Teardrops in my Eyes: the Music of Harley “Red” Allen

Dennis Satterlee, Teardrops in my Eyes: the Music of Harley “Red” Allen (Kensington, MD: Plucked String Foundation, 2007; 218 pp.) $25

Original publication in Bluegrass Unlimited

The roots of bluegrass in Ohio lie in the Appalachian migration to industrial jobs of the Midwest. When he was 19, Red Allen made his way from Perry County, Kentucky to Middletown. Two years of factory work and a few gigs playing bass with the Stanleys later, Red formed what became the first Red Allen & the Kentuckians with fellow ex-pats Red Spurlock and Johnny McKee. Soon his circles included other émigrés such as Sonny and Bobby Osborne, Noah Crase, Carlos Brock, and Tennessean Frank Wakefield.

As Bluegrass Unlimited contributor Dennis Satterlee notes in his new page turner, Teardrops in my Eyes, Allen never really apprenticed with the music’s founders nor played southern radio stations to promote movie theater and schoolhouse shows. For Red, playing the WWVA Jamboree was an end in itself, not a means to northeastern gigs. Allen played for people like himself – escapees from the coal fields, timber lands, and hardscrabble farms of the upland South – in the rough bars of Ohio, Maryland, and Washington, DC.

Despite the accomplishments of a 38-year career, Allen’s greatest historical impact came early from his path breaking work with the Osborne Brothers. On October 17, 1957 they established the future of bluegrass harmony when Red sang low tenor under Bobby’s high lead with Sonny taking the baritone on a recording of “Once More.” That arrangement remains the predominant influence on bluegrass trios a half-century later. He also helped the young careers of Bill Keith, Richard Greene, Dave Evans, and David Grisman, as well as his own sons, and sang lead on the first Kentucky Mountain Boys album in 1968. Brief stints filling in as lead guitarist with the Blue Grass Boys and for Lester Flatt after his 1967 heart attack meant that Allen performed in all three of the bedrock bands.

During his last thirty years, Allen drifted in and out of music, gradually sliding from weekend warrior to two and three gig “world tours.” Lack of exposure in the South, his bad heart, and loose cannon mouth combined with the 1974 death of his son Neal to limit Allen’s exposure on the burgeoning bluegrass festival market. That he kept attracting first rate musicians proves his amazing abilities as singer and rhythm guitarist. Red went out on top when his final project, Bluegrass Reunion with Grisman, Jerry Garcia, and Herb Pedersen, earned a Grammy nomination just before his 1993 passing.

The stories Satterlee has collected make Teardrops in my Eyes a treasure for any bluegrass lover, regardless of interest in Red Allen. The oral history collected here greatly enhances the understanding of bluegrass during the pre-festival days for those who weren’t on the Opry or Decca Records. Despite his love for Allen, Satterlee includes frank tales illustrating his convenient business ethics. His prose is clear and easy to understand.

Interviews with more than 50 associates of the Hall of Honor member changed Satterlee’s plans from a discography into a compelling oral biography regularly interrupted by session information. It may have worked better to have the discography and biography separated, rather than the session information mixed with the text and the release information at the back of the book. Teardrops in my Eyes needed an editor or at least a style book. Putting block quotes in bold face rather than the standard indented single space was a bad idea that makes reading hard. Typos happen with an increasing regularity as the pages fly by.

Those issues aside, Teardrops in my Eyes proves well worth reading, plus leaving out on the coffee table for others to enjoy. Like Red, it may be rough around the edges, but this is the real deal that doesn’t disappoint.

(Plucked String Foundation; Box 2770; Kensington, MD 20891) AM


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