Who Was Joe Val?

Joe Dietz, Eric Levenson, Joe Val, and Dave Haney

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“Joe Val was the voice of bluegrass in New England.”

– Peter Rowan

credit for photos 1-3 : Henry Horenstein
credit for photo 4:  John Cooke
credit for photo 6:  Craig Harris (photo taken in early 1980’s at Cajun-Bluegrass Festival, Stepping Stone Ranch, Escoheag, RI.  From left to right – Joe Dietz, Eric Levenson, Joe Val, Dave Haney)

Joe Val was born Joseph Valiante in Everett, Massachusetts.  In an area of the country not usually known for bluegrass, he became a fan at an early age.  He began listening to local bands and was always a huge fan of Bill Monroe, the Father of Bluegrass.  When he began to perform in public, Bill Monroe’s fiddler Tex Logan coined the name “Joe Val” and it stuck.

Joe made his living over the years as a typewriter repairman.  But, his real love was performing bluegrass music across New England and beyond, and he was very instrumental in helping to spread the gospel of bluegrass to both young and old.  A gifted musician, he was an accomplished guitar and banjo player, but he ultimately focused on the mandolin in the bands that he led.

During these early years, Joe worked with some of the shining lights of bluegrass, including the Lilly Brothers, Joan Baez, the Charles River Valley Boys, Bill Keith, Jim Rooney and many more.   While with the Charles River Valley Boys, Joe was featured on their famed Beatle Country album on Electra Records.

Joe led many bands, including the Radio Rangers, the Berkshire Mountain Boys, and most notably, the New England Bluegrass Boys (NEBB).  His masterful mandolin playing, and his high tenor voice were the hallmarks of his bands over the years.  Joe was joined by some of the best bluegrass musicians in New England over the years, including Dave Dillon, Bob French, Herb Applin, Dave Haney, Paul Silvius, Karl Lauber, Joe Dietz and Eric Levenson.  Guest musicians on the NEBB Rounder recordings included Sonny Miller, Jim Buchanan and Roger Williams among others.  Danny Paisley was the guitar player and singer for the first NEBB European tour in 1981 and appears on the Strictly Country Records Live in Holland recording, which memorialized that tour.

Click here for Joe Val discography and music  on iTunes

After a diagnosis of Lymphoma in 1984, Joe passed away on June 11, 1985.  This was, sadly, only two days after the first “Joe Val Benefit” festival was held to raise money for his treatment.  This event became the annual Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, one of the premier bluegrass events in the country.  This festival stands as a tribute to the dedication and the impact that Joe Val on bluegrass music in the Northeast.

The following memories about Joe from some leading bluegrass luminaries are a testament to Joe’s influence:

Greg Cahill - Former President of IBMA, a pioneer in Bluegrass in the Schools programs, and the leader of the Grammy-nominated band Special Consensus

“Joe was an icon before many folks realized he was an icon – we heard about Joe Val for years before we actually heard Joe Val, and it was indeed a joy to see such a talented yet humble person let the music ooze out of his pores. It was mesmerizing to hear that voice come out of the man standing before us, producing unbelievable sound quite effortlessly. And then he played the mandolin…”

Taylor Armerding - Former member of Northern Lights and current member of The Bluegrass Gospel Project

I first met Joe Val in 1967, when I was a sophomore at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., He and the Charles River Valley Boys played one of the events of orientation week in September, and since I was the “folk music guy” on campus, they had me get the band settled in our little excuse for a green room. He came in with a transistor radio at his ear, listening to the Sox game – that was the “Impossible Dream” year. I was way into sports and music, so I thought that was pretty cool. I knew nothing about bluegrass, but thought his was one of the best voices I’d ever heard.

Seven years went by, which at the time seemed a bit like a lifetime. I was out of college, out of the Army, had discovered and fallen in love with bluegrass at the Union Grove Fiddlers’ Convention in North Carolina and was desperate to learn how to play it. All I knew was how to strum and finger pick the guitar to Peter, Paul and Mary songs.

I saw an ad in the Boston Phoenix – a “working” bluegrass band was looking for a mandolin player. When I called, Dan Marcus, the banjo player, invited me to come to a pickin’ party he was having – he said I could meet the band members in a more casual setting before an audition. I went out and bought a $25 “Stradolin” (made of plywood), taught myself three or four chords and showed up at Dan’s apartment in Cambridge, where Joe was at the center of the best jam. But he introduced himself, taught me the choruses to a few standards, and then I sang harmony with him for a while.

I got the gig with the band that soon morphed into the first iteration of Northern Lights. I found out later from Dan that Joe had taken him aside that night and told him, “That’s the guy you want. He’ll learn to play the mandolin. But he can already sing.”

So Joe is pretty much single-handedly responsible for me getting started in in this most transcendent form of Americana/roots music.

For the next couple of years, he continued sporadically to be a mentor – always gentle, always wise, always truthful, always supportive. He was one of the sweetest, best and most distinctive ambassadors this music has had. I still miss him today, but I’m glad that one of the best festivals in the country carries his name.

Jim Rooney - a Grammy-winning producer and the recipient of an Americana Music Association Lifetime Achievement Award

“I HEAR A SWEET VOICE CALLING” MY MEMORIES OF JOE VAL”

I first heard Joe Val sing back in the early ’50’s on the WCOP “Hayloft Jamboree.” He was in a band called The Radio Rangers who were playing straight country music. Joe had a voice that got your attention even then. It was clear and strong.

However it wasn’t until early in 1962 that I finally met Joe. Bill Keith and I played a concert at the Community Church in Boston and Joe showed up with Herb Applin. He introduced himself and told us that he was now playing mandolin and singing Bluegrass music as a duo with Herb. We invited them to come to our place in Cambridge when we were rehearsing for our weekly night at the Club 47. Joe and Herb took us up on our offer and it seemed as if our prayers had been answered.

With Joe and Herb we now could do trios like “Ocean of Diamonds” or quartets like “I Hear A Sweet Voice Calling.” Joe’s falsetto was absolutely electrifying. He would raise the hair on your head when he sang Bill Monroe songs like “Goodbye Old Pal.” Having Joe with us raised our music to a new level. He was a pro. He’d paid his dues for years playing in the honkytonks of downtown Boston, and suddenly found himself in another world where people actually listened to the music and let you know how much they appreciated it. This recognition made Joe want to sing and play even more.

By the Fall of 1962 we went into Boston to make our album “Livin’ On The Mountain” with Paul Rothchild. Joe was more than ready and began his recording career, which then continued on with the Charles River Valley Boys (including the amazing “Beatle Country” album) and finally with his own New England Bluegrass Boys.

However, as much as his music meant to me, what I remember most about Joe is what a thoroughly good, sweet, decent person he was. There was no way that anyone could help but love to be in his company. He was a good storyteller, often very funny, but always very gentle, never at anyone else’s expense. However, underneath that self-effacing exterior, was a determined man who took his music seriously. It was no accident that he chose to call his band the New England  Bluegrass Boys. He was proud of where he came from and made no apologies for it. That he had the full blessing of Bill Monroe to use the name Bluegrass Boys was testimony to the high regard and affection Monroe had for Joe.

I last saw Joe at Tom Rush’s Club 47 concert at Symphony Hall in Boston at the end of 1984. He had been battling cancer and was visibly weakened, but his spirit was strong and he gave it all he had. His voice could still thrill me, and it was good to be with him again. On New Year’s Eve Joe and the New England Bluegrass Boys were going to be playing at the Old South Church as part of the First Night celebrations. A bunch of us had stayed over after the Tom Rush concerts and decided to go over and surprise Joe. Joan Baez, Mimi Farina, John Cooke, Fritz Richmond and some others got there to find that Joe hadn’t been able to make it, so we filled in for him to let him know how much we loved him. There was no one like him and never will be.

Dave Haney - Guitarist and vocalist in the New England Bluegrass Boys, and more recently an English Professor

Soon after I joined  the New England Bluegrass Boys, Joe introduced me to Bill Monroe, who said to me “You stick with Joe, son, he’s a good man.” Joe taught his sidemen a lot, though sometimes it didn’t sink in with me until years later.

Straightforward singing and playing was what mattered–despite the fact that Joe was known for vocal pyrotechnics, what really mattered to him was getting the feeling right (listen to the understatement of his lead singing on “Rocking Alone in an Old Rocking Chair”). He made us realize that bluegrass is a style that transcends regions.

When we toured in the South people certainly noticed that we talked differently, but once Joe started singing, even as he sang with that distinct  Boston accent, there was no cultural divide. He also taught us to distrust hot licks: in his band the breaks had to respect the song, not the player, and his mandolin breaks always made sense. I had the sad honor of being Joe’s last guitar player/lead singer, but anyone who had the opportunity to stand next to this man and sing with him for a few years is better for it.

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