It is with a sad and heavy heart that I announce the passing of Clayton Delaney, the master of the biscuit-style single-resonator guitar. He was a true champion of the Appalachian folk-music tradition. Many consider Clayton to be one of the finest bluegrass musicians of his day, and a peer of dobro legends such as Curtis Loew, Shorty Hale, and Teapot Simmerson.
I’ve been a big fan of Clayton since I saw his obituary in the Times this morning. As soon as I finished reading about his remarkable life, I went straight to Spotify to listen to as much of his contribution to bluegrass music. Luckily, all I really had to do today was to get my deck of slides ready for the conference call on Wednesday, which meant I could spend most of the day honoring Clayton’s musical legacy.
In the depths of the Depression, Clayton left his home in Eastern Kentucky behind to play guitar for a variety of trailblazing touring groups in Southern Ohio, including the Columbus Travelers, the Muddy River Trio, and the Shawnee Gentlemen. Some of those early recordings are available on Spotify, but the sound quality has significantly degraded in the digital transfer and I can’t recommend them to anyone except those really looking for in-depth knowledge of Clayton’s early musical talent.
Like most of us, Clayton was deeply influenced by Bill Monroe. Although he was unable to hook on with the original Blue Grass Boys, Clayton put together one of the early bluegrass trios, the New River Mustangs. Clayton played dobro and mandolin behind the “high lonesome” lead singing of Chester Dayton and the inspired guitar licks of Rufus “Pee Wee” Haskell. The New River Mustangs reached their apex in 1950, when they were invited to play their classic single “Cane Syrup Stomp” on The Ed Sullivan Show.
After Chester Dayton’s untimely death in a thresher accident in 1953, Clayton forged a career as a session musician. During this period, Clayton developed his innovative double-thumb picking method. The so-called “Delaney style” produces particularly rhythmic expressions for mandolin and dobro. I haven’t been able to find a really good YouTube instructional video that discusses how you place both thumbs on the frets to make it work, but I’m going to keep looking.
Clayton’s life was scarred deeply by his long-time love affair with discount bourbon. It took an on-stage collapse at the Sourland Mountain Bluegrass Festival in 1982 to get him to stop drinking. That experience led to a religious reawakening that saw him focus on the intersection between bluegrass and gospel music. Although Clayton’s gospel album, Sinner’s Lament, received mixed reviews, he did receive a Grammy nomination for his instrumental recording of “What A Friend We Have In Jesus.’ I found it to be very touching, despite my own personal distaste for organized religion.
Of course, Clayton’s best-known album, 1992’s D is for Dobro, is also his most accessible work. While I prefer the rougher stylings of Clayton’s earlier picking, D is for Dobro undoubtedly represents the pinnacle of his career, and deservedly won the Grammy for Best Folk and/or Americana Instrumental Performance. Songs from this album are in heavy rotation on the Pandora station I set up for anyone who wants to learn more about Clayton and his unique role in American bluegrass history.
Many people have asked me why I spend so much time posting information and remembrances of musicians that have recently died, many of whom I had never heard of before their untimely passing. I can only repeat what I said in my blog post on Chico Novello, the great bossa nova organist, which is that music is a blow against mortality. All of us die, but those of us that leave a lasting musical legacy live on in an important way. When we remember musicians who have gone on before us, we not only honor their contributions, but the impact they will have on future generations.
Clayton died at the age of ninety-three at an assisted-living center in Mount Sterling, Kentucky. The cause of death was reported to be liver failure, which you’d have to expect considering how much he drank before he found Jesus. Unfortunately, I don’t have the funds to fly to Clayton’s funeral, because I spent so much on that trip to Vienna to see all the classical composer’s graves. But I’ll be watching Instagram carefully and hoping that some fans will get some shots of the service.