Revisiting Bev King and Country Heritage

Nov 26, 2021 | Bluegrass History, Welcome Column

Digging through the archives, I found this article by Lon Suiter, which appeared in the 1986 Bluegrass Breakdown. It presents an interesting slice of perhaps lesser-known bluegrass history.

There is a lot of music referenced in this article, much of which is readily available online and on disk. However, some of the works of Bev King and Joe Knight may be a little harder to find online. Here’s what I’ve found so far.

You can listen to “Memories of Marty on Spotify.

Other recordings by Knight are available on YouTube:

The original article listed a rural post office box for contacting Country Heritage. I’m happy to report that Bev King’s work continues via the Country Heritage Facebook page, where she reports she has recently put some of her early dobro recordings onto CD. Visit Country Heritage on Facebook.

Here is the article.


Bev King & Joe Knight: Keeping Traditions

by LON SUITER

In the early days of bluegrass music, little distinction was made between bluegrass and other forms of country music. Radio stations that aired country music would include Bill Monroe’s records alongside those of Ernest Tubb, Bob Wills, and others who had their own original styles.

Today, the unique sound of bluegrass is usually kept separated from other forms of country music. But to a lot of listeners, there is still little distinction between bluegrass and traditional country music. Technically, there are certain characteristics which set them apart, but many fans of traditional bluegrass are also fans of traditional country music. In fact, many of those who attend bluegrass festivals are old time country fans who have discovered that bluegrass is quite similar to the old time sounds they are not able to find elsewhere.

An Oklahoma duo is gaining worldwide recognition in their efforts to help fill that gap by presenting old country songs using acoustical instruments. Bev King and Joe Knight have been performing together since 1979. Through the efforts of their fans, they have come to the attention of the management of the Grand Ole Opry, and have been notified by the Opry manager that they may expect a call to make their first appearance as soon as the prestigious show’s crowded schedule permits Although Joe Knight’s smooth vocals bear no similarity to the high pitched style associated with bluegrass, and Bev King’s Dobro picking leans toward the style of Bashful Brother Oswald, rather than the more frequently-imitated Josh Graves and Jerry Douglas, their music has been very well received at the many bluegrass festivals and concerts they have played. Because of their unique style, their music provides a refreshing breather for the audience between sets of high-speed bluegrass.

The songs they do–songs like “Beneath the Willow” and “Shackles and Chains”–sometimes overlap the repertoire of the traditional bluegrass bands. But they also do other old country songs which are less often heard at bluegrass gatherings.

Joe’s vocal style immediately brings to mind the early country style of Marty Robbins–the style that Robbins abandoned in later years. But Joe’s association with Marty Robbins goes further than just the similarity in style. From the time Robbins did his first Columbia session in Dallas in 1952, until 1956, Joe played rhythm guitar on all Marty’s records, including such classics as “The Hands You’re Holding Now”, “Begging To You,” and his first hit, “I’ll Go On Alone.”

As a studio musician, Joe Also worked session with Lefty Frizzell (including all Frizzell’s earliest and best known hits), the Maddox Brothers and Rose, Leon McAuliffe, the Callahan Brothers, and a number of others who recorded for Columbia, Decca, RCA, Imperial, and other labels.

Unfortunately, these sessions ended tragically in 1956 with the death of studio owner/engineer Jim Beck. In preparation for an important session, Beck and lead guitarist Jimmy Rollins were cleaning the equipment with carbon tetrachloride, and the chemical somehow got into Beck’s system. He died a few days later.

This event was to become a turning point in the history of country music. Several major labels, including Decca and Columbia, had been making plans to move all their country sessions to Beck’s studio. This move could have very easily made Dallas, Texas, the country music capital of the world. Dallas had its Big D Jamboree, broadcast over the 50,000 watt KRLD—Dallas’ answer to WSM’s Grand Ole Opry. Live country radio shows were also quite numerous on other stations in the area, including the programs of Georgia Slim, champion fiddler with whom Joe also worked for a time.

Discouraged by the turn of events and fed up with life in the big city, Joe Knight moved his growing family back to his hometown of Madill, Oklahoma the following year. He completely left the music business for seven years, until the mid-60’s when his 5-year-old son, “Tiny Tim,’ began singing professionally. They began touring with such artists as Ernest Tubb, George Jones, Jim & Jesse, Loretta Lynn, Harold Morrison, Tex Ritter, and others in the southwest.

As the music heard on “country” radio drifted farther and farther from the true country sound, Joe began to feel that there was no longer any interest in his kind of music. One day in 1976, he walked into a local record shop, and was surprised to hear some instrumental Dobro music coming over the PA system. He commented to the proprietor that this was his kind of music–and was informed that the artist, Bev King was also a local resident. He immediately went home and called her, and over the next three years, they worked a few local schoolhouse concerts together.

Bev King had not always been a local resident. Born and raised in southeastern Pennsylvania, she grew up listening to old time country music–including some of those records on which Joe was playing rhythm guitar. At the age of 5, she was given a toy ukulele, and learned a few simple tunes and chords on it. She graduated to a full size Harmony guitar when she was 10, and two years later she became fascinated by the unusual instrument on a newly-purchased Roy Acuff album. Unfortunately, no one seemed to know exactly what the instrument was, although her mother told her it was a Hawaiian guitar. Bev converted her Harmony guitar to Hawaiian, but the results sounded nothing like what she was hearing on Roy Acuff’s recordings, so that experiment didn’t last long. Three years passed before she located WSM on the radio, and as she listened to Roy Acuff on the Opry, she soon heard the instrument referred to as a “Dobro.” This set off more than a year of visiting all the music shops in the area, but only one of them had ever heard of a Dobro. They told her the company had gone out of business, but that the Mosrite Company was soon to resume production. Months passed before their first catalog was issued, and Bev immediately placed an order, early in 1967. After four long months, the guitar–with its serial number DB 0001–finally arrived.

For two years she struggled along, not knowing she was trying to work Oswald’s A-tuned licks onto an E-tuned guitar. In 1969, she finally met another Dobro picker–Oswald himself—and found she had been using the wrong tuning. Oswald graciously picked for her for about an hour after closing time at the Roy Acuff Exhibits, and from watching him, she learned more than she’d been able to learn over the previous two years on her own.

Bev soon decided she needed a better instrument for the sound she wanted. She contacted Alex Campbell about the new Dobros he had been advertising on his radio program, and was invited to come to the well-known Sunset Park and pick backstage with Alex and Ola Belle’s New River Boys. During one of these visits, Bev made her first radio appearance on Alex’s show.

A year later, in 1971, she recorded her first Dobro album, “A Dobro Dozen,” and that same year, she began picking occasionally with Alex and Ola Belle at Sunset Park during the summer months

Keenly aware of the need for Dobro instructional material, and receiving many requests for it from the people who bought her records, in 1973 Bev put together a tablature-tape course which was the only one on the market for several years. Despite the many other courses that followed, Bev still receives many comments from students that hers is still the easiest for beginners to understand.

In 1974, Bev began publishing a small magazine just for Dobroists–the only one of its kind in the world. She recently expanded it to also include traditional country music in general, and the present title is “Country Heritage.” Readers are scattered through more than 40 states and a dozen foreign countries.

Before moving to Oklahoma in 1975, she recorded two more albums, and in 1977, Bev fulfilled a longtime ambition by recording “An Instrumental Tribute to Brother Oswald.”

For the first few years after moving to Oklahoma, Bev attended Bill Grant’s famous bluegrass festival at Hugo. In 1979, as she walked off the stage with her first place trophy from the Dobro contest, she was quite surprised to find Joe Knight waiting backstage to congratulate her. Knowing his background in the more commercial forms of country music, she hadn’t expected to see him at a bluegrass festival, but that year, at the suggestion of some friends, Joe and his wife attended the Hugo festival. Amazed at the number of people who were still interested in traditional music, Joe suggested to Bev that they team up and work some shows together, and accept the invitation he’d received to start a live show on Madill’s radio station, KMAD. Thus began “The Bev and Joe Show.”

During the first four years, their endeavors included several cassette releases and some bluegrass and local country shows, along with their weekly radio program. In 1982, Cattle Records of West Germany released their first LP together. “Backroads to Yesterday” featured 6 of Joe’s vocals and 6 Dobro instrumentals by Bev. January 1985, saw the release of their second album, “Memories of Marty” on the Revonah label. This traditional style tribute to Marty Robbins, with Dobro and flat top guitar backing, sold out quickly. In Sept. 1985, it was reissued by Bear Family Records of West Germany, which will distribute it to a worldwide market. With its beautiful full color gatefold jacket, which opens to display 13 early pictures of Marty Robbins, this reissue could soon become a collector’s item.

Of the original issue, Robbins’ older sister remarked that it is “a fantastic tribute to my beloved brother.”

Beginning late in 1983, Bev and Joe started working some tours in Texas and Oklahoma with country humorist Jerry Clower, and later, with steel guitarist Little Roy Wiggins. Sharing their dislike for extensive traveling, Bev and Joe limit their appearances in distance and number. Still, as mentioned earlier, they are awaiting that call which will necessitate their dropping everything and driving over 700 miles to appear that weekend on the most prestigious country music show in the world–the Grand Ole Opry.

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