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In memory of Andy Townend

12th January 1952 - 21st July 1998

This page in memory of Andy Townend is adapted from an article which appeared originally in British Bluegrass News, November 1998.

You can also read about Andy and see some good pictures of his playing career at UK North West Bluegrass News. Andy's brother Rick has also written out some tablatures of his mandolin breaks.

News of the tragic death of Andy Townend at the age of 46, after a short illness, shocked the British bluegrass community in the summer of 1998. Many of us attended Andy's funeral, and there was a supportive gathering the following evening for a session at St Julian's Club in Sevenoaks, Kent. The respect in which Andy was held nationally was recognised by an obituary in The Guardian, written by Alan Ward. Since then we have been trying to come to terms with the fact that Andy, the country's foremost bluegrass musician, is no longer with us.

Andy Townend was a musical prodigy. He took up the mandolin shortly before his 11th birthday, and within five years he was a veteran who had already played on stage with such artists as Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and the Country Gentlemen, on a summer visit to the States in 1967. Bill Monroe always remembered Andy and spoke highly of his musicianship. Andy’s visit also included two weeks spent as a Clinch Mountain Boy, in Ralph Stanley's band. The experience of being 'on the road' was one that he never forgot. The opportunity to play with Ralph Stanley was more than adequate compensation for the long (often all-day) car journeys in cramped and uncomfortable conditions.

On his return to England, Andy could have been forgiven for thinking that he had now done it all. What actually happened indicates the breadth of his musical perception. "I suddenly thought," he once related to BBN, "I come from the wrong country, the wrong background, to play mountain music. When I got back I listened to a lot of jazz, among other things, and played quite a lot of jazz guitar. I heard a record of Django Reinhardt and thought, 'Wow, I didn't know the guitar could do that!'" So Andy proceeded to become a first-class jazz guitarist, and his mandolin playing absorbed a lot of jazz influences. At the funeral we heard a recording of Andy playing his own beautiful arrangement for mandolin of the jazz tune, You Don't Know What Love Is, a fitting reminder of his wonderful talent.

His involvement with jazz did not mean that Andy deserted bluegrass music - far from it! He was already heavily involved in playing in his elder brother Rick's bluegrass band. Initially a group of pupils at Sevenoaks School, the Echo Mountain Boys (later the Echo Mountain Band) made an early impression in Britain by winning both the vocal group and the instrumental group competition at the first Cambridge Folk Festival in 1964 - and these contests were open to the whole field of folk musicians, bluegrass wasn’t separated off in those days! Thereafter the Echo Mountain Band appeared around the country right up to their "farewell" performance at Bluegrass By The Shore, part of the Brighton Country Music Festival, in 1980 - and subsequently a number of reunion performances over the years.

The Echo Mountain Band were Britain's finest. They had the reputation at the time of being the only band which sounded 'American'. This had a lot to do with their pace, rhythm and attack, as well as their attention to vocal phrasing and harmonies. Andy was a top-class tenor singer and was a major contributor to the EMB’s vocal sound. The group always acknowledged their debt to Bill Clifton, who had settled in Sevenoaks just after the band had got together at the school, and who acted as their mentor. Bill also obtained records and instruments for the band, and they sometimes accompanied him on personal appearances. Chris Moreton has particular memories of the first time he saw the Echo Mountain Band in concert with Bill Clifton, when they were opening for Bill Monroe at the Hammersmith Odeon in 1975. Chris's reaction to the EMB was similar to my own a few years previously when I had turned out on a wet and windy evening in Cambridge to hear this, to me unknown, bluegrass group. The cohesive sound, with tight harmonies, Rick Townend's crackling Stanley-style banjo, and above all Andy's powerful and penetrating mandolin, provided a memorable evening and a major upward leap in my learning curve of what bluegrass was all about.

Around the same time, in 1976, a new programme on Radio 2, Both Sides Now, featured Dave Plane performing with a certain Andrew Townend. Could this be the same musician who had stunned us with his mandolin playing in the Echo Mountain Band? It certainly was! Not only was the Townend mandolin to the fore, but the duo did some wonderful harmony singing, with Andy’s tenor voice prominent, in the style of the Delmore, Louvin and McReynolds Brothers. I remember Dave Plane dedicating one of their numbers to British Rail, who had got them to the studio that evening - it was the Orange Blossom Special, with Andy crosspicking at express speed and the pair of them doing a stunning harmony vocal. Needless to say, it was considerably faster than the Sevenoaks to Charing Cross Southern Region service!

Dave Plane and Andy Townend travelled around quite a bit, and recorded some local radio broadcasts in various parts of the country. I also discovered that they had done three LPs on the Westwood label, which were available during the Seventies but which must now be collectors’ items. Andy was in fact shockingly under-recorded, which is particularly poignant now that he is no longer with us. The Echo Mountain Band released an LP, again on Westwood, in the Seventies and since re-issued on cassette. Andy also played for a time with Orange Blossom Sound and recorded one LP with them, Keep On Pushing (1974). During the Eighties there was a long gap, which extended right up to the recent Fracas On The Frets CD by Townends Special Bluegrass Service - and this provides a real showcase of Andy's brilliantly eclectic playing. As the review in Bluegrass Unlimited stated, “His mandolin playing evokes everything from American bluegrass masters to jazz tunes.....Playing a 1950s Gibson mandolin ‘improved by John Duffey’, he plays with clear authority.”

Andy Townend's mandolin style was unique. While he borrowed from a wide range of sources - his motto was "If it's good, nick it!" - there was an input and a cohesion that was pure Townend. He had a taste for the melodic, and was a great admirer of Bobby Osborne; Sure-Fire was one of Andy’s favourite bluegrass instrumentals. However, there was also a rhythmic power and cutting edge to his playing associated more with Bill Monroe and John Duffey. Add to that his crosspicking, inspired by Jesse McReynolds but with Andy’s distinctive roll patterns, and you have an idea of the breadth of Andy's vision. Outside the bluegrass framework, Andy would move freely into jazz and explore a range of minor and modal sounds, all the time extending the edge of his musical envelope. There are sadly too few recorded examples of this area of Andy's music, though some of us have treasured amateur recordings made at concert appearances by Andy and Rick.

Back in 1994 British Bluegrass News ran a feature on Andy Townend spread over two issues, Vol 16 Nos 3 and 4. In this two-part article Andy reminisced about many of his experiences and influences, like the jazz recording of Bach's D minor Concerto for Two Violins, played by Django Reinhardt, Stephane Grappelli and Eddy South - Andy learned the first violin part on the mandolin and borrowed excerpts for bluegrass solos! Like his brother Rick, he was also most appreciative of the help the two of them had received from their father, who taught music at Sevenoaks School. Although “Fuzz” was classically trained, 'to read dots' as Andy put it, he encouraged his sons to learn to play by ear, and would help them out with pieces they couldn't quite sort out for themselves. He also suggested to the boys that they might enjoy American folk music, and put them on to the Alan Lomax Folkways collection, thus effectively lighting the fuse!

The loss of Andy Townend is hard for the British bluegrass community to bear. Not only did Andy have an irreplaceable talent but he was a personal friend to many musicians and enthusiasts and a much loved member of our community. With an obvious personal modesty he was always ready to share his experience and understanding of music, both in relaxed informal conversations and in his mandolin workshops which were a feature of the Wadhurst Bluegrass Days. I think Andy would have agreed with Eddy Adcock's portrayal of music as a river. Adcock once explained, ”This musical thing is another language. It’s just a flow of notes. It’s like a river of musical notes. You’re fishing and you reach in and grab whatever ones you want. Some of them are real slippery and they get away from most folks.” There were few notes, however, which eluded Andy Townend! Andy's fascination with musical creativity was obvious to everyone who knew him and he passed on to the rest of us an infectious enthusiasm for the possibilities of music - a wonderful legacy.

While all of us in the British Bluegrass Music Association have lost both a friend and a highly respected musician of world-class stature, we do in particular extend our sympathies to Andy's family, who have suffered a terrible personal loss - Andy's wife Patsy, his mother and father, brother Rick and Rosy, and sister Susanna. We can assure them that Andy’s memory will live on in our bluegrass community. We all feel much the poorer for the loss of our greatest and most inspiring musician.

John Baldry

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