Bill Clifton turned his back on his prominent East Coast parents and became an artistic expat in England — in favor of his adopted bluegrass family. This was the 1950s and ’60s, when the American country music blender was turned on high, mixing together western swing, hillbilly, mountain, Celtic, old time and, eventually, bluegrass. Clifton’s fingerprints were everywhere.
Clifton’s experience, like bluegrass music itself, is deceptively complex. His zig-zaggity life story is in good hands, though. His new biography, Bill Clifton: America’s Bluegrass Ambassador to the World (University of Illinois Press), was penned by the nation’s preeminent country music historian, Bill C. Malone, who lives in Madison and hosts the popular WORT radio show Back to the Country.
A professor emeritus at Tulane University and author of Country Music U.S.A., Malone has a knack for blending scholarship with storytelling. Who knew jazz giant Charlie Parker was a country music fan? Parker, after playing continuous hillbilly music on a jukebox at a musicians’ bar in midtown New York City, told his skeptical friends, “Listen to the stories, man, listen to the stories.”
It was the stories that attracted Clifton. He first heard the tales and tunes coming from the radios of the farmhands on his father’s gentleman spread outside Baltimore. Clifton was expected to be a financier/banker like his dad. It’s safe to say that he gave it the old college try, but he felt the need to hide his zeal for country music from his parents, in much the same the way other youngsters concealed drinking alcohol. Reading and learning about Clifton, I couldn’t help but think about another folk music legend, a more contemporary practitioner, Townes Van Zandt, who also forsook his family’s wealth and prestige to chase the sounds that eventually controlled his life.
Still, Clifton’s nonmusical accomplishments were nothing to sneeze at. He graduated from the University of Virginia at Charlottesville and served as a communications officer in the Marines to fulfill the ROTC scholarship that paid for college (a route he sought to avoid being financially beholden to his father).
Through it all, Clifton, a gifted guitarist and autoharpist, played and hosted old-time radio shows, curated and published a popular folk songbook, set up a bluegrass music outpost with his wife and seven children in England for nearly a decade and never stopped seeking out like-minded performers. The latter endeavor led to a father-son relationship with none other than A.P. Carter and a brotherly, lifelong friendship with Mike Seeger, Pete’s multi-instrumental half-brother.
Bluegrass music lovers who appreciate the work of Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley will appreciate this book about a lesser-known figure who championed the music for all — onstage and off.
Bill Clifton: America’s Bluegrass Ambassador to the World
By Bill Malone, University of Illinois Press