identical banjo solo. The label on Blue Ridge 209-B reads “banjo by Johnny Nelson”, confirming it’s Nelson playing on both tracks.
While it is entirely possible it could have been recorded at the 1951 WKBC session, the author feels aural evidence and the release date of BR 209 suggest the track was cut at this session.
Note(2): Ralph Pennington is singing baritone on “An Angel With Blue Eyes”, as all evidence suggests (not last, the fact that the bass stops playing on choruses). The baritone singer on “When Jesus Calls You Home” seems to have the very same vocal timbre. A 1951 picture of the Bill, Ralph and Edwin Church and Ward Eller around the WKBC microphone seems to suggest Edwin Church was also singing – thus making him a likely candidate for the bass singing on BR 1208-B

October 1952 – WPAQ station, Mount Airy, NC
Church Brothers and their Hillbilly Ramblers
Bill Church: Guitar
Lead vocal (A)
Ralph Church: Mandolin Tenor vocal (B)
James Gar Bowers: Banjo
Edwin Church or Jim Wilkerson: Fiddle
Ralph Pennington Bass

Way Down In Ole’ Caroline A-B [0990] Blue Ridge 209-A
(Drusilla Adams – Bill Church)
+ more unknown tracks
Blue Ridge 209 released February or March 1953
Note: the label to Blue Ridge 209-A clearly indicates Gar Bowers as the banjo player. Bowers is also credited as having played on BR 401-B with Joe Franklin, on a session that Clarence Greene dates to October 1952 (see below). Positively, these sessions took place the same day.
Note(2): Ralph Church recalled Jim Wilkerson might have been the fiddler on this session. To the author, this is clearly the same fiddler as on previous sessions (identified as Edwin Church)

October 1952 – WPAQ station, Mount Airy, NC (same day as previous)
Joe Franklin and his Mimosa Boys
Joe Franklin: Guitar
Lead vocal Tenor vocal on chorus (1)
Ralph Church: Mandolin
James Gar Bowers: Banjo
poss. Ray Abernathy: Fiddle
Baritone vocal (2) Lead vocal on chorus (3)
poss. Robert Oakes?: Tenor vocal (4)
High baritone vocal (5)
Charles Connley or Ray Austin: Bass

There’ll Be No Wedding Bells For Me 2-4 [5645] Blue Ridge 401-B
(Drusilla Adams – Joe Franklin)
You’re The Cause Of All My Heartaches 1-3-5 [-] Blue Ridge – Unissued
Blue Ridge 401 released late 1952
Note: in 1970 Johnnie Whisnant stated in an interview with Walt Saunders that he had
recorded at least one song with Joe Franklin and Ralph Church in ca. 1953, and was under the
impression that it was intended to be issued as a Church Brothers release. This has led some
to speculate it could be him playing on 401-A.
However, the record label reads “Banjo by James Gar Bowers”, and the banjo playing is
stylistically consistent with that on BR 209-A. Furthermore, BR 401 was released in 1952.
All these elements discredit the possibility of Whisnant being on 401-A.
On the other hand, Whisnant might indeed have been present on an unreleased
Franklin/Church session held after Johnny Nelson’s draft in the army (1952) or possibly after
his death (January 1953), and still untraced to this day. .

late March 2009 favorites

Several tunes I enjoy now…

First a tribute to two bopping artists recently deceased. HANK LOCKLIN, famous Hillbilly crooner, had also done Hillbilly Bop, as here “Down Texas Way”. BUCK GRIFFIN, a Rockabilly great (LIN/MGM sides) – it was hard to choose, but I decided finally to include his “Stutterin’ Papa” complete with hiccups a la Charlie Feathers.

Then we got to unknowns. JOE ‘Cannonball’ LEWIS, whose “I’m gonna tear your playhouse down” (Kentucky label) is already a hillbilly bop classic. Then KED KILLEN. His “Worried blues” (Western Ranch) is dramatic.

Don’t quit! Now Bluegrass with The CHURCH BROTHERS (Ralph, Bill & Edwin) from North Carolina with their powerful “I Don’t Know What To Do” (Blue Ridge). And we go to the end with Cajun live: PAUL DAIGLE’s “I Told A ie”.

Hope you enjoy these selections