(This was provided at his services in March 2011)
I was born on July 9th, 1941 near Salisbury, N.C. I was married to my wife Barbara in June of 1961. We have one Daughter, Connie who graduated from ECU and is now married.
My main influences wee a banjo picking grandfather (Burl D. Deese) and a guitar picking Dad. (C.D. “Tom” Deese) I also played clarinet in the school band.
I began playing guitar on stage when I was 12 years old and started on banjo when I was 15 years old. I learned a number of chords and some finger work from a banjo picker whose name was Howard Kizziah. I started doing radio work 4 days later. During the next four years I entered every fiddlers convention within a hundred miles. I won first place at least once at each one. While still a teenager I began playing on television and radio with Dad in Spartanburg, S.C.; Albemarle and Mt.Airy, N.C. We were doing show at such places as the Old Dominion Barn dance in Richmond, Virginia, where I met such artist as Bill Monroe, Don Reno & Red Smiley, Louvin Brothers, Mac Wiseman, Stonewall Jackson, and Chief Powhatan---several of which I would work with or record with later. At the Old Dominion, Dad and I did not use a band--- it was just the two of us. We went over quite well with the audience.
On Thursday, December 29th, 1960 in Charlotte N.C., Jim Buchanan and I were introduced to each other by Arthur Smith. About an hour later the two of us were hired by Arthur as a fiddle-banjo-singing duet. On Monday, January 9, 1961 we began to do five one hour early morning TV shows on a daily basis. We also did a half hour
Thursday night show and five minute daily radio shows. Road shows were played on Friday and Saturday and took us all over the two Carolina’s and occasionally into Georgia and Virginia. Arthur had a very nice recording studio, so we recorded for Arthur and we were staff musicians for anyone recording there if they didn’t have their own musicians. I was with Arthur for nineteen months. During that time I and all other band members switched off to play other instruments. I played banjo, guitar, upright bass, electric bass, and bass guitar (has six strings---much heavier gauge guitar strings, but not as heavy as electric bass strings). Most people don’t know such and instrument exists. A lot of people call and electric a bass guitar, but a bass guitar is all together a different animal. I even did a little snare drum work while with Arthur.
In early July 1962, I headed for Nashville looking for a banjo picking job with no prior prospects. I arrived on a Saturday and hung around back stage door of the Ryman. Soon Josh Graves arrived for his show with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. I knew him through Ray Atkins. In our conversation he learned that I was looking for a job. He told me to meet him the next day at noon at the Crystal Restaurant/Donut Shop. He arranged a meeting for me with Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper at their home. The four of us picked for a while. Wilma Lee and Stoney told me they could use me. I was to work a notice with Arthur and come back in a few weeks with no agreement made as to the exact date I would return.
When I returned in two weeks, I was told by Wilma Lee’s sister, Jerrie, that Wilma Lee and Stoney were in Missouri for four days. I had left most of my money in N.C. with my wife who was enrolling in college in Salisbury, N.C. So here I am, four hundred miles from home, nearly broke, no place to stay, and my new job at least a week away. Since it was Saturday night I headed back to the Opry hoping to run into Josh again. It turned out that he was out of town, too. I hung around the back door of the Opry looking for a familiar face. I didn’t see one, but God knew I was in a tight spot so he sent a man who knew MY face. Frank Buchanan was the current guitar picker and lead singer for Bill Monroe. Frank had seen me on the Arthur Smith Show from his home in Marion, N.C. When Frank found out my situation, he suggested I talk to Bill because his banjo picker, Tony Ellis, had just quit. I went into the Opry and talked with Bill. We made arrangements to meet the next morning in the Clarkston Hotel Coffee Shop. When we met the next morning Bill took me over to WSM where he had me to play several tunes while he read his mail. He told me they would be leaving Limbaugh’s at 1:00 am that night. I was to be there with dress pants, white shirt, tie and white hat for a couple of days in Illinois. Those days we traveled in and Old Oldsmobile station wagon with over 200 thousand miles on it. We traveled with a five piece band, instruments including an upright bass, clothes and two Pekinese dogs. There were no fast food places, very few truck stops, very few interstate highways, and motels were out of the question due to the cost and lean times. Rock & Roll was killing country music as well as bluegrass. We were doing good just to have work. Pay was not so great. At the time the Opry acts were required to work the Opry at least 26 weeks out of the year. This meant you need to be there at least every other weekend. This brought about a lot of extra mileage.
While working with Bill I boarded at Mom Upchurch’s home along with eight other Opry musicians. Some of these were Frank Buchanan, Shorty Lavender, Buddy Spicher, and Benny Williams. I roomed with Frank.
In 1964 I was living back in Salisbury, N.C. and working as a prison guard for the N.C. Prison System. My wife was a public school teacher, so we were both set with the state retirement system. I had the fullest intentions of working for the state for twenty or thirty years and retiring a young man. The second week of November, 1964 Carlton Haney called to say that Don Reno and Red Smiley, a mainstay in bluegrass music, was splitting up. He also said that Red wanted me for his banjo picker. At first I said no because I felt hey would be back together again in two or three weeks. Carlton ask me to sleep on it and he would call back the next day. I decided to go up to Roanoke, Virginia to talk to Red in person. When Barbara and I arrived in Roanoke on Saturday, we found that the band was out of town until Sunday. We took a room for the night at a motel on the hill above where the band members lived. We went to see Red on Sunday about lunchtime. He listened to me play, and assured me that he and Don would not be reuniting. In fact he said that Don was moving away and forming his own band. I stressed that my style of picking was on thing like Don Reno’s, but Red said he wanted to create his own style and not be a copy of “Reno and Smiley“. We discussed what I would be doing and salary.. We shook hands on the deal and I went back to North Carolina to work a two week notice. I moved to Roanoke on Sunday Nov. 29th 1964 and began work on Monday, Nov. 30 1964 with Red Smiley and the Bluegrass Cut-Ups on WDBJ-TV’S TOP OF THE MORNING show. Don left on November 25th 1964 to start his own band. Mack Magaha left to join Porter Wagoner. The new band consisted of Red Smiley, John Palmer, Gene Burroughs, Bobby Lester and myself. We did an early morning TV show every weekday in Roanoke and a Saturday evening show in Harrisonburg, Virginia on WSVA-TV. We would go to Harrisonburg every other week to tape one show and do one live. We would come back to Verona, VA. To play for a dance. We worked that dance every Saturday night that we were not on the road.
During the Red Smiley days, we worked a lot of coliseum package shows. At these package shows I backed such artist as Lefty Frizell, Minnie Pearl, Jean Shepherd, Chief Powhatan, Benny Martin, Stonewall Jackson, Barbara Allen, Red Rector, Mac Wiseman, Bill Monroe, Clyde Moody, Jim Eanes, Jeff Simmons, Mother Maybelle & the Carter Family, Hylo Brown and Carl Story. One weekend in April, 1966, Red became ill just before a show at the Greensboro Coliseum. We had to admit him to the hospital. Don’s new band and Red’s new band joined forces since both groups were short some of their members. I picked guitar---Red’s D-45 Martin. From the records I kept during my
Arthur Smith days, it looks like I worked about every town in North and South Carolina. I had picked all around Charlotte, but had never picked the Charlotte Coliseum. The first Saturday night I was with Red we picked at the Charlotte Coliseum with Don Reno’s new band, Lefty Frizell, Minnie Pearl, Ray Price, Dottie West and Hank Snow.
Friday, January 22, 1965, we started a new weekly TV show at WOAY-TV in Oak Hill, WVA. We did four shows at a time---We did one live and taped three. This way we only had to go to Oak Hill one time each month.
January 27,th 1965 we recorded “Grandpa Played the Fiddle,” “Swinging a Nine Pound Hammer,” and four other tunes, but none of these were ever released. George Winn joined us on mandolin for those cuts.
February 17, 1965 we started taping shows for WLAC-TV in Nashville, Tennessee. We would tape 25 numbers and they would put them into a bluegrass show that they had going at that time. It may have been on a program with the Boys from Shilo. I remember we did a few shows live in Nashville.
May 19, 1965 we recorded five more songs but these were never released Due to a disagreement, the master of these five tunes were destroyed, that that’s another story.
Thursday, August 12, 1965 marked the first change in Red Smiley’s Bluegrass Cut-Ups. Bobby Lester left the show on this date which left us without a fiddle player for a couple of days. Bonny Beverly started on fiddle for us the following Monday morning which was August 16, 1965.
I was on the very first Bluegrass Festival in Fincastle, Virginia which was held on September 3 & 4, 1965. This festival was the turning point for Bluegrass Music. It started an activity that has become a multi-million dollar business.
Tuesday, October 26th 1965 Tater Tate joined the Bluegrass Cut-Up’s on Fiddle. Saturday and Sunday, January 22 and 23, 1966 we recorded two albums at Wayne Raney’s Studio in Concord, Arkansas. One album was a Red Smiley gospel album and the other was a Tater Tate fiddle album.
May 19, 1966 we started a nightly 15 minute radio show for WWVA, Wheeling West Virginia. We taped them at our studio in Hollins, Virginia. We would tape a week’s worth at one time.
June 4, 1966 we became members of the Wheeling Jamboree, performing every three weeks. We rotated with Mac Wiseman, Charlie Moore and Bill Napier.
Wednesday, July 6, 1966 was my last show with Red and the Cut-Ups. “Uncle Sam” felt he need me in the army more than Red did. I spent three years in the Army. One year of that was spent in Vietnam and the last 14 months was spent in Richmond, Virginia at eh Induction Station as a clerk typist. I left the Army with a rank of Specialist 5.
While in Richmond I recorded an album with Chief Powhatan. It was later released on the Old Homestead label. Shortly after moving to Richmond I became the banjo picker for George Winn and his band. Another banjo picker friend, Fred Duff was picking for Ray Lumpkin. Both bands were playing clubs in and around Richmond nearly every night. George and his band landed a USO tour that included Vietnam. I had just returned from spending a year there and had no intentions of going back, even to protected areas. Fred had not been anywhere like that and said he’d like to go---so, with the consent of the band leaders , he and I traded banjo picking jobs for the duration of the tour. After the tour, he was satisfied working with Georges’s band and I was happy with Ray’s band, so we never traded back. I stayed with Ray, Bernie Wright and Danny Proctor until I got out the Army in July, 1969.
In April my wife and I had a baby girl who is named after me. My name is Clonnie David Deese, Jr. In the military you are called by your first name and your middle initial which made me Clonnie D. Our daughter’s name is Connie Dee. She has been the light of both our lives. When I left the military I was ready to come home.
A few months before I left the military Red had retired and given up his television programs so we came home to North Carolina. Upon returning to civilian life, I went back to being a machinist --- a trade I had been apprenticing off and on since right out of high school and between picking jobs.
In November of 1971, I received a call from Bruce and Lee Jones. They had just separated from Carl Story and needed a guitar picker. I took the job. They were working a lot of festivals at the time, mainly due to the popularity of the Troy festival owned by our fiddle player, Frank Hamilton. The group also had a weekly TV show. The band featured the Jones Brothers, Frank on the fiddle, Frankie Belcher on banjo and me on guitar. Frankie and I also did a lot of twin banjo numbers for about two and one half years. Frankie left to join Charlie Moore. Carl Coble was hired to pick guitar and I switched over the banjo full time. Labor Day 1975 Frank Hamilton and Carl Coble left the group. Joe Smith was hired to pick guitar and David Johnson to play Fiddle. Joe left in 1979 so Harold Huntley came on board to pick guitar.
In 1983 or 84, we dropped back to a four member band, because at Hoboken, Georgia our fiddle player had a heart attack. We got used to being just four-strong and never did hire another fiddler.
In 1990 we hired a young guitar picker that Harold had trained, Larry Greene. On June 12, 1991, cancer took the life of Harold Huntley. It was only fitting that Larry remain with us. He was/is a fine guitar player and a fine young man in every way which is necessary to get along on the road.
In 1992 I resigned from the Jones Brothers Band having completed twenty-one years with them. My resignation was due to my needing a change of pace and not due to any conflicts within the group. I wanted to form my own band and have done just that.
In 1991 a dear friend of mine, Shannon Grayson --- banjo picker for “The Original WBT Briarhoppers” became extremely ill with Alzheimer’s Disease. He asked me to fill in for him. Although I was still with the Jones Brothers and was quietly forming my own band, I agreed to step into his slot for the “Briarhopper”.
The Briarhoppers consist of Hank Warren on Fiddle, Don White on Bass, Arvil Hogan on mandolin, Roy Grant on guitar and I do the banjo work. The band is altogether another story that could easily fill book of great thickness.
I had for several years had a desire to form my own band. In 1991 I head that Betty and J.T. Fisher had moved from Texas back to South Carolina, so I went to find them. I had already been tracking down Larry Plyler, but hadn’t located him yet. As it turned out I found Larry and the Fishers at about the same time. J.T. had done a lot of band managing and booking when Betty had her own band back in the 70’s, so he was in my plans, too. Betty, T.J. and I talked. After I explained what I wanted to do, they decided they would enjoy that too. A meeting was arranged at our home to get with Larry to see what kind of harmony we could come up with. We felt we had something a little different and decided we should get going as a unit. Glenn Brown and Ralph Keller were asked to join us to round out the “Betty Fisher-David Deese and Dixie Bluegrass”.
Over the years I have recorded many, many albums. During my years with the Jones Brothers we recorded over a dozen. During the 70’s and 80’s I did a lot of free lance recording with a variety of artist; most notably with Mac Wiseman. Our current group began our career together by recording two albums --- “Branching Out” and “I’m Just a Stranger Here”. We feel that we have a little something for everyone. We get along well and have a mutual respect for each other. Our goal is to work about two bluegrass festivals each month hopefully for two days each. We really don’t care t work more than two weekends per month because of other interest and family life.
During the time I was with the Jones Brothers, I went back to college and got a degree in accounting and business administration. In 1976 I formed my own accounting/bookkeeping business which I still operate. I keep books and accounts for small businesses as well as individual of-the-street income tax returns.
I am very active as a Mason, Scottish Rite and Shrine. Barbara and I are also active in the Eastern Star.