A young Tennessee picker who developed a progressive style of bluegrass rhythm-guitar playing in the early '50s, Ronnie Knittel is a good example of the treasures that are hidden away in the folds of the bluegrass quilt. Under the name of Ronnie Brent, he also managed to leave just about as obscure a trace in the annals of instrumental rock music on the edge of the surf genre, without quite getting his feet wet. To begin in the mountains, he and banjoist Baskell Rose were members of the Holston Valley Ramblers, a group which also performed with Knittel's name out front. In 1951, the instrumental partners -- the name of their bassist has dissolved in the water glass of recording history -- collaborated on a little custom pressing of a single, one side a performance of the grateful song "I Thank My Lucky Star" led by Knittel, and the flip side an instrumental displaying the virtuosity of his banjoist partner. If the latter track was the selection chosen by Rounder Records for inclusion in its brilliant Early Days of Bluegrass series, it is no slight on the guitarist, whose hard-driving rhythm work gives the "Holston Valley Breakdown" track as much motor power as the combined first, second, and third place entries in the Tennessee tractor pull. The single was meant for as much a keepsake as a promotional tool, and within a year the group was gone with both pickers off to join the services.
Knittel had come out of a background of family wanderings around Tennessee, his father at the beck and call of casual labor offerings from the Tennessee Valley Authority. No one in his family played instruments, although everyone sang in vocal quartets. His first guitar teacher was the old-time picker Porter Church, who got the lad going with the basic chords. When the Holston Valley Ramblers developed, it was strictly bluegrass the young men -- who, posing together, look like identical twins, despite having no family relation -- were interested in playing, being completely enamored with the Monroe Brothers' sound. After he got out of the services, though, Knittel had discovered country and then went strictly rock & roll after a relocation to the nation's capitol. He took up the electric bass and became as busy in local bands as a player on such an instrument can become, also getting into styles such as rhythm & blues and soul. By 1959 and 1960, he claimed he was losing his white audience with an overabundance of Ray Charles covers. He began using the stage name of Ronnie Brent and working with the band Ronnie Brent & the Men of Zen, a name which perhaps falsely promises some kind of rockabilly new age combo.
He had definitely left country and bluegrass behind, that was for sure, with an instrumentation heavy on saxophones and light on fiddles and banjo. As Ronnie Brent, he cut some sides for United Artists and Colt 45. The instrumental "Cowboys and Indians" is perhaps his finest cut in this particular musical persona, and has been nabbed for inclusion on anthologies of tasty early-'60s rock instrumentals. In 1963, he claims to have "quit pickin' bluegrass, went to pickin' chickens"; just a way of saying he had begun a new career in the poultry processing business. He is no relation to the rap singer Ronald "Riskie" Brent. ~ Eugene Chadbourne, Rovi