Billy Ray Latham in today’s bluegrass world is a name that may not be all that well-known, but for me it holds an elevated position in my history of bluegrass banjo. Although Billy did many things during his career, he is best known in my banjo history as the banjo player in the in the jaw-droppingly stunning music of the West Coast group, the Kentucky Colonels. Before I go any farther, you should get a copy of any one of a number of the mostly live recordings, mostly from the early to mid 1960s, that are available of the Colonels – maybe start with Living In the Past. You really need to listen to this music.
My first encounter with Billy Ray’s music was through college friend and picking buddy, Byron Berline, who had a copy of a live tape of the Colonels that was circulating around the country. As an aspiring banjo player I, along with my mentor, Eddie Shelton, spent uncountable hours listening to and trying to decipher the nooks and crannies in Billy’s playing. He and Bill Keith were the first players I heard, who integrated the then-emerging Keith approach of playing with the established Scruggs roll style. The notes could be had, the energy, the energy though, was all Billy. As I listened I could feel the picks as they drove the strings. He blistered the banjo. The reason there is music is because you can’t say it. You really need to listen to that music.
I met Billy Ray and hung out with him when I moved to Los Angeles in 1972 to join the newly forming Country Gazette. He was working in the Dillards. He was a good guy and a good friend during my time in LA. Recently when speaking of my wonderment with the music of Billy Ray and the Kentucky Colonels, Herb Pedersen reminded me of one crucial element of their music I had overlooked. He said, “they were kids.” It was so true. Their music was so full of that enthusiasm that so often can only come from a youthful place. Knowing Billy seemed like knowing a perpetual kid. He once asked if I would be interested in forming a band that featured two banjos, and he was serious. Nobody has ever done that, he told me. I wonder why, I asked. He seemed to undertake all his musical ventures with the same kid-like, full-steam-ahead enthusiasm. It showed in his playing. We will possibly not see the likes of Billy Ray again. Too bad for us, I say. Go listen his music.
– Alan Munde