It’s been just over a year since Bill Richardson played his last tune. I still have his number in my phone. It would feel weird to delete it. I sat with him at the end, my hand on his arm as cancer stole him away and he breathed his last. I guess some part of me still feels like if I just get the right band together, I’ll be able to pull him back, talk him into playing one more gig. He was never one to turn down a good party.
Bill was born in Washington, DC, on August 11, 1954, to William and Louise Richardson. His father was a postal employee born in the 1890s, and surely had much to do with Bill’s fondness for anachronism. The family moved from DC to Utah and back to Arlington, Virginia, while Bill was still a boy. He entered the old-time music world while a college student at Virginia Tech in the 1970s. Along with friends Mac Traynham and Shay Garriock, Bill made numerous visits to Smyth County, Virginia, to drink whiskey and learn tunes from fiddler Hick Edmonds and his wife Sue. Bill also became close friends with the family of famed Giles County fiddler Henry Reed. Over the years, Bill got involved with the Hoorah Cloggers and the budding Blacksburg Square Dance. For decades he was instrumental in instigating and perpetuating various public old-time jams in Blacksburg. When the jam would lose its home at one bar, it was always Bill who would court another, bringing with him a ragtag bunch of fiddlers and banjo players. It was important to him that the jam exist in a public space where Virginia Tech college students and other young musicians could happen upon the music by accident, as Bill himself had happened upon it. While it was important to Bill that the music stay rooted in the past, he was no preservationist. He wanted it to be a little bit wild, a little bit dangerous, a little bit shocking if possible. If he could push things just to the brink of being out of control and hold them there, it was a job well done. He had a gift for knowing when and how to lure young people into the music, and when to get out of the way and let them own it. It was commonplace for Bill to send some promising college kid home with a banjo, and commonplace for that college kid to come back and become a regular part of the jam. He cared more for energy than for training. My own first old-time gig was playing mandolin with Bill Richardson and the Jugbusters at the Floyd Country Store. I didn’t even own a mandolin. Bill borrowed one for the night, I got three chords down, and he put me on stage. He had heard me play guitar and knew I could keep time and stay in front of the beat, and that was enough for the dancers.
While he played in various other old-time and country bands over the years, Bill is probably best remembered as the driving force behind the Jugbusters, the main outlet for his fiddling, songwriting, and rabble-rousing. What started as a fairly standard four-piece old time string band evolved over time into a mobile six- or seven-piece dance party, often with drums and electric guitars. Bill was a paradox of purism: on the one hand, he had an almost fanatical devotion to what he perceived as the old way of doing things, and an open and vocal disdain for what he saw as the watering-down of traditional music. He didn’t want to hear old-time festival jam bands that only played breakdowns. If a band couldn’t play a proper country dance with a mix of breakdowns and country two-steps, Bill wasn’t interested. On the other hand, he was perfectly happy to bring “Sally Ann” with drums and electric guitar to a honky-tonk if that was what it took to get the party started. He was astonishingly skilled at writing original music, as long as it sounded to him like old music. And he wasn’t bothered by what others saw as the contradiction. Either you played the music right, understood and respected the spirit of the thing, or you didn’t. And if you didn’t, he didn’t mind telling you about it. Bill ruffled a lot of feathers in his lifetime, and he liked it that way. Deflating pretense was a favorite hobby.
Bill’s vision for the Jugbusters was to be nothing less than the best party band working in the New River Valley. In my years playing with the band, I’d have to say that he succeeded. The Jugbusters were equally at home playing for octogenarians at traditional dance venues like the Ruritan Club in Beulah, North Carolina, and Clark’s Sawmill in Raphine, Virginia, playing for tourists and local dancers at the Floyd Country Store in Floyd, Virginia, and playing weekly late-night bar gigs for inebriated college kids at the Cellar in Blacksburg. No matter the crowd, the goal was always the same to Bill: to get people to loosen up, to get them to dance. And while he had a broad repertoire of the breakdowns favored by modern festival bands, Bill’s ace-in-the-hole was always the country two-step. It was his mantra to the audience at every show: “There’s no easier way to make a lady happy than to ask her to dance the two-step!” (This inspired the title of the third Jugbusters album, No Easier Way.) His long-time girlfriend and the unofficial band photographer Cynthia Connolly gifted Bill with a neon “TWO-STEP” sign that came with us to every gig and illuminated that easy way to happiness. It was as much a part of the show as Bill’s Stetson hats, tailored shirts, and skinny ties. In addition to the hundreds of gigs played, the Jugbusters produced four albums: Radio Show: Live From the Rex (2004), Keep the Crows Out: Live From the Floyd Country Store (2005), No Easier Way (2008), and HonkyTonk Hymnal (2013). The latter two featured a number of Bill’s original songs, as well as those of other band members.
It’s a cliché to say that someone died too young, but Bill Richardson died too young. When cancer took him last September at age 60, he was at the height of his powers. He had developed a truly distinct fiddle style that stayed firmly rooted in traditional old-time music, but had evolved through his time playing in honky-tonk bands. He was an opinionated clawhammer banjo player, and an evangelist for the Galax style. He was one of the finest old-time guitarists I have ever played with, and one of the most clever and prolific songwriters. In the last week of his life, his hospital room was a “who’s who” of old-time musicians and dancers in the New River Valley, with music emanating from its door from morning until well after official visiting hours had ended. He died the way he had lived – throwing a big, fat party. Today, he lies buried on an obscure hillside in the Rich Valley of Virginia, at the feet of his friend and musical mentor, Hick Edmonds. The “TWO-STEP” sign still comes with me to gigs. Because if you’re going to leave a light on for Bill Richardson, it had better be neon, and it had better make people dance.