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Red Rector was a much loved and highly respected musician, one of the most distinctive stylists of bluegrass and country mandolin. His playing was powerful, sophisticated, neat, often amusing and above all heartfelt. Very sadly, Red is longer with us, having died in 1990 when he was only 60. You can read his biography on the Web by clicking here.

In 1982 the old Bluegrass And Old Time Mandolin newsletter was pleased to be able to publish an interview with Red Rector. The interview took place in late 1981 when Red and banjo player Don Stover were staying in England with John Atkins, long time musician and supporter of bluegrass and acoustic music in this country. John, and his two associates in Breakdown Productions, Mike Craig and Dave Hatfield, were responsible for bringing Red and Don over for a successful UK tour. During this time John managed to fit in the interview with Red, and has now kindly given permission for it to be published on the Web.

Interview with Red Rector

John Atkins: When you started playing mandolin, Red, who did you listen to first of all?

Red Rector: Oh, Bill.

JA: You listened to Monroe?

RR: Oh, yeah!

JA: That was Bill before you listened to, say, the Blue Sky Boys or the Morris Brothers, or people like that?

RR: Must have been. The first mandolin I heard was Bill, Bill and Charlie (Monroe), that New River Train. I did hear the Morris Brothers, when I was going to grade school. Zeke played mandolin some.

JA: When you started playing, as a result of Bill, what was the first mandolin you ever bought?

RR: A Kay.

JA: How did you learn how to tune it, and things like that?

RR: Well, I played for quite a while before I learned to tune! I guess I finally learned to tune by tuning the E string to the guitar open E, but I played for two or three years before I learned to tune. I was a terrible tuner!

JA: Did you find that Bill's style of mandolin playing was so good as to put you off playing that way, or did you really work on copying Bill's style?

RR: Yeah, when I first started, that's the way I wanted to sound, exactly, the first three or four years that I played.

JA: That was Bill playing with Charlie Monroe?

RR: Yes.

JA: Can you remember anything that you learned from Bill and Charlie?

RR: No, I just learned to like the mandolin. But when I started to listen to Bill on the Grand Old Opry later, that's when I really started trying to play just like him. That's when Clyde Moody was with him, he had his Blue Grass Boys, he was playing those blues things: True Life Blues, Tennessee Blues, Honky Tonk Swing - I learned to play that exactly - I thought it was exactly like it, anyway!

JA: Do you still play that? Or Tennessee Blues?

RR: No. I can't remember it. I remember it (Tennessee Blues) was in A.

JA: Was it Johnny Wright who told you that you really should quit playing like Monroe?

RR: Well, when I went with Johnny and Jack in Raleigh (NC), early in 1947, or late 46 I guess it was, I was 16 years old, and they began to work with me to get me to try to change the way I was playing. I was playing note for note like Bill then. John explained, 'Look, there's only one Bill, and if you're ever going to gain any name for yourself as a mandolin player, you've got to get a style of your own.' But I wouldn't listen to him, I thought, if you don't plav like Bill, you don't play mandolin. So they began to tell me about a boy that used to play with them in West Virginia named Paul Buskirk. 'He has his own style, and he can play mandolin!' The way I heard him was when they went on the Grand Old Opry, and I was so scared to go on the Grand Old Opry that I didn't go with them. The thought of going on that stage petrified me! So they got Paul Buskirk, and I tuned in one night, and heard him on the Grand Old Opry, and thought, 'Man alive! I never heard nothing like that in my life!' - the way that guy played the mandolin. So I went down to the Opry to pick my mandolin up - I'd sent it on ahead with them, 'cause I'd fully intended to go on with them when they started on the Opry. The more I'd thought about it, the more frightened I'd felt about going, so I didn't go! I had a chance to meet Paul Buskirk. We went backstage - Bill Monroe got us in - the crowd was gathered around the dressing room, Buskirk was sitting there in a jam session, and everyone was gathered around watching him play. Chubby Wise, I remember, and it seems like Eddy Arnold was standing there watching him - enough people to let you know that somebody was picking that everyone wanted to hear! So I had a chance to meet Paul that night, and listen to him and talk to him some, so it was then that I started trying to develop a style. I started playing a little bit like Paul, maybe, on the low strings. There was another boy named Ernest Ferguson I thought played real pretty mandolin, the guy playing with the Bailes Brothers. Then I got a job with Charlie Monroe, and went to Knoxville on The Mid-Day Merrygoround, and Homer and Jethro happened to be there at that time. When I heard Jethro, and I'd already heard Buskirk, I said, 'Well, I've heard the two greatest in the world!' So somewhere between then and a year later, I came up with a little sound that, if I have anything that is different, that's when it started. By the time I was 18, I was playing my own style.

JA: Of course, Bill Monroe gave you some pretty solid advice, didn't he?

RR: He came over - I was 15 when we were on a little local radio station at Asheville, WWNC, and he played the civic auditorium there, along with Carl Story and his group, the Rambling Mountaineers. We were called The Blue Ridge Hillbillies at the time: Red Smiley was playing guitar and Jimmy Lunsford on the fiddle and a fellow called Snowball that managed the thing. He was an old Nashville showman, a comedian. I forget who else was in the group, maybe the Sauceman Brothers were with us. So we went over to the auditorium, and that was the first time I'd been around Bill, and I was scared to death to even walk in the place! I didn't own the mandolin I was playing - an F5 mandolin that belonged to Red Smiley. I was sitting, trying to tune it or something, when Bill walked over and asked what it sold for new. I said, 'I don't know, it's not mine. It belongs to the redheaded boy that plays the guitar, over there. I think he paid $250 for it.' Bill said, 'Is that right? Can I look at it?' He took it and played it for a few minutes - and tuned it (laughs) - and then he asked me to play a little tune. I tried to play something. He said, 'Well, you got good fast fingers, but you're playing with a stiff wrist.' I looked down, and I really was playing with a stiff wrist, stiff as a board. So that's when I started trying to develop my wrist.

JA: You've mentioned all these guys that you liked, Buskirk, Ernest Ferguson, and Jethro, and how you evolved your own style. Did you actually copy what they did? How did you work on your own style?

RR: Well, I tried to listen, and maybe incorporate ideas from different players, and try to get a few of my own things in. I guess it came together with a combination of things like that.

JA: You play mostly away from the first position. Is that deliberate, to get a different sound?

RR: Oh, yeah.

JA: When did you start doing that?

RR: I guess when I was with Carl Story.

JA: When you play tunes like Blackberry Blossom live, you play at about 6,000 miles an hour!

RR: Maybe a little faster!

JA: What sort advice would you give to anybody wanting to play at that speed?

RR: Well, you have to do it with your wrist - too much work for the arm.

JA: Do you think in terms of trying to keep your fingers close together?

RR: Mine are naturally close because they're short, but you'd almost have to do that. I don't advise anybody to play at breakneck speed. Well, maybe one tune on the show is good for the show, but if you're going to make a good recording........

JA: On your records that you've done so far, you've tended to play a lot more slowly than you would otherwise do. Why is that?

RR: I think it's a better feel for the studio musicians, and then a lot of times you don't have time to work things out the way you would like to. When you go into the studio you have so many hours to record, so you pick a pace that suits everybody best, and go from there.

JA: Do I take it from that, that you're not ecstatically delighted with your records that you've made so far?

RR: I've made some that I was happy with, and I've made some that I wish I hadn't made! I guess everybody's like that.

JA: But there's not one that you can look back on and say, 'That's it! That's the one!'?

RR: I don't think so, no. I've made some that I would have to say that I was sort of proud of, not for what I do, but for what the other guys do that are on it. But I don't think that there's any one that I ever made, that I didn't think that there was something that I could have done maybe better.

JA: You use an A model mandolin. You've tried an F model ....

RR: I've played a lot, and I don't have anything against them. The A just seems to suit my style of playing.

JA: Have you tried any of the other mandolins (other than Gibson) - the newer makes?

RR: Yeah, I've played some that I've liked.... Norman Blake has an F5 that I like to play, and he's also got a real good A model that I like!

JA: What sort of advice would you give to someone who was just starting out on mandolin?

RR: Well, the biggest thing is, make sure you want to play! Practise as long as it's fun. If you can play an hour and have a ball, great! You're learning something. If you play 30 minutes, and the last 30 minutes you're looking at the clock and saying, 'Man, I can't wait until I can quit practising,' then you're not learning a durn thing! As long as it's fun, practise.

JA: I think there are a lot of people with the mistaken impression that geniuses are born that way. In some cases they are, but I've never known yet a genius who doesn't need to practise. Often the difference between Jethro and somebody who's nowhere near as good is not only a genius, (Jethro obviously has some gift!) but it's also hours and hours of practice. Would you agree with that?

RR: Yeah, that and a love of the thing. If you love the music enough, that creates desire, and I think desire creates the ability that you might not have had basically. I think that a good musician has the basic ability, just like a real good athlete, has that gift of special coordination, maybe, that some people don't have. But you're right about practice, though; the gift is no good unless you do something with it. How many mediocre musicians do you know who could be great if they applied themselves to the natural ability that they might have?

JA: You are known as a bluegrass mandolin player. Do you play other forms of music? Jethro, for example, would be hurt if somebody called him a bluegrass mandolin player! (laughter from both) Jethro is a jazz mandolin player...

RR: Yeah, he's known for jazz, but he likes to sit around and pick hoedown tunes, you know. I enjoy playing other kinds of music. I love to play these old Irish tunes, like When I Grow Too Old To Dream - not that that's an Irish tune! But tunes in that category. Lara's Theme - I do that on the shows a lot....

JA: My advice, when I used to teach, was that whatever you play, whether it be banjo, mandolin or guitar, think of it as a musical instrument. So if you want to play the guitar, play the guitar. Don't say, 'I'm gonna play bluegrass guitar, and that's the end to it!' Would you go along with that advice?

RR: Yeah, absolutely. Now there is, in playing bluegrass music, a special technique. There are some real fine guitar players that couldn't back you up on John Henry or something, because they haven't heard it before, and maybe their ear don't hear that rhythm. So there is a technique, and the same with playing bluegrass mandolin. I don't think of myself as a bluegrass mandolin player in the strictest sense, but I guess I play more bluegrass shows than I do anything else, and I'm booked more on bluegrass festivals, so that's the category that I would be in.

JA: But I would think of you as a mandolin player that plays bluegrass music - you play other forms of music, obviously. Nobody in bluegrass plays Miss Jameson's Favourite, as you do, (a Celtic tune) - yet!

RR: So, practise, and get with someone that you enjoy playing with. You can always learn from other people, jam sessions, and don't get so doggone independent that you'll only listen to one style. Listen to different styles, 'cause that's the way it's going now.

JA: What about playing more than one instrument? Most people, it seems, come on to mandolin as a second instrument. There are very, very few people who play mandolin only - you could probably count them on the fingers of one hand, couldn't you? The real mandolin players.....

RR: A heck of a lot of mandolin players are fiddle players who double on mandolin. Byron Berline plays good mandolin. He's a fiddler, and I think Jethro and me are probably the only two mandolin players that can't play a fiddle! I can't use a bow...

JA: Monroe could be a third?

RR: Ah, he plays some. He can plav some old tunes, not on a par with Kenny Baker or anyone like that, but he can saw out a tune.

JA: But you play guitar, yourself. Do you think that playing a guitar is any use to you as a mandolin player, or do you think it limits you in any way?

RR: Well, it don't help me! I don't play guitar that much any more. I use one a little, occasionally.

JA: So your advice to a mandolin player would be to play the mandolin?

RR: Yeah, unfortunately there are only a few Mark O'Connors that can play them all. For most people, play the instrument you love - that's the one you'll learn to play. I like all of them, but the mandolin is my first love!

Red Rector's mandolin style is characterised by very clean but powerful picking, and a really clear tone from his Gibson A4. Red is a consummate artist, with a particular ear for melody, and a good taste which relies more on playing what sounds right than on impressing his listeners with flashy chromatics and off-beat ideas. Not that there isn't a place for the latter, it's just that Red doesn't need to use them most of the time, though sometimes he sticks in a wild little run (usually in triplets, at the speed of light!) to ginger it up! I've always thought of Red as the 'gentleman' of the bluegrass mandolin world - never one to seek the limelight, but preferring to act as a support musician of the highest order. Luckily the mandolin world is quite aware of Red's talent!


Red Rector has appeared on many records attributed to other people, as well as on his own discs. The following discography is primarily of LP recordings which were available at the time of the interview, but the list is of necessity incomplete. I'm not sure how much of Red's playing can be heard on CD. He did work as a sideman on some of Don Reno's recordings which have since been re-released on CD by King.

Ballads and Instrumentals, Old Homestead OR 90023

Appaloosa, Old Homestead OH 90044

Songs from the Heart Of The Country, Red Rector and Fred Smith, County 721

Norman Blake and Red Rector, County 755

Another Happy Day, Red Rector and Bill Clifton, County 758

Come By The Hills , Bill Clifton, County 751

Clifton And Company, County 765 (with Bill Keith, Mike Auldridge, and others)

Red Rector and Friends, Revonah 931 (Kenny Baker and others)

Back Home In Madison County, Revonah 935

Old Friends, Red Rector and Jethro Burns, Rebel Records

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