Local Bluegrass Memories
A brief history of Bluegrass Music in Western New York
By Mark Panfil and Rick Falkowski (and many of you)
Chapter 1- 1950’s to 1983
Bluegrass Music was originally performed in the US in Appalachia and is defined as Irish and British ballads that were influenced by Irish fiddle music and African American blues and jazz. It is characterized by breakneck tempos, sophisticated vocal harmony arrangements and impressive instrumental proficiency in solos on mandolin, banjo and fiddle. Bluegrass and country western both evolved from old time mountain music. They were very similar until the introduction of drums and electric instruments in the 1940’s. Country music is played primarily on electric guitar, electric bass and drums, while bluegrass is all acoustic instruments and no drums. Bluegrass music is performed primarily for listening or rural dancing known as buckdancing, flatfooting or clogging. Country music is performed more for dancers, who prefer two step or more recent country line dancing.
Mandolin player, Bill Monroe is considered the “Father of Bluegrass Music”. In 1938 he assembled the first version of his band The Bluegrass Boys and in 1939 he became a regular performer on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville. In 1945 the classic version of The Bluegrass Boys was formed with the addition of Earl Scruggs on banjo and Lester Flatt on vocals/guitar. This rendition of the band set the formula for the traditional bluegrass instrumentation of: mandolin, banjo, fiddle, guitar and bass.
Bluegrass moved north after WWII and one of the first prominent bluegrass performers in WNY was Bob Schneider, a self taught banjo player from Elmira NY who settled in South Buffalo. Bob was influenced by Bluegrass musicians from West Virginia who had taken jobs at Harrison Radiator in Lockport NY. Bob taught many of the early bluegrass players in Buffalo that would make weekly pilgrimages to his house in search of the southern Bluegrass sound. To many he was the local father of Bluegrass. In the 1960’s he started played banjo and dobro (resonator guitar) and in the early 70’s formed the Border City Bluegrass Band. That band included a West Virginia fiddle Kenny Bennet and the McCarthy brothers from Canada, hence the name The Border City Bluegrass Band. Bob moved to the Southern Tier in the late 80’s but periodically returned to play in the Buffalo area.
Billy Hamilton & the Bluegrass Almanac were a mid-1970’s bluegrass band that performed often at The Library on Bailey Avenue. The band was led by mandolin and fiddle player Billy Hamilton. He attended graduate school at Yale in the late 60’s, where he had a bluegrass band The Ohio River Boys. Hamilton took a job at UB as a professor of Russian and formed the Bluegrass Almanac with another UB professor on guitar( Dick Menn), Dave Soda (banjo), a bass player and Hamilton’s wife Cindy. In addition to nightclubs and colleges in WNY, they won first place at the Canadian National Bluegrass Festival in 1974. Hamilton left Buffalo in 1982 to take a position at Wake Forest University, where he is a professor and Associate Dean.
When Billy Hamilton left Buffalo, some musicians that were associated with the Bluegrass Almanac formed The Queen City Cut-ups. UB students at the time, Dave Haney (guitar), Tom Cook (mandolin), Marv Pfleuger (guitar) and husband and wife team, Steve Aby (banjo) and Martha Aby (bass) played Pandee’s. located in Depew at Broadway and Bordon Road, and Johnnie’s Old Timer on Delaware Avenue in Kenmore. Dave Haney left town to teach and play Bluegrass music in Boston, MA and some of the members of the band went on to form Poplar Ridge. They played local bars including a steady Tuesday night stint at Pandee’s. The line up was Dick Menn (guitar), Dave Soda (mandolin), Mike Wahl (banjo), Marv Pfleuger (bass) and Bob Schnieder (dobro).
In 1975 The Erie Lackawanna Railroad was formed by brothers Mark Panfil (banjo) and Chris Panfil (mandolin/fiddle), along with Bill Matthews on guitar and Mark Gannon on bass. The band played at clubs and festivals in WNY and southern Ontario, including steady Thursday nights at Johnny’s Old Timer on Delaware. During the late 70s, Ted Lambert and Scott Leighton joined ELRR, replacing Bill Matthews and Mark Gannon. Years later the Erie Lackawanna Railroad Band was started up again by Mark’s children, Scott Panfil (bass) and Katie Panfil (fiddle). They also play with their father and uncle Chris, along with Katie’s husband Jayson Clark, in the Panfil Family Band.
In 1977 Jerry Raven and Don Hackett started the folk/bluegrass group the Hill Brothers with a third member that changed throughout the early years. Stu Schapiro, Steve Moscov and Mark Panfil, Rich Schaefer, Judd Sunshine, Dave Ruch and Sue Rozler. The Hill Brothers played bluegrass for an entire generation of students in school assemblies throughout Erie and Niagara County. In 1983 the Hill Brothers were the featured soloists in a joint Bluegrass Symphonic concert with the Orchard Park Symphony Orchestra.
The band Creek Bend was formed in 1978 by Ted Lambert (banjo), Ted Lambert Sr. (bass), Kelly Simpson (mandolin) and Rick Schaefer (guitar). Very soon after the band started the line up settled on Ted Lambert (banjo and fiddle), Rich Schaefer (bass), Dennis King (guitar), Ton Vaughn (mandolin) and Mark Panfil (dobro and harmonica). Ted was a natural born Bluegrass picker switching effortlessly from banjo, to guitar, mandolin, fiddle or bass. He also worked as a promoter to bring national Bluegrass acts to Buffalo. Chris Panfil joined Creek Bend on guitar/mandolin after performing in country and bluegrass bands in Florida, Nashville and playing
tours of the Caribbean and Europe. Mark Panfil joined the band after performing with The Hill Brothers and obtaining a degree in music education, teaching for 30 years at elementary schools in the Frontier School district. After Ted Lambert passed away in 2015, Phil Banazsak joined Creek Bend as fiddle player. Phil is a former New York State Fiddle Champion and was inducted into the North American Fiddler’s Hall of Fame, which is located in Osceola NY, north of Syracuse. Carl Eddy and Doug Yeomans have played extended stints with Creek Bend. Over the past 40 years Creek Bend has performed in WNY and at bluegrass festivals across the country.
In addition to Ramblin’ Lou’s Schriver Family, the other first family of country music in WNY is the Weber Family. Lou featured traditional country but the Weber’s performed more bluegrass. The Weber band included Ernie Weber on fiddle and banjo, Wally Weber on mandolin and Fritz Weber on banjo and dobro. They all also played guitar. They started performing in the early 1950’s and recruited their children and grandchildren to work with the family band, as soon as they were old enough to hold instruments would later feature guest appearances by their children, Wally Weber jr.(guitar, bass and drums), Judy Weber (bass), Wendy Weber (vocals) and Cindy Weber (banjo and guitar). The Weber Brothers Band played regularly at the Club Utica, TNT Western Paradise, Rinaldo’s, later at Luder’s Log Cabin in Elma. Almost every Sunday you would find them performing at Jamborees all over WNY.
Dr. Peter Mirando, a self-taught banjo player and Hamburg HS teacher, began offering a Continuing Education class in Bluegrass instruments in 1975. Over the past 42 years, in his weekly classes, he has taught hundreds of people how to jam and sing Bluegrass songs on banjo, mandolin, guitar and bass. In the late 1970s, Andy Cushing, a Hamburg native and music business program graduate from Belmont College in Nashville, started offering banjo lessons on tape to aspiring banjo players. He used national magazines to market his Bluegrass banjo lessons all over the world.
In 1976, four students from Buffalo State College started the Pointless Brothers Band. Mike Stern (guitar), Pete Seman (fiddle), Charlie Ranney (banjo) and Judd Sunshine (bass) started the band to fulfill a class project and have continued playing to this very day, with only a few personnel changes. From 1977- 1984 they played every Sunday night at the Central Park Grill on Main St. in Buffalo.
Another bluegrass band that played in WNY from 1977 to 1984 was the Boot Hill Boys. The members included Paul “Slim” Norris (mandolin), Steve Stadler (banjo), Jim Zaprzal (guitar) and Jim Cooke (bass). Bob “Buffalo Zew” Palaszewski (fiddle) later joined the band. Zew went on to form The Buffalo Zew Review and was a member of both Backroads and The Stone Country band. The Boot Hill Boys played every Thursday night at Good Time Charlie’s in Town Line, NY. They had regular gigs at Grover’s Old Ale House (Franklin & Tupper) and the Bullpen on Main Street in Clarence. When Jim Zaprzal and Jim Cooke left the band, they changed the name to Night Watch, with Bob Webster (guitar) and Tom Jackson (bass) joining the group.
City Fiddle brought Bluegrass to Allentown in the late 1970’s, when they began playing a weekly happy hour at Nietzsche’s. Fiddlein’ Phil Banaszak was in the band with Ron Hinton (mandolin), Steve Pevo (guitar) and Ed Woods (bass).
Around 1982 one of Bob Schneider’s banjo students, Sue Galbraith put together a Bluegrass band with her sister, Kathy (guitar), Craig Kellas (fiddle), Jennifer Cooke (mandolin) and Jim Lynch (bass). They called themselves Dempsey Station. This group played together until 1999 but seldom played bars. They preferred playing local farm festivals, People Art, Buffalo Friends of Folk Music Concert openings and Historical Societies. They also played out of town Bluegrass Festivals, including the Panama Rocks Folk and Craft Festival in Panama, near Jamestown N.Y.
WNY has had several Bluegrass Festivals over the years. In 1977 The first Creek Side Bluegrass Festival took place in Akron, NY. This Festival had national bluegrass acts like Larry Sparks and the Lonesome Ramblers, along with local bands, the Erie Lackawanna RR, the Pointless Bros., Night Watch, The Dady Brothers from Rochester, Border City Bluegrass, the Queen City Cut Ups and The Shea Brothers, featuring future Nashville performer Pat Shea. This festival continued through 1980.
The Kissing Bridge Country and Bluegrass Festival started in 1980 and continued until 1984. Area bands that played this festival included Stone Country, The Erie Lackawanna Railroad, Creek Bend, Jimmy Kaye Review, the Pointless Brothers and Two Hills. National acts included the Seldom Scene, the Johnson Mountain Boys both from the Washington DC area and Joe Val and the New England Bluegrass Band from Boston, MA.
You could hear live and recorded Bluegrass music on WBFO, the NPR station from the University of Buffalo, every Sunday night from 9 pm till midnight from 1965- 1995. Over the 30 years of that radio show, some of dedicated bluegrass disc jockeys that took to the air and kept the local scene alive were: Steve Abby, Marv Pfleuger, Rose Haney, Mike Wahl, Craig Kellas, Rich Schaefer, Randy Keller, Rob Campbell, and Keith Zehr.
Gallery of Photos