Monday, March 7, 2011

Al Hawkes - An Eventful Life - Artist Profile

Al Hawkes

Al Hawkes is eighty years old. He has been recognized by the International Bluegrass Music Museum as one of the pioneers of bluegrass at a ceremony in Owensboro, KY and interviewed for the Museum's Video-Oral history project, designed to create a priceless archive detailing the contributions of the first generation of bluegrass pioneers. A film celebrating his life and career has been made and shown on public television in his home region of New England. Al Hawkes recorded and toured with Alton Myers as the first black and white duo in country and bluegrass music. They remain so today, more than fifty years after they made their last recording. Despite having enormous influence in broadcasting, recording, and performing country, pre-bluegrass, and bluegrass music throughout New England, Al Hawkes is too little known in parts of the country where people still ask us, “Do ya'll like bluegrass music up north?”

Allerton Hawkes was born on Christmas Day of 1930 in Providence, Rhode Island. His family moved to Westbrook, Maine, returning to the old family farm, when Al was ten years old. He soon showed an aptitude for tinkering as well as an interest in the mandolin, both traits which have lasted him his entire life. He was soon collecting cowboy and hillbilly recordings and playing in local country music bands around the area, forming his first band in the late 1940's. He soon built a pirate radio station broadcasting to the surrounding area at 1210KC on the AM dial, shutting it down when he heard the FCC was interested in shutting him down. Soon he was broadcasting five days a week from WLAM radio in Lewiston, ME as Allerton & Alton, The Cumberland Ridge Runners.

Allerton Hawkes and Alton Myers were a hit on radio, but had difficulty getting work as a hillbilly duo when promoters discovered that Myers was black. They were, and remain to this day, the only black and white duo to ever have recorded country and what should probably be called pre-bluegrass music. Thanks to Bear Family Records performances of this duo have been preserved and released in a CD called “Black, White and Bluegrass: Allerton & Alton containing twenty-seven songs from three radio programs recorded by Al Hawkes with his partner Alton Myers as the Cumberland Ridge Runners broadcasting from Lewiston, Maine in the late 1940's and into the early fifties. The CD is accompanied by a beautifully produced booklet telling the story of this remarkable duo. (Bear Family Records, BCD 165559 AH available from Amazon $25.92)

 Allerton & Alton

The wonderful liner notes for this album, written by Hank Davis, provide much of the material for the next couple of paragraphs. A February 9, 2010 article in The Tennessean says, "“This is a fascinating piece of American musical history,” said John Rumble, senior historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “These guys were standing up there as co-equals, in a duet. Considering the racial climate of the nation then, it really was unusual to have a black man and a white man making music together. It’s something far out of the ordinary.” Rumble says he can find no other evidence of another inter-racial duo performing. While Al Hawkes recorded many of the programs and a good many singles, they were thought to be lost until they were discovered in Al's vast collection of recordings and other memorabilia.  Many listeners to Allerton & Alton on the radio had no idea they were a racially integrated duo until they saw the 8x10 publicity photo the two would send out.  One listener sent back a picture because of Alton's color. (This incident reminded me of hearing about fans of Jimmy Rogers who had thought he was black when they heard his blues on the radio, only realizing he was white when they saw him or his picture.)  When the Korean War broke out, both men were drafted, effectively ending their period of performing together.  The Bear Family recording contains three complete fifteen minute radio programs and fourteen singles, a marvelous addition to the recorded history of the time.

Allerton Hawkes & Alton Myers
 Photo from The Tennessean

When Al Hawkes was in the Air Force, serving primarily in North Africa, his commanding officer learned he had a first class radio operators license and assigned him to doing radio programs for Armed Forces Radio as well as to performing for the troops.  He also had the opportunity to learn how to use up-to-date recording equipment of the time. On his return to civilian life, he soon started, with partner Richard Greeley, a recording studio called Event Records, which continued to to operate through the fifties and sixties, while Al continued to build his collection.  During this time they recorded Dick Curless, Hall Lone Pine, Charlie Bailey (of the Bailey Brothers), The Lilly Brothers & Don Stover, guitarist Lenny Breau, Curtis Johnson, and others.  

Hal Lonepine & Betty Cody

Event Records continued into the sixties, but after a fire at their Boston warehouse destroyed 95% of their stock without insurance they went out of business.  In the film "The Eventful Life of Al Hawkes: How Country Music Came Home to Maine," Al discusses the difficulty of record distribution from rural Maine to the rest of the country.  He also comments they hadn't the expertise necessary as Nashville increasingly became the center of country music.  The film has been shown on public television in New England, but is not currently available, as the use of a clip included in the film is in dispute with the National Film Board of Canada.  Keep an eye out for this excellent film to be re-released once it has been appropriately edited.

Cover Photo for The Eventful Life of Al Hawkes DVD

While continuing to perform bluegrass music throughout New England with occasional swings further from home, Al Hawkes and his wife Barbara built a Radio and Television sales and service business serving his region of Maine.  People were surprised to learn that the man they heard on the radio was the one on the animated sign advertising the "walking repair man."

The Lilly Brothers & Don Stover

In his eighty-first year, Al Hawkes remains a vital and energetic man, a bright twinkle in his eye and a wealth of stories to tell.  Over the years his collection of recordings has grown to somewhere in the neighborhood of 50,000 items, a priceless vision of the progress of hillbilly, country, and bluegrass music from the 1920's to the present.  He can frequently be seen at bluegrass festivals throughout New England. He was recently at Joe Val, where last year he was awarded the Heritage Award for his contributions to New England Bluegrass.

Al Hawkes Receives Heritage Award
 Photo by Darwin Davidson

Al Hawkes - Crazy Fingers Rag

Al Hawkes


  1. Thanks Ted for posting this piece on my good friend Al Hawkes. He certainly is a national treasure. - Gerry Katz

  2. Hey Ted! Great entry. We are working with the Fair Use Project at Stanford University (which is a great resource for independent filmmakers) to resolve licensing issues for a few archival clips we used in the film. We have a broadcast license from the Canadian Broadcasting Corp regarding their archival sources, but haven't reached an agreement yet about DVD sales. Hopefully it will be resolved over the next few months and we can start distributing DVDs and video on demand of the film!
    Thanks again.

  3. Hey Ted! Thanks for this great blog entry. We have an clip licensing agreement with the CBC regarding broadcasting the film but we are still working on DVD rights. The Fair Use Project at Stanford University is assisting us to clear up our licenses for the archival material used in the film -- they are a great resource for independent /low & no budget filmmakers! Hopefully we'll have this all resolved in the next few months and can start distributing the film on DVD and on demand downloads.

  4. Ted, Thank you so much for the fine story on my documentary DVD "The Eventful Life of Al Hawkes" and the Bear Family CD of Allerton & Alton old radio recordings of the 1940/50s. I appreciate your nice comments. I was planning on retiring this year but maybe I should reconsider. Maybe 80 is to young to retire?
    Again, Thank You.