The Charles River Valley Boys are a largely forgotten band in the history of bluegrass, despite having a significant impact during their all-too-brief 1960’s heyday. As students at Harvard, the members of the Charles River Valley Boys hardly fit the typical rural bluegrass demographics, but word of their impressive skill spread, reaching the ear of Paul Rothschild. In a few years, Rothschild would become famous as the producer for Elektra Records, working with The Doors and the Paul Butterfield Blues Band amongst others. But in the early sixties, he was working for Prestige Records when he had the idea to unite this young, urban upstart of a bluegrass band with Tex Logan, a master fiddler who had achieved the genre’s ultimate honor of joining Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys. According to the album’s liner notes, the idea was conceived as Rothschild watched Logan perform at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, the home of so many musical discoveries and collaborations in the 1960’s.
The resulting album, Blue Grass Get Together, released in 1964 to minimal attention, was nevertheless groundbreaking for a few different reasons. Notably, for a genre that up until then, had been very constrained by a very narrow musical definition, an urban bluegrass band from the northeast was a phenomenon, particularly one welcomed into collaboration with one of the genre’s respected giants. And though they came from different generations and parts of the country, the Charles River Valley Boys and Logan play together seamlessly when Rothschild’s vision came to life.
Prior to the recording, the Charles River Valley Boys’ mandolinist, Ethan Signer departed to continue his studies, and the group recruited Joe Val as a replacement. At 37 years old, Val was both older and more experienced than his gang of college-aged bandmates, fresh off recording the seminal Livin’ on the Mountain album with Bill Keith and Jim Rooney. As described in guitarist John Cooke’s excellent liner notes, Val and Tex Logan had played together previously, and Val’s addition to the Charles River Valley Boys lineup may have also been a crucial catalyst in the collaboration coming to fruition.
The album’s material ranges from two songs by Logan’s buddy Bill Monroe, familiar classics by The Carter Family and Jim & Jesse, and older traditional material. While Logan is the most significant name here, and plays to his legendary standard, Joe Val shines even brighter with flawless vocals and sharp mandolin picking. Though Val isn’t as well-remembered of a bluegrass legend as he should be, he is captured at his absolute best on this album, providing lightning runs throughout. Meanwhile Logan joyfully works his way through Monroe’s fiddle tune, ‘Uncle Pen’, and the band display standout vocal harmonies on the gospel-influenced ‘Angel Band’, ‘On the Jericho Road’ and ‘Cryin’ Holy’, offering some of the finest bluegrass vocals outside of The Osborne Brothers.
Two years later, the Charles River Valley Boys would deliver another genre-shattering effort with Beatle Country. While novelty covers of The Beatles were nothing new, this was the first time modern rock ‘n’ roll material was accepted by serious bluegrass musicians, a border that has been crossed much more freely in the years since. And these songs were performed as serious bluegrass songs, with inventive rearrangements and vocal harmonies. The album became a favorite of cult collectors, and with its embrace of rock material, foreshadowed the arrival of New Grass Revival, Old & In the Way and many more in the following decade. Though the band would soon split up, from their acceptance by Tex Logan to embracing The Beatles’ material, the Charles River Valley Boys paved the way for the expansion and redefinition of bluegrass, and each record is absolutely mandatory for fans of the genre.
Since the Charles River Valley Boys are not exactly a household name, these albums can be difficult, though extremely worthwhile, to find. Despite the importance and excellence of Blue Grass Get Together, the album has never been repressed, or released on CD/MP3 (After years as a coveted collector’s item, Beatles Country is available in all forms). Yet I managed to find a reasonably priced copy buried in the bluegrass section at one of Philadelphia’s excellent record stores, Beautiful World Syndicate. So keep an eye out at the local used bins, or check out a couple of copies available on Discogs.