Bill CliftonBill Clifton (born William August Marburg on April 5, 1931) is a distinguished American bluegrass musician and singer who is credited with having organized one of the first bluegrass festivals in the United States in 1961. His influence on folk, country, bluegrass, and old-time music has made an long-lasting impact among the music community as a whole.
Early LifeBorn William August Marburg in 1931, Bill Clifton was raised on a farm in Riderwood, Maryland, right outside of Baltimore. Clifton's family prospered in the tobacco trade during the nineteenth century. From an early age, he discovered his love for country music through the radio and records. Clifton began singing and playing the guitar by age 12.
Early Music CareerHis education spans from private schools from New England to Florida. Eventually, he enrolled at the University of Virginia in 1949 where his love for country music expanded to folk music through fellow students, Paul Clayton and Dave Sadler. While still in college, Clifton, Clayton, and Sadler formed the Dixie Mountain Boys together and began playing professionally at small radio stations in central Virginia. Because his family was opposed to his musical activities, he took the stage name "Bill Clifton". With the help of his friends and bandmates, Clifton produced his first recording in 1952 that included an array of old-time, bluegrass, and folk revival repertoire. Clifton met banjo player Johnny Clark through Sadler and soon formed a band that began playing on many local radio stations (including WWVA). In 1953, the band signed with Blue Ridge Records and began playing traditional bluegrass. They soon appeared on the Wheeling Jamboree radio barn dance show on AM station WWVA. Clifton published a songbook in 1955 called 150 Old Time Folk and Gospel Songs, which soon became one of the most influential songbooks of its time. His songbook included many songs such as "Little Maggie", "I'll Be All Smiles Tonight", "Long Journey Home", and "Little Whitewashed Chimney". Because of the popularity of Clifton's songbook, these songs quickly became recognizable standards in the bluegrass world. During this time, Clifton met and played music with artists such as A.P. Carter, The Stanley Brothers, and Woodie Guthrie, to name just a few. He had many connections throughout old-time, bluegrass, country, and folk music - which reflected his unique repertoire and sound. His singing style was deemed to have more of a folk revivalist influence rather than a "hillbilly" sound - which was the popular sound of the previous years. Because the instrumental style of his band had more of a "contemporary bluegrass" sound along with his "folk revivalist" vocals, he was deemed one of the first "city-billies" in bluegrass music.
Later Music CareerAfter enlisting for two years in the Marine Corps, in 1956, Clifton re-entered the music business. The Stanley Brothers introduced Clifton to Dee Kilpatrick, who was Mercury's A&R man located in Nashville, and he invited Clifton to record for Mercury Records. However, by the time Clifton was ready to record, Kilpatrick had moved on from Mercury Records in order to take over WSM Artists' Service Bureau manager position. Therefore, he referred Clifton to Pierce who was interested, but said that Mercury-Starday would not finance the recording. With the help of Ralph Stanley and two of the Clinch Mountain Boys, Clifton put together his own studio band. In 1956, Clifton paid for the recording time in RCA studios to cut four songs with this band. In 1957, Clifton released two of these songs to Starday, who issued them on a "trial basis". The overall record sold very well and received a lot of exposure from WWVA. The success of his release helped Clifton to be moved to Mercury-Starday for his next session in Nashville of April 1957.
On July 4, 1961, Clifton organized one of the first bluegrass festivals at Oak Leaf Park in Luray, Virginia (an earlier one-day event had taken place at Watermelon Park near Berryville, Virginia on August 14, 1960). The festival featured many of the biggest acts of the day in bluegrass music including Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Jim & Jesse, Red Allen, Frank Wakefield & The Kentuckians, Mac Wiseman and the Country Gentlemen. In 1963, Clifton's family moved to England and he toured all over Europe playing in local folk clubs. In 1967, he joined the Peace Corps, serving three years in the Philippines. Meanwhile, he recorded with a local New Zealand band, The Hamilton County Bluegrass Band. In later years, he recorded both in Europe and in the United States. In the 1970s, he signed with County Records and formed the First Generation band, consisting of Clifton on guitar, Red Rector on mandolin and Don Stover on banjo. Clifton and his family returned to the United States in 1978 and settled down in Virginia. In 1980, he began recording for his own label Elf Records. In 2008 he was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association's Hall of Fame.