Vern Williams is one of the great unheralded masters of bluegrass music, a mandolin virtuoso who was a star in California throughout the 1960s,'70s, and '80s, and an influence on an entire generation of players and bands out there, but who is little known beyond the confines of the Golden State. His relative handful of recordings, either as a member of Vern & Ray in the '60s for Starday or leading the Vern Williams Band in the '70s, don't begin to indicate his importance to bluegrass music.
Vern Williams grew up on a farm in rural Newton County, AR, part of a musical family in which both his parents and his six siblings, as well as most of his uncles, all played instruments, as well as singing at church. His first instrument was the guitar, and he played it until he was 17 years old and ordered his first mandolin from Sears. Williams' strongest influence was the music he heard over the radio, most notably the Grand Ole Opry and the songs of the Stanley Brothers and the Carter Family. But far and away the biggest source of inspiration in his early life was Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys, whom Williams listened to from the early '40s onward.
Following two years in the U.S. Marine Corps, ending in 1954, Williams moved to California. He lived in Stockton and earned his living in meat-packing plant, but in 1959 he returned to music after he met fiddle player Ray Park, a fellow Arkansan who'd moved west. The duo, known as Vern & Ray, thrived in California and became known as one of the best bluegrass outfits in the region, and they got a contract with Nashville-based Starday Records in the early '60s.
Vern & Ray, whose talents were augmented by banjo man Luther Riley and guitarist Clyde Williamson, cut four songs for Starday for a 1962 extended-play single release. This record was popular among bluegrass aficionados, but didn't sell, and the group found little opportunity to perform in Nashville, where traditional bluegrass outfits were usually kept at arm's length. They recorded a handful of additional sides before disbanding in 1974, and their later history was collected on the album Sounds from the Ozarks.
In 1970, Ray Park spotted a 14-year-old boy carrying a banjo, walking across a parking lot in California, and struck up a conversation with him. It turned out that the boy, named Keith Little, not only knew his instrument but also a good part of the Vern & Ray repertory, and Park soon introduced Little to his son, guitarist Larry. Later on, it was Larry who introduced Little to Delbert Williams, Vern's son and a fiddle player. The three of them formed a band that entertained during the intermissions on the Vern & Ray shows.
Larry Park eventually followed his father back into mainstream country music, but Keith Little and Delbert Williams stayed together, and Vern Williams began helping them put a sound together. After the breakup of Vern & Ray in 1974, Vern Williams formed a new group with his son and Keith Little, with Vern usually singing lead and switching to tenor on the choruses, with Keith doing the baritone, and Delbert taking over the lead. Delbert switched from fiddle to guitar, and Missouri-born Ed Neff came in on fiddle while Kevin Thompson, from Smithtown, NY, joined on bass.
This was the Vern Williams Band, and in less than a year after their debut, they were pegged as one of the powerhouse bluegrass outfits on the West Coast. By the end of the decade, they were making regular appearances around the United States and touring internationally. Their repertory was unusual in that, in addition to bluegrass standards and some country material, they also drew on songs from the pre-bluegrass era, including popular music of the 19th century, most notably the songs of Stephen Foster.
In 1980, they were signed to Rounder Records, and with a somewhat convoluted effort, spread over two sessions in 1980 and 1981, the group completed their first album, Bluegrass from the Gold Country, released in 1981. That album was well reviewed, and it sold in the parts of the country where they were known, which is to say the West Coast. They group never toured east of Idaho, and eventually the geographic isolation of California was to take its toll. In California, they were regarded with the kind of respect that Flatt & Scruggs received during the late '40s, but on the East Coast they were virtually unknown except to the relative handful of aficionados who bought their Rounder album. They did two subsequent albums for the Arhoolie label, recorded as a backing group for Rose Maddox, which were also critical successes, and they toured with Maddox, but this did little to bring them to the attention of a national audience.
The group continued to perform to enthusiastic crowds at colleges, festivals, and clubs in and around California, but as the '80s wore on, their bookings gradually slowed, and their performances became less frequent. Finally, in 1986, the Vern Williams Band ceased to exist. Keith Little later joined the Country Gentlemen. ~ Bruce Eder, Rovi