Charlie Waller, founder and leader of the Country Gentlemen, died Wednesday (Aug. 18) of an apparent heart attack in the garden of his home in Gordonsville, Va. He was 69.
Although Waller had been ailing the past several years, he and his group have maintained a busy concert schedule and were preparing to go on the road again when he died. Waller had scheduled two concerts -- Friday (Aug. 20) in Nashville and Sept. 8 in Falls Church, Va. -- to raise medical-expense funds for banjo player Eddie Adcock, an early member of the band.
Organized in Arlington, Va., the Country Gentlemen played their first concert on July 4, 1957. Although the group has had more than 100 members during its 47-year history -- including Ricky Skaggs, Bill Emerson, Doyle Lawson and Jerry Douglas -- the classic Country Gentlemen ensemble was made up of Waller, as lead vocalist and guitarist, Adcock on banjo, Tom Gray on bass and the late John Duffey on mandolin. It was this combination that, in 1996, was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Honor.
Despite his solid bluegrass licks and credentials, Waller was a country music enthusiast to the core. His vocal models included Gene Autry, Hank Snow and Eddy Arnold. He seldom did a show without singing Autry's mellow standard, "Ages and Ages Ago." The Gentlemen entered Billboard's country singles chart only once -- in 1965 with the ghost ballad, "Bringing Mary Home."
"Although they were respectful of tradition," music scholar Bill Malone writes in The Encyclopedia of Country Music, "the Country Gentlemen were also one of the most important early innovative bands in bluegrass, taking the genre into new arenas of repertoire and stylistic performance while steadfastly using acoustic instruments." That repertoire embraced pop, folk and country music and yielded such memorable cuts as "Theme From Exodus," "Matterhorn," "Two Little Boys," "Legend of the Rebel Soldier" and "New Freedom Bell."
A new Country Gentlemen album -- Songs of the American Spirit -- is due out in September from Pinecastle Records and will contain songs written by Merle Haggard, Tom T. and Dixie Hall, the late Randall Hylton and others.
Waller is survived by his wife, Sachiko; a son, Randy, who is a member of the current band; and a daughter, Mena, now a student at Nashville's Belmont University. Funeral arrangements are pending.