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Bob Denoncourt’s Bluegrass Music and Friends by Frances Denoncourt

Bob has played several different styles of bass. He began with a Kay upright bass then went to a fretless electric bass for more mobility on stage. He continued playing acoustic and electric with various bands and then went to a five-string acoustic electric when Copper River was formed. With new technology making the blend of wood and electronics sound more acoustic in upright electric basses, he now plays an Eminence Upright Acoustic Electric four string.

Bob was born in the predominantly French-Canadian city of Woonsocket, RI with French being his first language. He had an early interest in music, as his mother was a huge big band fan. In particular, she really liked drummer Gene Krupa. Therefore, it was not surprising that Bob’s first “instrument” was a set of drums. What a lucky break for a kid to have a mom who loved drums. To this day, he can “name that tune” when he hears a big band song.

When Bob was in the Navy, he played drums in a jazz combo.

Bob started his Bluegrass career shortly after he met Sam and Bobby (Thibodeau) Tidwell who were his wife's cousins. This was not long after his first son  (Bob, Jr.) was born in 1966. When he met Sam and Bobby, Bobby wanted to play mandolin and needed a replacement for his duties as bass man. Assuming that Bob could keep time, he was designated the new bass man. Why not? Guess it took; after 40 years Bob is still playing bass, rhythm guitar and mandolin. At this time, the band was named “The Tidwell Bros & The Cedar Mtn Boys”.

When everyone seemed to flock to Maine, Bob was right there with them. The prior Cedar Mtn Boys regrouped and called themselves the Kennebec Valley Boys.

They were well known in Maine for several years. 

When Bob left Maine (the first time) in 1972 he left behind some great friends. It’s always a tough decision, but you do what you have to do.

Back in lower New England, he played with Don Stover's band (White Oak Mtn Boys) for a couple of years beginning in 1972. Don was living in Billerica, MA and never held a rehearsal. You showed up at the gig and you had better be able to follow Don’s lead. What an education! Don being a well known, top-notch banjo player was a tremendous influence on Bob’s already rock solid rhythm. The White Oak Mtn Boys had a steady Wednesday night gig at The Sticky Wicket Pub in Hopkinton, MA. Ross Nickerson says he used to go there many a time as a teenager to listen to and watch Don pick.

Looking through Don's discography you would see that Bob recorded with Don on two of his LPs:

West Virginia coal miner's blues / Don Stover & the White Oak Mountain Boys Old Homestead OHS 90011  1973  197303

Don Stover & the White Oak Mountain Boys  / Don Stover & the White Oak Mountain Boys on the Rounder label 0039

The West Virginia Coal Miner’s Blues was recorded in a marathon session in Michigan. They drove straight through to Michigan from MA (in one car), recorded, and headed back home. They recorded for 26 straight hours and jumped in the car and headed home. Those were the days of really tough (or just plain stubborn) musicians. Great memory builders for reminiscing 35+ years later.

During this time period Bob also filled in for Bobby Tidwell in Joe Val's band (New England Bluegrass Boys). Bobby was back on bass but really wanted to be a mandolinist. Bob filled in several times when The New England Bluegrass Boys played at the Passim Coffee House in Cambridge, MA

From the Passim’s website: “For more than 40 years in the heart of Harvard Square, the Passim Center has been a cornerstone of the arts community of New England, fostering both performers and audiences alike.” Who’d have thought both the Passim and Bob got their start in Bluegrass about the same time.

As it turned out, Bob’s second (and hopefully last) wife was also a cousin to the Thibodeau brothers. The first wife (Pat Ducharme) was on Sam’s mother’s side and the second (Fran Cole) was related on the Thibodeau side. Obviously, Bob had to keep Bluegrass in the family. In fact, on his first “date” with Fran (summer 1972), he showed up with his best Bluegrass LPs. This was apparently a test. He was going to find out before this went any further whether she was a Bluegrass fan or not.

Fran already knew she liked Bluegrass having heard Sam play – she just didn’t know that banjo music had a name. Fran played trumpet in the Burrillville High School band at the same time cousin Bobby Thibodeau played tuba. She was truly amazed every time he’d do his tuba solos at band concerts no matter how many times she heard him at practice. He probably never missed a note.

Bob played with the Bluegrass Travelers during this time frame, too. Bill Hall formerly of Cumberland, RI formed the band and Bob was available. Their fiddler, Carl Rebello, from Westport, MA also worked with Don Stover during this time period.

Bill and Bob’s good friend Fred Etheridge (a cousin to Bill Hall) are now the mainstays of Northwind. Bob also played in a band with Bill Hall and Randy Hawkins from CT.

Many an evening (or whole weekend) Bluegrass and country musicians alike would gravitate to Pee Wee Harnois’ patio in Plainfield, CT. More good times with good friends.

Now it was time to say goodbye again. Upon returning to Maine, the first band he played with was the Northern Valley Boy based in Cambridge, Maine (aka Happy Valley). These guys played “old timey” music at grange halls and college campuses. Those were the “hippy” days. Bob still had not ventured into vocals at this point.

More friendships built – not to replace old ones.

Bob eventually got back with the KVB and took up electric bass. The band at this time was made up of Sam, Bill Kimball, and Fred Pike. This band played all over New England and Upstate New York at all of Smokey Greene's annual festivals in the Adirondacks. Bob is on a couple of KVB recordings including the bicentennial “Maine Train” album with Dick Curless and the KVB’s “Last Log Drive”.

Now, Bob began singing lead with the KVB - his first song being "Jesse James".

One day, Fred Etheridge called from Oneco, CT (Bob was living in Palmyra, Maine) and said, “Come on down. We’ll be at Cy Place’s place for the weekend. Let’s do some picking and singing.” What are friends for? Bob and Fran packed up the Mustang and drove the five hours to Cy’s Place. What a time.

Some time later, Bob was a founding member of Bluegrass Supply Company. He named the band and designed the logo. When the band did country gigs they added a drummer and called themselves Country Supply Company.

Original Bluegrass Supply pickers and singers were Bob, Dave Dalton (guitar), Perley Curtis (Dobro), and Fred Lantz (banjo). After Fred left, Chris Lee joined the band.

By now, Bob had it figured out that he could sing harmonies, too.  Bob, Dave, and Perley had a harmony that, today, is still hard to beat.

Perley went to Nashville and was part of Holly Dunn's and then Loretta Lynn's band for several years. Not only was Perley an accomplished Dobro player but also played pedal steel for these top country bands.

Bob played a regular Saturday night dance gig with Moe Littlefield at the Red Barn in a little Maine town near Bangor. This band was Moe and His Country Renegades which also included Brian Smith and Crawford Adams.

He worked with this band until it was time to leave for Tucson, Arizona on December 22, 1981 in the middle of a blizzard. That was a trip to remember because everywhere they stopped, they were told it was “the worst winter we have ever seen”.

Bob had left his instruments behind figuring he'd not be playing again. Not! When he was opening an account at the bank, the teller noticed his Bluegrass belt buckle and mentioned her husband was a musician and they played at a local pub. This band was called The Titan Valley Warheads as Tucson was surrounded by Titan missile silos. Their bass player occasionally took extended trips to Mexico so Bob would fill in for Ed. Next thing he knew, he was a Warhead. This was another group with great harmonies. Bob added many more to his circle of friends.

This lineup included Don Johnson, Ross Nickerson (replacing Martin Sinclair), Gary Kuitert, and Peter McLaughlin (replacing John Mattingly). Founding members Gary and Don are still playing a weekly gig at L’il Abner’s in Tucson where Bob fills in occasionally for the same bass player, Ed. They produced an LP just before Bob left for Reno.

Bob left the Warheads (and Tucson) kicking and screaming. He didn't want to leave; Fran had a job at Porsche Cars North America in Reno. But, all clouds have silver she kept telling him. After all, her new project leader was the Northern Nevada Bluegrass Assoc's president. See, it ain't always looks or smarts. That guy wanted a professional bass player in the association and she just happened to be a seasoned (or would be after THAT stint) computer programmer.

Bob found the local music shop (Maytan Music) and met a genial guy, Gil Schlicting. Gil was a luthier and suggested Bob get together with his friend Charlie Edsall. Upon that meeting, they knew instantly they were going to be in a band together – and probably friends for years to come. Next thing he knew Bob, Charlie, Bonnie Ludwick, and Matt Smith were playing as the High Strung Band. Talk about some harmonies. Bob, Bonnie, and Charlie were hard to beat. However, one big change came about. Bonnie could only play guitar and bass. They needed Charlie on lead guitar so Bob took up the mandolin.

The band went through banjo players like no other band Bob was in. Bonnie never did like the banjo. First there was Matt, then Ross came to Reno, and then after Ross left, Louis Fetherolf took over. However, that didn’t deter them from producing two CDs: “High Strung” (with a picture of instruments on gallows) and “Six of One; Half Dozen of the Other” a half secular/gospel project.

One time, Perley Curtis of Bluegrass Supply days was in town with the Holly Dunn show and hung out with the guys. He sat in for the Reno Crafts Fair and even did the San Juan Bautista Crafts Fair with High Strung. He stayed so long he had to reschedule his flight back - Holly Dunn's band had already left. High Strung was so impressed with his playing, they sent him the master for the first CD and left openings for Perley to dub in his Dobro parts.

After Bonnie left High Strung to further her county music career, Bob, Charlie, and Louis formed a new band called Feather River. Since Bob was still playing mandolin, his son Jim who had been dabbling with Rock decided to get back into Bluegrass and took over bass duties. Bob had gotten Jim in to Bluegrass rhythm guitar when Jim was just eight years old.

Bob wanted to get back to playing bass where he was more comfortable therefore when super picker/singer and founding member of the original High Strung band, Erik Thomas, became available Bob went back to bass(ics).  Sorry Jim. [Jim currently is with a well known Bluegrass band in Reno called “Straight Ahead Bluegrass”. He plays guitar (rhythm and lead). Louis moved to California becoming police chief in yet another city, leaving the banjo slot open. Ross (former Warhead) was available again.

Time to move on again. As much as Bob and Fran loved their new friends (well, pretty old friends after 9 ½ years) it was time to make a change. They left Reno to full time in their RV while Fran took jobs as a contract programmer as they traveled. Bob always seemed to find a band to jam or play with.

After several months in San Francisco, they decided to go to FL and visit with Sam in Polk City. Maybe look around for a contract, too. Bob had to finish his last gigs with The Feather River Band, the final one being in Logandale, NV in October 1997. On the way to Logandale from San Francisco, they had what appeared to be an engine fire on the on ramp to a very busy interstate highway. A passing motorist signaled, flashed his lights, blew his horn, and motioned to the driver’s side wheel well. Bob craned his neck to see what was going on and immediately pulled over. Those 18-wheelers were whizzing by blowing their horns. Bob was under the motorhome with this midget fire extinguisher and the motorhome swaying back and forth overhead from the passing rigs. He got the fire out and there they sat for over an hour fearing an unsuspecting big rig on that long, blind curve would sideswipe the RV. By 2:00 AM, Tag’s Towing got them safely to a San Jose repair shop that could accommodate large RVs. They started the repair at 7:00 AM and Bob was on his way to the gig by noon with reassurances from the shop that it was their job to make sure we were safe. Got to the gig on time – the guys were getting worried by then. This was the last goodbye to the guys.

Next stop: Polk City, FL parking in Sam’s yard. Yup. Sam had moved to FL and Bob and Fran thought they’d renew an old friendship with Sam and his wife Edie. You know, just the winter. Well, that winter lasted four and one half years. Hard to leave friends.

There was a local Bluegrass musician’s hangout in Auburndale called “Carl Allen’s”. What a place. Always jam packed with jammers. You can tell there were more new friendships in the making.

The place was also unique in that it was an antique lover’s paradise. Every inch of available space was covered with antiques – walls, floors, and ceilings.

From this mix, Cypress Creek was formed and more good harmonies could be heard. Mel Hancock was a well-known country singer and tried his “hand” at Bluegrass. Ted Locke noted local fiddler, famed for instructing several hometown boys who went on to make the big time, joined the band. Ted taught Aubrey Haynie, and Jason Barrie who later went on to play with national Bluegrass bands. It’s not hard to imagine since Ted grew up with Vassar Clements and the two of them played many gigs together swapping breaks back and forth. They were still meeting each other at festivals even as late as 2000 at the Magnolia Bluegrass festival in FL where the Cypress Creek band played. Vassar was there with his cousins.

One night Bob came home from “Carl Allen’s” raving about a truck driver he met who could sing so well and – what a rhythm guitar player! Then a couple of weeks later, there was Doug back again from a road trip.

After Mel went back into country music, Doug Driskell took over on guitar and lead vocals. Doug was from Bardsville, KY and didn’t have to stretch to sing like someone who grew up with Bluegrass music. He lived the part.

After Doug moved to NC to drive for IIIrd Tyme Out, Cypress Creek was fortunate enough to find Clint Dockery, a superb mandolin/fiddle player who was willing to play guitar. Clint’s father was another local legend famous for teaching youngsters to play including Clint and his sister Tammy. They even had a band called “The Little Bits of Grass”. Clint was six at the time.

Cypress Creek recorded five CDs: Three with Mel, one with Doug, and one with Clint.

Don’t you hate to leave more friends behind?

Fran had what was supposed to be a six-month contract in Reston/Herndon, VA that turned into a year and a half when they finally said – we’re outa here. He met a few local musicians and got reacquainted with friends from way back in Maine (well, Kathy was from Maine anyway).

While in Virginia, Bob was diagnosed with kidney cancer. His surgery was a success, but for some morbid reason, Bob thought he’d never see Arizona again. Remember all of those friends he picked up along the way? They were there for him. Kathy stayed with Fran at the hospital until the surgeon gave her the good news. Even his best friend in the Navy whom he hadn’t seen in about 35 years contacted him. Fran found him online and Bob emailed him. Pete said – yup, sure was the same Pete Reenstra. And wouldn’t you know, Sam and Edie drove up from Florida to be sure Fran was taking proper care of Bob. Edie is one of the best cooks around and knowing that Fran wasn’t and how hard it would be to entice Bob to eat after surgery, she knew she had to take matters into her own hands and see what he looked like. VERY thin!! Sam was seriously concerned, also. But, that visit made a world of a difference for Bob. He was on the road to recovery, now. What are friends for?

After another year or so [2003], Bob was back in his beloved Arizona.

He met John Thompson and Jim Govern at the Wickenburg Festival in 2003 where they decided they'd be a band. However, at this point, they needed a guitar player since John played banjo and Jim the mandolin. The guys jammed for some time with other musicians and met Gary and Millie Vannoy. After a short period, they decided to put Stone Creek together. Since Millie played bass (a recurring theme?), Bob played rhythm guitar and continued with his vocal duties.

After Gary and Millie went "on the road" full time in their RV [does this sound familiar], the guys were without a guitar player again.

Copper River was formed with Bob's longtime friend Charlie Edsall on guitar. Remember Charlie from Reno? But, when Charlie relocated from Las Vegas to Lake Tahoe, it was no longer feasible for Charlie to stay with the band.

At this point, Thomas Porter was free from his commitments as mandolin player with another band and decided to audition on guitar. After a few sessions together, everyone was pleased with the new sound and asked Thomas to join the band. Thomas is a very talented 24 years old. Jim, John, and Bob range in ages from 50 –60 something. Thomas got to refering to the group (on stage) as “The Grape and the Raisins”.

They have produced one recording, so far. Fran has heard more than one musician upon taking a break from recording room session refer to Bob as “one take Bob”. He’d love to be a studio musician or even do the actual recording.

Copper River won the Wickenburg Bluegrass Band contest in November 2005 then went on to play the Blythe Bluegrass festival in 2006 as a showcase band and as a result were booked for the January 2007 festival as regular performers. This exposure led to invitations to the Colorado River Bluegrass festival in Bullhead City, AZ, the Quartzite Bluegrass Festival in Quartzite, AZ famed for its gem and mineral shows. Copper River was invited for a "tweener" slot at Bluegrass on the River in Parker, AZ in March and instead they filled in for nationally known band “Carl Shifflett and Big Country” on Saturday afternoon - a preferred time slot. Other bookings came from these including Benson BGF in May 2006, Prescott Bluegrass festival June 2006, Pinteop/Lakeside August 2006, and Bluegrass in the Foothills in Plymouth, CA September 2006.

IIIrd Tyme Out was also booked at the Blythe festival which gave Bob and Doug a chance to pick together again.

Bob is currently in Florence, AZ a pickin’ and a grinnin’ with his newest best friends never staying out of touch with his oldest best friends.

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