Sat, June 5, 2004
Flyers mark 30 years of gigs

Ten years ago, when the Dixie Flyers celebrated their 20th anniversary, tickets were $5.

On Thursday, the long-running London bluegrass band marks its 30th anniversary. The site will once again be Call the Office, formerly the York Hotel, where the Flyers first flew. Tickets are $8.

Clearly, that extra $3 is well worth it. Like a jug of fine mountain moonshine, the band now can look back on 10 more years of continuing excellence as the flavour and memories mellow. A little.

"I don't want them to go crazy and take their clothes off, but I want their attention," Flyer guitarist, lead vocalist and frontman Bert Baumbach says about Thursday's gig and its fans.

Baumbach and co-founder Ken Palmer, mandolin ace and vocalist, are the two original members still with the Flyers.

Back in early 1974, the Dixie Flyers first took off. It was likely in March of that year if memories can be trusted. The pay for the weekly gig at the York was $15 and all the draft the Flyers could consume.

The Assaf brothers, classy hoteliers and dukes of the York, soon calculated it would be cheaper to pay their new stars about $35 a gig and make the Flyers pay for beer.

The Flyers were a part-time affair, with no dreams of a 30-year saga, Palmer recalls. "We had a goal of being a good bluegrass band," he says.

It was all enjoyable and challenging, but never something the Flyers expected to wind up in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada -- Page 373 of the second edition. You could look it up. (The encyclopedia says the Flyers started in July 1974, but what does it know?)

"We thought nothing will ever happen with this thing," Palmer smiles. "All of a sudden, Bert got us on the Carlisle Bluegrass Canada (festival). That was by 1975. We had a year to practise for that. We met Bill Monroe."

When they performed at Carlisle, near Burlington, in 1975, Monroe encouraged the young Canadians to be themselves. "I'll never forget this as long as I live," Palmer recalled 10 years ago. "We came off the stage, and Bill Monroe was standing there, and he said, 'You boys are pretty good.' Here's the guy that invented the music, and he's there waiting for us when we come off the stage."

Popularized during the 1930s and 1940s by such U.S. musicians as Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, including Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, bluegrass is an intricate and complex music. It traditionally features banjo, mandolin, guitar, bass and fiddle.

At first, Canadian singer/songwriter Willie P. Bennett's harmonica took the place of the fiddle. Bennett, a Londoner at the time, amused himself by claiming to be T. John Westbury. "Bennett," Palmer says. "He had his own pseudonym."

Bassist Brian Abbey and banjo player Denis LePage were also in flight at the York in that era.

Abbey, LePage, and current Flyers and associates Paul Hurdle, Luke Maynard and Rick Thompson are among those expected to be on hand Thursday with Palmer and Baumbach. So are such Flyer alumni as fiddler J. P. Allen, banjo player David Jack, harmonica player Mike Ethelston and dobro player Al Widmeyer. Maynard is the son of the late Walter (Wally) Maynard, the Flyer banjo player who died in 1999.

Other Flyer lineups have included bassist David Zdriluk, fiddlers Gordon Stobbe and Peter Robertson and banjo player David Talbot.

Always proud to identify themselves as players of "Canadian bluegrass," the Flyers' were once pitted against a world-class classical ensemble, the Canadian Brass, in a wild CBC Radio battle of the bands. For a while, there was an annual gig at the Royal Winter Fair that allowed the York hotel's bluegrass boys to live it up at the Royal York in downtown Toronto. They made eight recordings, and own all the music on seven of them.

Some years, there were 200 gigs and a repertoire of as many tunes. There were many appearances at folk festivals and, in 1983, a career pinnacle when they played Monroe's Bean Blossom Festival in Indiana. The Flyers had a radio show on BX93, which ran more than seven years, and a shorter-lived series on CFPL-TV. More recently, there was an informal reunion of most of the Flyers at the 2001 Home County Folk Festival, where Palmer is artistic director.

Through those heights and such inevitable lows as once playing a Guelph gig solely to make a payment on the band's bus, the Flyers have stayed off auto pilot for 30 years.

Their secret, Baumbach says, has been to make sure the band has just as much fun as the audience.