"Mama would send us down to the road every morning to see if any game had been run over
and killed during the night. Burlap for curtains, kerosene lamps...and after that the Depression hit!"
This is how Burkett Howard Graves, later to be known to millions of music fans as simply
"Uncle Josh," described the tough times he grew up in. His father never cut him any slack, and later Uncle Josh came to realize that this was because he wanted his son to be strong enough to take whatever life threw at him.
As it turned out, Josh led something of a charmed life, so his father need not have worried. In his mid-teens, he rejected high school in favor of playing the guitar because he had a talent for it and was already able to pick up money playing at local dances and other events. The music he loved came from the gospel and old tunes from his own culture, and also from local African American blues players whom he imitated, an influence that would transfer to his mastery of the Dobro.
Josh was already well known and making a good living off music when he joined the Foggy Mountain Boys. That’s when his musical career skyrocketed. The band’s lead players, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, were two of the mid-twentieth century's hottest pickers. Hired by them to play bass, Josh soon switched over to Dobro and developed a distinctive three-finger roll derived from Scruggs' unique driving banjo style. The Dobro, also called the resonator guitar, was relatively unknown when Josh picked it up. Its distinctive twang was destined to become part and parcel of the American country sound. Through Josh, it became accepted, indeed lauded, as integral to bluegrass music as
well. Josh declared that, early on, "there was no such thing as Dobro in bluegrass music” and recognizes that this was his, significant, contribution to the genre.
This memoir is based around recordings with Graves in the 1990s. Author and music fan
Fred Bartenstein had the good fortune to be asked to work with the tapes after Josh passed away in 2006. He has put together an appealing memoir “spoken” in the cadence and lexicon of Uncle Josh, with commentary but little or no embellishment.
His recollections of the heyday of the Foggy Mountain Boys, traveling thousands of miles a year together, are sage: “You don't ride with somebody that long and not think a hell of a lot of them.” He recalls doing at show at the Paramount on Broadway, where the promoter wanted them to do everything "uppity-uppity.” Lester Flatt finally told the stage manager, “I tell you what, we'll go out and do it our way. Now if that don't work, we'll do it your way." Graves recalls that the audience "wouldn't let us leave that stage."
One segment of the book is set aside for Dobro greats to voice their opinion of Uncle Josh, all of them making it clear that he was their icon, from Jerry Douglas to Mike Auldridge to Sally Van Meter to Bobby Wolfe. To Dobro aficionados coming up, Josh was always generous with his time. He offered arcane tips from his lifetime of knowing the instrument: “Your recovery on the Dobro is the prettiest part of playing...trying to get out of a lick...if I get in too big a bind, I'll go to a blues lick to get out of it.” This book will be a treasure to bluegrass musicians, especially those who
(like my husband, Donnie “Dobro” Scott) grew up with Uncle Josh as one of the few examples of the soulful Dobro style that, arguably, lifts bluegrass out of the rhythmic, driving sound and into the realm of angel song.