Ramblin' Rhodes

Stroll down memory lane with music columnist Don Rhodes.

Ramblin' Rhodes: Betty Fisher was bluegrass leader

See Doug Flowers’ video tribute to bluegrass music star Betty Fisher.
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In the early years of bluegrass music, women were part of groups but rarely led a bluegrass band.

Former Augusta resident and bluegrass singer Betty Fisher died July 7.  FILE
FILE
Former Augusta resident and bluegrass singer Betty Fisher died July 7.

One notable exception was former Augusta resident Betty Fisher, who died July 7 in Walhalla, S.C.

Her memorial service will be at 2 p.m. Saturday, July 28, in the chapel of Davenport Funeral Home in West Union, S.C. Call (864) 638-3611.

Fisher’s band members over the years included such well-known alumni as banjo player Murphy Henry (Red & Murphy Henry), whose first bluegrass job was playing upright bass for Fisher, and David Blackmon, later to be part of the national recording group Normaltown Flyers.

She was the first person to record a song of mine (Bluegrass Music All the Time) and the first to record a song of area bluegrass vocalist and musician Doug Flowers (Home Sweet Home).

Both were recorded on the 1978 album Smiling Faces & Different Places, with Flowers also playing mandolin and singing, along with Fisher’s son, Tommy Fisher, and Dennis Tibbetts and Ricky Rakestraw, of Dallas, Ga.

She and her band, The Dixie Bluegrass Boys, even performed my song on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville during one of Bill Monroe’s Earlybird Bluegrass Music shows.

“She was a great lady who really taught me a lot about bluegrass music,” Flowers wrote in an e-mail. “It was through her group that I learned how to really sing harmony.

“Betty took me in to her group when I was just 14, and I performed all of my high school years with Betty. She took me to parts of the country I never knew existed.

“Betty opened and paved the way for the female artists in bluegrass. … I know she touched a lot of people through the years with her sweet personality and wonderful talent!”

Fisher grew up around Spruce Pine, N.C., where she performed with her father, Millard “Buck” Buchanan, at church socials, family gatherings and stage shows.

By 15, her songs were being published by the legendary Acuff-Rose firm in Nashville, Tenn., which gave Hank Williams his big break.

Fisher quit show business for 17 years after marrying Jesse Thomas (J.T.) Fisher Jr. in 1955, but in 1972 formed her Dixie Bluegrass Boys band after encouragement from Bill Monroe himself.

Throughout most of the 1970s, she and her family lived in Goshen subdivision in Richmond County and she made Augusta her base for performances as a headliner on many far-off bluegrass festivals.

WARREN JENNINGS’ ALBUMS: Another great music lover in this area was Warren Jennings, who died April 9 at the age of 89.

I can’t count how many wonderful conversations we had about blues and soul music at Health Central over the years. He was the one who told me about the great Grammy-nominated singer Etta Jones, of Aiken, who died in 2002 in New York state.

He told me about the 1930s local entertainment venue Palmetto Park & Pond in North Augusta, which was host to such legendary performers as Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Earl “Fatha” Hines and King Joe Oliver.

Jennings, who retired from the U.S. Postal Service and served on the Augusta Port Authority, co-founded the local Jazz Unlimited organization in 1978 for jazz music fans.

“We often talked about music and performers,” said fellow Jazz Unlimited member Edythe Diamond, who first met Jennings decades ago at Paine College. “He shared albums with me and knew of my involvement with The Duke Ellington Society in New York City.”

Jennings’ close friend Dee Crawford, of Aiken, and his son, Joe Jennings, the former director of the world-famous Chanticleer vocal group in San Francisco and currently artist-in-residence at the University of South Carolina Aiken, are trying to determine the best protected use for Jennings’ massive music collection.

The thousands of vinyl albums with their colorful original covers, along with CDs, cassettes and DVDs, have been moved from Jennings’ house to a climate-controlled storage building.

“I’m not quite sure whether it will be split up or kept together,” his son said. “The first thing is to catalog everything and find out what exactly is there. It takes up about 50 or more boxes.”

Like many music lovers, Jennings’ father was not a vocalist or instrumentalist.

“He never played an instrument,” Jennings said. “He just played the record player.”

CAREY’S BACK IN TOWN: North Augusta-reared Carey Murdock is back in the area to perform at 8 p.m. Sunday, July 29, at Lookaway Hall, at the junction of Carolina and Georgia avenues in North Augusta. Admission is $12.50. Call (803) 426-1030.

Murdock, who now lives in Nashville, Tenn., and who performed at this year’s A Day in the Country festival, just finished performing concerts in Sweden, the Netherlands, Belgium, Denmark, England, Austria and the Czech Republic.

His Youtube-posted original song If You Say Yes has almost 2,400 views.

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