First published in 1985, “Bluegrass: A History” by Neil Rosenberg is almost 30 years old. Rosenberg suggested the Detroit-based Wayside Records label was the first business to advertise bluegrass as a category of music , with a small ad in the May 20, 1957, edition of Billboard magazine. 
Twins Wade (1929-2004) and Wiley (1929-1984) Birchfield, played around Bryson City, North Carolina, as the Birchfield Brothers (guitar and banjo, respectively) during the 1940s . Wade moved to Detroit by the mid-1950s. He settled in an east side neighborhood of folks from the South, many of whom worked in nearby factories. In 1956, Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys (Earl Taylor and Sam Hutchins), based in Detroit at the time, recorded Wade Birchfield’s “Hit Parade Of Love” for Decca Records. The following year, Wade Birchfield issued a single record of the Birchfield Brothers , the first Wayside Records release. He followed it with recordings of Detroit’s Chain Mountain Boys, a band led by Marvin Cobb .
Cobb’s record featured a young mandolinist from Dayton, Ohio, (born in Emory Gap, Tennessee) named Frank Wakefield. About a year or so later, Wakefield reappeared on a Wayside disc with Buster Turner, performing more remarkable music . The instrumental “New Camptown Races” (with Cobb) and vocal “Leave Well Enough Alone” (with Turner) have since become bluegrass standards associated with the wildly inventive Wakefield.
The Chain Mountain Boys
“I came up there ’cause Jimmy Martin was up there,” said Wakefield, who arrived in Detroit around late 1955 or early 1956, after working with Red Allen in Dayton. “I went into where [Martin] was playing the first night. He already had a mandolin player, so he told me of another group called the Chain Mountain Boys,” he said. “I contacted them the next day, and I started working [with] the Chain Mountain Boys.” 
Guitarist and singer Marvin Cobb led the group, which included Herman Evans, bass; Carace Hutchins, banjo; Red Stanley, fiddle; or Jefferson Davis, fiddle. Cobb was from Barbourville, Kentucky. His family moved to Detroit in 1948, when he was about fifteen years old. “I had a brother-in-law that was really good on the guitar, and he started me out,” said Cobb. “Once I learned … I formed my own band. I was playing in bars when I was eighteen [years old].” 
“I believe I started out at the Kerrigan’s Bar. And then I played at the Yale Bar. … This was right in Detroit. Somewhere near Warren and John C. Lodge, now. It used to be Hamilton Street,” he said. By the time Wakefield joined, the Chain Mountain Boys had established themselves at the All States Bar on Cass Avenue near Michigan Avenue, downtown. “It had a balcony that seated so many, and the first floor. And this place was usually packed. … They had to turn people away.”
“We had a banjo player, Carace Hutchins, one of the finest banjo players that there is,” said Cobb. “He had a brother named Sam that played with Jimmy Martin. … Carace was really the one that invented that bending of the strings. He put just regular screws into a peg and he put it on there, and it was the craziest thing you ever saw, but it worked. And he started turning them things and those strings started turnin’ and I said, ‘Whooo!’”
Cobb said when the band practiced, friends and neighbors gathered to visit. “In my opinion, we practiced a lot. See, we would have an audience of twenty or thirty people just listening, either at my place, or we played at Carace’s place. He lived at that time on Sixth Street, I’m not sure,” he said. “A lot of times, I [sang] the lead and then I’d jump to tenor. You know, Frank would take the lead [for the refrain, as in “Tell Me Why My Daddy (Don’t Come Home)”]. Then Carace, he had a pretty nice voice. He’d, I guess you’d call it, ‘get right in there’.”
One day at a Chain Mountain Boys practice session, Wade Birchfield brought a tape recorder. “He put that on tape and said, ‘I’m gonna make a record of these, boys.’ We said, ‘Well, go ahead.’ So he did, and that one went pretty good for a while,” said Cobb.
After Birchfield issued the Chain Mountain Boys’ Wayside Records single, Wakefield left town with the Stanley Brothers. “So, what happened was, I hired Billy Napier to play with me,” said Cobb. “Ralph Stanley called me from Nashville … [or] somewhere down there. He said, ‘Marvin, you got Billy Napier playing with you?’ I said, ‘Yes, I do.’ He said, “How would you like to swap mandolin players?’ He said, ‘I can’t handle Frank. I can’t do a thing with him.’ I said, ‘Let me ask Billy, here.’ [Ralph Stanley] said, ‘He [Frank] wants to come back to you anyway. I think he’s gonna quit me. If you’ve got Billy Napier, I’ll just swap with ya.’ So, I went and asked Billy, ‘Do you wanna go with the Stanley Brothers? It’s more money, probably.’ He said, ‘Well, what do you think?’ I said ‘It’s up to you, man.’ … So he said, ‘Yeah, I’ll go with ’em.’ So they came to Detroit. They brought Frank back to me, and then they picked up Billy Napier.”
Here comes the wild man
Regarding Wakefield’s boundary-pushing technique, Cobb said, “Everybody liked it, they liked it real well. I guess maybe the Stanley Brothers didn’t like it. Probably got too far out on a limb for them. I loved it. … At that time, he would throw you off. … When he’d hit some of that, some guys couldn’t follow it. They’d quit, right in the middle of it. … But you could hear it on some of those old tapes we did. He’d get in there and really do some wild stuff. A lot of times, if he was gonna do a solo, I’d say, ‘Here comes the wild man! Step back!’ … And I knew that Frank was one of the finest mandolin players I ever heard. Even back then, when we was playing. I believe he was just as good then as Bill Monroe. … And after that, he went on his own style, and went out into left field and mastered it.”
The Chain Mountain Boys broke up towards the end of 1957, and Cobb started performing straight country music in Detroit with a young Randy Sea.  “What happened was Frank didn’t like to see me go out of town or go on vacation,” said Cobb. “I mean, I had to play with him, you know, night after night. … I went out of town for just a couple nights, and I got this guy to play for me, Bill Swain. And Frank was mad ’cause I left, and he got limburger cheese and put it on Bill Swain. The fight was on! [laughs] I came back to Detroit and I didn’t have no band! [laughs] They’d all gone their separate ways. … And the [bar owner] there, he didn’t even get another band. He said, ‘Aw, we’ll just wait ’til Marvin gets back and see what happens.’ So I came back and found out about it. I just laughed. Frank was … a practical joker, ain’t no doubt about it.”
Find out more about Frank Wakefield and Buster Turner in part two.
- Neil V. Rosenberg. “Bluegrass: A History.” Rev. pbk. ed. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2005) 114, 124.
- Billboard (May 20, 1957. Vol. 69, No. 21) 148.
- John Burchfield interviewed by Craig Maki, 2013.
- “Goin’ Down The Road” backed with “Flower Blooming In The Wildwood” by Birchfield Brothers and Ray Johnson (Wayside W-100)
- “New Camptown Races” b/w “Tell Me Why My Daddy (Don’t Come Home)” by Marvin Cobb and Frank Wakefield with the Chain Mountain Boys (Wayside W-105)
- “Leave Well Enough Alone” b/w “You’re The One” by Frank Wakefield and Buster Turner (Wayside W-150)
- Frank Wakefield interviewed by Keith Cady in 2001.
- Marvin Cobb interviewed by Keith Cady in 2002.
- Randy Sea, a.k.a. Stanley Smith, fronted a group called the Valiants during the early 1960s in Detroit. Sea is a brother of Detroit bluegrass bandleader Wendy Smith.