In the middle of a dreary March marked by frequent snows, cold rains and blustery winds, John and Jody Bowles and their friend Neal Spivey did a remarkable thing.
They invited dozens of musicians to bring their instruments to their home just outside Atlanta for a weekend of playing the music that once took the world by storm — before the British Invasion.
Devotees of The Kingston Trio flew in from California. They drove down from Minnesota, up from Florida, out from St. Louis and Ohio, and south from New Jersey, Virginia and North Carolina to play everything they could think of. It was billed as the Second Annual Kingston Trio Mini Camp, playing off the long-running annual Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp held each summer in Arizona (and sold out every year, at a pretty handsome price).
In the 1950s, The Kingston Trio was on top of the music world — producing more albums each year, selling zillions of records and performing on college campuses and in clubs and auditoriums around the world.
"There had been other urban folk revivals, but it was The Kingston Trio that set the wildfire, single-handedly ushering in the really big 'folk boom' of the late 1950s and '60s," wrote William J. Bush in "Greenback Dollar: The Incredible Rise of The Kingston Trio." Their first five albums all became number one sellers, something no other group has ever done. Fourteen of their albums were among the Billboard Top 10 at one time or another, Bush added. Nobody came close in popularity until the Beatles (who reportedly were big Kingston Trio fans themselves) and Rolling Stones transformed popular music once again.
The group still has a strong following, and the current Kingston Trio performs on the road 30 weeks a year, usually selling out, I'm told. They remain popular because it's good music, they appear to still be having fun, and they're accessible to their fans.
If you're into music, chances are you have seen a lot of Martin guitars, Deering banjos and other pricey instruments. You could buy a pretty nice mini-mansion on lakefront property for the money tied up in the collection of Martins in the Bowles home the day we visited. The Martin guitar is the standard for performers and serious students of guitar, and John Bowles owns Martins dating back to the late 19th century.
Others have had their Martins rebuilt, including one four-string tenor guitar that its owner, Bruce Blazej, had rebuilt into an eight-string tenor guitar for a fuller sound when played way up the fretboard.
I got in on this deal when my friend of a half century and more, Wood Allen of Charlotte, North Carolina, got us invited down to Alpharetta to join in. Wood's going as a camper to the fantasy camp this summer, and I'm tagging along to take notes and pictures and maybe play a little guitar on the side.
My instrument of choice is a 1959 Kay upright bass, but it's hard to pack that baby into an overhead baggage compartment, so my little Blueridge (yep, one word. Sigh.) tenor guitar — a dead-on knockoff of the beautiful Martin tenor guitar played in Georgia by Rob Reider — will make the trip with me.
We played Friday evening, all day Saturday and Saturday evening, and all Sunday afternoon, running through as much Kingston Trio repertoire as we could remember. We eventually segued into the Eagles, The Limeliters and a lot of individuals, most particularly that of John Stewart, who joined The Kingston Trio in the latter 1960s and brought with him a new dimension in sound and songwriting.
One of the highlights of the weekend came Saturday afternoon when Rob Reider hooked up his laptop to the Bowles' TV and tuned in Bob Shane and his wife Bobbie out in Arizona so that we could serenade them live with the rousing "I'm Going Home" march that The Kingston Trio made famous.
Bob Shane is a revered and legendary figure in American folk music, but his work transcended the field. Early on he was known as the Hawaiian Elvis Presley. After Shane recorded his hit "Scotch and Soda," Frank Sinatra turned down the opportunity to cover it because, it has been written, no one could do it better than Shane already had. Shane not only survives, but as the owner of The Kingston Trio band, he still performs on occasion with the current K3s (George Grove, Bill Zorn and Rick Dougherty) and oversees the production of new albums — Wood and I have a song that will be on a new disc — and The Kingston Trio Fantasy Camp in Scottsdale.
What was fun about this weekend is that his grown children also came by the Bowles' house and brought their grandchildren. So, in one weekend, we played for three generations of Shanes — pretty cool.
A very long time ago, Wood Allen, Fred Birdsong, Jim Garrison and I thought we'd hit it big in folk music. We thought we might be the next Kingston Trio. We didn't, and we weren't.
But thanks to a lot of nice folks who have kept The Kingston Trio flame alive and burning brightly, we've had a chance to know them, work with them in the studio and — on occasions like the mini-camp in Alpharetta — play for the one of the originals. As a Minnesota friend of mine likes to say, not too bad.