About The Artist
JOE FORRESTER: FORGOTTEN BLUE GRASS BOY
By Murphy Hicks Henry
First published in Bluegrass Unlimited magazine, August 2002, Vol. 37, No. 2, pages 44-50.
Joe Forrester, you're thinking. Should I know Joe Forrester? I know Howdy Forrester. He played fiddle for Bill Monroe. (Right. He was Joe's younger brother.) But Joe? Should I know him?
Well, no. Not even many bluegrass historians know about Joe. And, really, why should they? His claim to bluegrass fame-and he's not claiming it, I'm claiming it for him-is that he played bass for four months with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. (So? you're saying. Lots of people have played bass with Bill Monroe.) True. But Joe played with him from December 1945 through early April of 1946. Ah. Now some of you are beginning to sit up and take notice. December 1945. One of the most significant dates in bluegrass history. The month Earl Scruggs and his fancy banjo joined Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. Joe Forrester was there, playing the bass. This is his story.
I met Joe, now a sprightly 83, a few years ago when I was researching the life of Sally Ann Forrester, Howdy's wife. How can I possibly describe Joe to you? Having outlived two wives, this soft-spoken, easygoing, gentle man lives by himself in a clean uncluttered apartment in Hermitage, Tennessee, near Nashville. He laughs a lot, dresses neatly, wears a hat to church on Sunday, likes a cold beer and sip of Gentleman Jack every now and then ("It will make you very cheerful," he says), drives to Florida by himself to visit his daughter, and remains a rock-solid western swing rhythm guitar player, who sings both lead and harmony in a mellow voice well suited to the trios he sang for years with Howdy and Sally Ann. A couple of years ago he got a wild hair and drove up to Wartrace, Tenn., and bought himself a new Gallagher guitar. In short, Joe is one of the most unique human beings I have ever met. I only hope that I can grow old as gracefully as he has.
The four Forrester brothers, Clyde (b. 1914), Clayton (1916), Joe (1919), and Howard, as Joe calls Howdy (1922), were all born in Hickman County, Tennessee, about an hour southwest of Nashville. Their grandfather, great uncle, and father, who was killed in an automobile accident when Joe was eight, were all good old-time fiddlers. Joe and Howdy both started playing when they were about nine-Howdy, the fiddle, and Joe, the guitar. Joe's first instrument, however, was the "French harp" — that's harmonica to most of us. He even rigged up a harmonica holder out of baling wire and a baking powder can so he could play both instruments at the same time. When he was 15, his mother Emmie moved them to Nashville so Joe and Howdy could attend high school and have a better chance of eventually finding a job. As it turned out, both Joe and Howdy dropped out of school to play music. "We had the bug," said Joe. Although they played as the Forrester Brothers with some local boys on WSIX in Nashville, their first professional job was with Herald Goodman and Tennessee Valley Boys. Howdy, 16, played fiddle and Joe, 19, played bass.
Joe still has the little black book in which he kept a meticulous record of their show dates. Their first out-of-town gig was April 5, 1938, in Adairville, Ky. Joe was paid $3.00 — and spent 20 cents. He usually made two or three dollars per show, although for some dates he wrote down "$0.00" or "expenses paid." For playing the Grand Ole Opry, which at this time was at the Dixie Tabernacle, Joe was paid the whopping sum of $1.00.
The Tennessee Valley Boys hadn't made too many out of town trips when Goodman realized he needed a big name to draw a crowd. He hired fiddling Arthur Smith, a hot star of the Grand Ole Opry, to do the job. It was Arthur Smith who suggested that Joe take on the role of comedian in the band. He was billed as "Lespedeza, greener than the grass for which he's named." Joe wore the standard big, baggy britches with suspenders and a wig. One of his routines required him to dance around the bass and drop his pants at the end of a song. Underneath the baggy britches, Joe had on a pair of regular white pants cut off at the knees. Unfortunately, one of the theater managers was not amused. "I want you to get that comedian to dye those pants red," he told Goodman. "It looks like he's nekkid when he drops his britches." The white pants were dyed red, courtesy of Joe's mother.
On September 26, according to Joe's little black book, the band "made records Rock Hill, S.C. $20.00." The next day Joe wrote, "Helped Arthur record." These recordings were made for the RCA Victor-Bluebird label. Joe includes a complete list of the tunes, ten each day. With the addition of Robert "Georgia Slim" Rutland on October 17, 1938, the Tennessee Valley Boys boasted three fiddlers. As Charles Wolfe points out in The Devil's Box these were "three of the most famous fiddlers in Southeastern music. What this band must have sounded like, God only knows." Because, unfortunately, they never recorded together.
By December Herald Goodman realized the band could not make a living around Nashville. The week of December 16 was their "last week on the road out of WSM." The entire band headed west, ending up at KVOO in Tulsa, OK, where Goodman started a barn dance called the Saddle Mountain Roundup in April 1939. It was here that Howdy met Wilene "Billie" Russell, the future Sally Ann Forrester. She performed as the Little Orphan Girl with the Tennessee Valley Boys. Joe, Howdy, and Billie played together on a number of radio stations out west until Joe received his draft notice in May of 1941. "It was just supposed to be for a year," Joe says with a laugh. It turned into four years. He took part in the D-Day invasion, hitting Utah Beach at "H plus 2," wading through waist-deep water, just like you see in the movies. Fortunately, Joe says, "We didn't get much fire." He finally got out of service in November 1945.
Which brings us to the Historical Bluegrass Moment, December 1945: the month Earl Scruggs joined a configuration of Monroe's band that already included Lester Flatt on guitar, Sally Ann Forrester on accordion, and a bass player, possibly Andy Boyett. At the same time Earl joined the band, Howdy Forrester returned from service to reclaim his job with Monroe. He replaced the current fiddler Jim Shumate, who had brought Earl Scruggs to the band but never got a chance to play with him. Howdy also wrangled a job for his older brother. As Joe tells it, after Bill had sent word to Howdy that his job was still open, Howdy said, "Well, I got a brother that needs a job." Bill said, "Well, bring him on." Joe says, "Bill took me on as a favor because he already had a bass man and comedian. Howard, I guess, told him I could do the comedy. And I had my comedy clothes in a suitcase ready to roll. I left 'em at the house when I went in service. The whole outfit was still together. All I had to do was put it on the bus."
So the first band that united the talents of Lester, Earl, and Bill also included Howdy, Joe, and Sally Ann. This begs the question: was this the first bluegrass band? Some people postulate that bluegrass as a genre, even though it was not yet called bluegrass, began in 1939, when Monroe joined the Opry with his new band the Blue Grass Boys. After all, the timing was there, along with the fast instrumentals and the high singing. Others maintain that bluegrass was born the moment Earl Scruggs stepped on stage with the Blue Grass Boys. These folks are almost certainly thinking about the group we hear on those classic recordings made in September 1946 and October 1947: Monroe, Flatt, Scruggs, Chubby Wise, and Cedric Rainwater (Howard Watts). Many people consider these to be the first bluegrass recordings. (A few "air checks," recordings of live Opry broadcasts, also exist from this time period, some of which have been issued on record.) But what about the band that included Howdy instead of Chubby, Joe instead of Cedric, and Sally Ann? If bluegrass was born when Earl Scruggs joined Monroe, is the band with Howdy, Joe, and Sally Ann actually the first bluegrass band?
Two songs, "Little Maggie," and "Careless Love," recorded live off the Opry on March 23 and 30, 1946, may support this contention. (These and 17 other live cuts circulated as underground tapes for years and were finally released on an LP entitled "Bluegrass Classics: Radio Shows 1946-1948, Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys," on Bluegrass Classics, BGC 80.) These two numbers offer what is perhaps the earliest aural glimpse of the emerging bluegrass sound, as supposedly performed by the "classic" Blue Grass Boys including Chubby Wise and Cedric Rainwater. Yet, according to what Joe remembers, the Forresters were still in the band at this time. Unfortunately, there is no audible fiddle on either song so Howdy cannot be identified for certain. Monroe sings both songs as solos with Earl taking all the breaks on the banjo. And it puzzles Joe that there is no fiddle on these numbers. He thinks if Howdy had been in the band, he would have surely taken a "chorus" on each number. So there is some question of exactly who was playing on these numbers. But, if Joe, Howdy, and Billie were in the band, as is likely, these cuts make it harder to argue that the final pieces that created the magic mix fell into place only when Chubby and Cedric rejoined the Blue Grass Boys after the Forresters left in April 1946. The debate about when bluegrass actually began will undoubtedly rage forever. But, knowing this first configuration existed and remained together for four months does raise some intriguing questions.
With the outbreak of World II, Joe found himself in the army and a participant in the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
Having performed as a comedian before the war, it was easy for Joe to step back into the baggy britches with the Blue Grass Boys. However, the name Lespedeza had to go. "They couldn't say it," says Joe, laughing. "They called me Josephus." Joe continued the gags that the band had been doing, with Lester Flatt serving as his straight man. Joe says Lester was "one of the best straight men I've worked with. He was great on giving the lines just like they ought to be and he never tried to be funny himself."
Joe said one of their routines was greatly improved by a suggestion from the banjo player. "Lester would say to me, 'Come here. I want to talk to you a minute. I want to examine you. You may have to go back into service again.' So he'd kind of hit me on the chest and say, 'Inhale.' And I'd just stand there like I didn't know what he meant. 'Inhale,' he'd say. 'I wish you'd inhale.' And for a long time, I didn't say anything. I'd just let it go at that. Then one time we were up in the motel room and Earl said, 'You know, when he says, "I wish you'd inhale," I always want you to say, "I wish you was, too." ' I started using that, and it was a hell of a tag line." It took me a few seconds to get the joke, then I laughed and asked, "Did it go over well?" "Oh, man," said Joe, "that made it."
Howdy, of course, had played with Bill before the war, but Joe had not. I was curious to know if they rehearsed with Bill before they played their first show. "No, not that I remember," says Joe. "As for the bass, if you can play bass fiddle you can play with anybody. And, of course, Sally had been working with Bill, too. And we three had worked together before the war. No, it's just like when we get together to play, we all know the tunes. It's just a matter of who's gonna take it off. The only ones we would have to rehearse was something new-a different gospel song or something like that.
"Bill always rehearsed in the room in a hotel. He always rehearsed the hymns, the gospel songs. And he said, 'Joe, I believe you can sing bass.' So I tried it. I don't have a bass voice whatsoever, but I tried it. (Joe laughs.) And Bill never did get out a songbook. He sung the songs that he could remember, and the rest of us, we had to memorize it. Some of them were songs we had done on our radio programs before the war. And songs we'd heard him do, too. You see, we used to listen to him. And the songs, they were pretty easy to learn."
Bill didn't tolerate any nonsense when it came to gospel music. Joe tells this story: "We were playing in this court house one night, it was upstairs, and we were singing the gospel songs. And some guy back in the back was mouthing off about something. He wouldn't be quiet. Bill asked him two or three times to be quiet, and we sang another verse or two, and that guy just kept on. Bill said, 'Carry on, Lester.' (Joe laughs.) And we started out on another gospel song and Bill went back there and he must have thrown that guy down the steps. (Laughs.) We heard something going on. But Bill was very serious about singing gospel songs. He didn't want any foolishness about that now. He would call you down in a minute, see, on any kind of fun or anything out of the way toward gospel music. Because he thought you should be very solemn about that. And he was right. He was a religious man but you wouldn't know it for sure just how religious he was. He really believed."
In spite of the fact that Bill sang "the Blue Grass Boys are never late" in "Heavy Traffic Ahead," there was a least one time when the bossman himself was late for a show. "Here it's time for the show and everybody's waiting around for Bill. About 10 or 15 minutes went by and we said, 'Well, we'd better start the show. Somebody go up and check on Bill and wake him up.' (Joe laughs.) So we went ahead with the show and Lester was singing the songs and Earl and Howard, they were doing their part, and Bill come in maybe 20 minutes later. (He laughs again.) He'd been asleep."
Naturally, being a banjo player myself, I was curious about what it was like to play in that first band with Earl Scruggs. I asked Joe if he sensed there was anything special going on musically. "Yes, he was setting the style that nobody had played before. 'Dear Old Dixie' was one of the main songs he was featured on. It always got a good hand. Oh, he's the man that should have been there on that banjo for sure. Not very many of the banjo players played with a fiddle like Earl did. Earl knew all the breakdowns. He could take breaks on anything that you started. That woke up the banjo players. To me, I'd never heard anything like it before in my life. And I thought it was the greatest banjo playing I'd ever heard. And it was. Because it was new, it was a new style that he had created. Yes, sir. And he was a fine fellow. Quiet. But not overly quiet. Always ready to talk. Always friendly."
I asked, "Was he so good that there was ever any danger of him becoming the star of the show?"
Joe answered, "Well, no, I don't think there's ever a time that a musician can take over from the leader. And Bill was so well established. Because the general public, they do not respect and go after musicians like they do the leader that sings, that star of the show. He has nothing to worry about. As long as he does what he should and handles himself right, no musician is gonna take over. Lots of times musicians don't get the credit they deserve, but at the same time we can't do anything about that. Musicians have to support that leader and the singers. Make them sound just as good as they can. (Joe laughs.) And a lead instrument, the rest of the band falls in to make him sound good. You never do anything that will hinder a person in his act, when he's on that stage, never do anything to distract from it. I've heard people try to get laughs of their own, throw somebody off, and that's not right. And some fellow talking about stealing your line, well, he's no showman if he wants to practice that kind of stuff. He don't belong in show business. Every person must be given every chance to succeed and do well on that stage. But Bill always gave everybody the chance."
One of the hardest things about playing with the Bill Monroe was the constant traveling. Because Bill was a member of the Grand Ole Opry, he had to be back for the broadcast every Saturday night. So no matter how far away they were playing, the band always had to drive back to Nashville. "These people that ride these busses this day and time don't have a damn thing to gripe about when it comes to traveling," says Joe. During January 1946, the Blue Grass Boys made the long jaunt to Florida twice. This, indeed, made for some hard traveling. Joe says, "It was rougher traveling with Bill than it was anybody else." And why was that? Joe laughs. "The dadblame bus was always breaking down."
In 1945-46, the Blue Grass Boys were traveling in a stretched-out Chevrolet car with four seats that Joe refers to as the "bus." Not quite what we think of as a bus today. Joe says, "When we were playing down in Florida, he'd take the bus and his car, too. He had a Buick-a four-door Buick. But we didn't always try to stay together so it wasn't much help." While talking about the bus, Joe asked, "Have you ever heard about the kind of wheels he had on the bus?" (No.) "They were airplane wheels. And airplane tires. The rim came off an airplane wheel, and they welded this airplane rim on to that Chevrolet wheel. Because it was hard to get ordinary car tires. [Due to the war.] One morning we started to pull out of the parking lot in that bus and as it rolled down into the street, one of those wheels just laid over. We thought, 'What if we'd been driving down the road at 60 miles an hour?' "
Because the band did so much traveling, it's not surprising that many of Joe's stories center around the trials and tribulations of being on the road. The first time Joe drove the "bus" he said, "We had left out of Nashville and we were going to Florida. It must have been in the daytime, and we were going through Atlanta and I was driving that stretched-out bus. We had a long grade to go up and there was a traffic light up there, and that's the most dangerous thing about those busses, that stretched-out drive shaft. If you've got to stop on a hill, then when you start off, it puts so much strain on that drive shaft that it's in danger of breaking. And this was my first time to drive and when I put the power to it to take off at this light, I was trying not to give it too much, but it snapped that drive shaft. We had to be pulled into Atlanta and somebody had to wait on the bus to be fixed. Fortunately we didn't have a show until the next day, on Monday. Bill also had the Buick automobile, so part of us went on to Miami in the Buick. But some of them waited for the bus and come on down to Miami in the bus. They were able to get there the next day in time for the show."
Joe has more road stories. "We were going back down South again, and Lester was driving, and there'd been snow and the roads were icy. We had topped a hill and kinda leveled off there and Lester decided to pass the car that was in front of us. As he started to pass, he spotted the ice in the road and automatically hit the brakes and that bus turned completely around and we were going down the hill backwards. We passed by this car backwards that he was gonna pass. (Joe laughs.) That was a scary time because we didn't know where we were gonna land. Fortunately it stayed in the road. I guess you know he sang a song [later on] about driving from Detroit backwards in a truck. ['Backing to Birmingham.'] So maybe that's where that song came from! (Laughs.) But we were lucky. Everybody used to say have 'Bill Monroe luck.' We used to say Bill was the luckiest man on the road.
"Bill did drive quite a bit, but he drove most of the time in daytime. And I'm glad he did because he was driving one night coming back from a trip down in Florida and we were between Nashville and Franklin. It was on those two-lane roads, and we met a car and evidently the lights blinded him and he lost his vision of the road. He was pulling over to make sure he got out of the lane of traffic on his left and evidently he misjudged and got too far over and went off of the road. He was going slow enough that the bus just laid over on its side and run into a wire fence. And the instruments were tied to the top of the bus and it just so happened that they landed right between two fence posts. My bass fiddle was laying up there and if one of those posts had hit it, it would have busted all to pieces. How lucky can you be? It didn't damage any of the instruments and nobody was hurt. We had to get a wrecker to turn it back on the wheels but we were able to drive on."
Uncle Dave Macon frequently traveled with the Blue Grass Boys as part of a package show. In 1946, he was 76 years old. "Uncle Dave Macon, he had to have a backseat to sleep on. He'd want a whole seat. He used to have a little bottle with him." (I told Joe I'd heard Uncle Dave carried his bottle in a little black bag.) "I don't know whether it was a doctor's bag or whatever, but it had little pockets in it and a half a pint bottle would fit right down in those little pockets and that's the reason he had that. One time on our trips down to Florida, Howard and I were riding together and Uncle Dave was with us. We'd been riding all night and come morning Uncle Dave began to rouse up and he got his little bottle out and he said, 'Howdy, want a little drink?' 'Well, I do, Uncle Dave.' (Joe laughs.) So he took him a little drink. And Uncle Dave said, 'Give the brother over there a little drink.' So I took a little drink. And I remembered that Arthur Smith told all of us one time, he said, 'Now, if you'll just take a small drink when Uncle Dave hands it to you, you'll get another one. But if you take too big a drink, you won't get another one.' (Laughs again.) So we had two or three drinks and we got down the way and Uncle Dave mentioned, 'I'd like to have a cold beer.' And so I said, 'Uncle Dave, we'll buy the beer.' He said, 'Alright.' "
Even though Howdy and Joe were from an area rich in old-time music, they favored western swing. Not only did they listen to Bob Wills, Milton Brown, and the Light Crust Doughboys, they bought records by Benny Goodman and Django Reinhardt. I asked Joe how Monroe's music compared to what they had played out west. "Oh, it was alright. I didn't have anything against the music. I really did enjoy playing western swing better, as a steady diet, I mean. Bill liked the tunes pretty fast. He liked some of the tunes a little faster than Howard was used to playing them. But Howard would try to oblige. We had been playing slower because, back in those days in Texas, you could slow a breakdown down and they'd ballroom dance to it."
So, why would someone leave a job with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys, especially when a fantastic new music was being created with the help of Earl Scruggs and his fancy banjo? The traveling was the biggest factor. "It was easier when you played and could go home to your same bed that you slept in last night," says Joe. Sometime in mid-March, when the Blue Grass Boys were playing in Missouri, Art Davis got in touch with Howdy and asked him, along with Joe and Sally Ann, to join his Rhythm Riders at KTUL in Tulsa, OK. It didn't hurt that the money would be better. Bill was paying $50 a week, which went up to $60 during tent show season. With Art Davis, Joe would get $50 a week from the radio sponsor plus $10 a show for any extra shows, such as dances, they played. They ended up making $80 or $90 a week. But Joe was so tired of the traveling he said, "I would have worked for Art Davis for a straight fifty a week." Howdy said yes to Art's offer, but told him they would have to work out a two-week notice with Bill.
I asked Joe if it made Bill mad when three of his band members turned in their notices. "Well, it didn't make him mad, but he was concerned that the Opry might say that he had trouble keeping a band together. And it wasn't that we were, well, it was that we were looking for better pastures, too." (He laughs.) Joe, Howdy, and Sally Ann stayed one or two weeks into tent show season, which began on April 1. Fortunately for Joe, Monroe's first dates of the season were in Tennessee. Close to home. Joe could sleep in his own bed.
Joe's adventures in music continued on for a few years. The Forresters stayed with Art Davis only a couple of months before joining Slim Rutland and the reorganized Texas Roundup on KRLD in Dallas.
They returned to Nashville in 1949. Joe began a stint almost as long as a letter carrier for the postal department (from 1952 until 1978). Although he was no longer active in music, he remained a life member of AFM local 257. Joe took a job with the Post Office (1952 - 1978), Sally Ann took a job with the Social Security office, and Howdy went to work for Roy Acuff.
Joe continued to play music for fun with Howdy and Sally Ann and their friends. From 1977-1995, Joe served as a judge at the Grand Master's Fiddle Contest in Nashville. Today Joe is always up for a jam session with his friends. These sessions are cozy, laid-back affairs, punctuated with lots of laughter. Bob Forrester, Sally Ann and Howdy's son, often shows up with his fiddle, wryly calling it, as his dad did, "that money-making machine." Gentleman Jack is often present, in small quantities, giving the affair an even more cheerful glow. Here Joe sits and plays rhythm guitar, sings lead and harmony, and along with his brother Clyde, tells stories. Basking in the love of friends and family, Joe Forrester was still happily making music, as he had done, one way or another, all his life.
Joe also belonged to Jere Baxter-Edgefield A. F. & A. M. Lodge 254 who conducted a memorial service. He was buried in Spring Hill Cemetery in Nashville. As far as known, the only recordings Joe made were those with the Tennessee Valley Boys and Georgia Slim's Texas Roundup.
L—R (Top Row): Curly Borgan; Dick Dyson; Joe Forrester; "Boots"; Denise Foster; Jean O'Quin; Miss Ludie; Sally Ann (Forrester)
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