For over 30 years, Joe Val was as foundational to the bluegrass scene in New England as guitars, mandolins, fiddles, banjos, harmonicas, washboards and spoons are to the genre itself.
With a soaring, silky smooth high-tenor voice and a distinctive Boston accent that revealed his north-of-the-Mason-Dixon-line roots, the supremely gifted singer was a trailblazer in terms of establishing and expanding bluegrass’s popularity in New England, across the greater US and around the world. Whether part of a duo or a larger group and whether playing guitar, banjo or mandolin – the instrument with which he’s most closely associated – the bespectacled, mustachioed, ever-smiling gentleman, a typewriter repairman by trade, had a thoroughly unpretentious stage presence, an exhaustive knowledge of folk, blues and bluegrass standards, and such enthusiasm, dexterity and finesse when performing that Grammy-winning mandolist-guitarist and Wayland, Massachusetts, native Peter Rowan called him “the voice of New England bluegrass.”
Born Joseph Valiante on June 26, 1926, in Everett, Massachusetts, Val fell in love with country music around age 12 when he heard Canadian country-and-western singer Wilf Carter (known as Montana Slim in the US) on the radio. At age 14, his grandmother gave him a guitar – which he practiced playing at every available moment – and, after hearing Bill “The Father of Bluegrass” Monroe on the radio and devouring as many of his records as he could afford, he fell equally in love with bluegrass, becoming beyond proficient on banjo and mandolin before graduating from high school.
In 1952, Val joined country band the Radio Rangers as lead guitarist. Fronted by Maine native Slim Sullivan, the group was one of the first to play live on the new radio station WHIL out of Medford, Massachusetts, appeared on the program “Hayloft Jamboree” on Boston’s WCOP (now WZLX) and performed regularly at the Mohawk Ranch in Boston, the city’s original country-music venue.
In the mid-1950s, his musical tastes were largely informed by two West Virginia bluegrass groups which had transplanted themselves in Boston – Toby Stroud and Blue Mountain Boys and the Lilly Brothers & Don Stover – plus the duo Jerry and Sky from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and the Lane Brothers from Cambridge, Massachusetts, all of whom performed frequently at the Hillbilly Ranch, another of Boston’s country-bluegrass venues. When Val joined the Lane Brothers for a few songs there one night and fiddler Tex Logan found the name “Valiante” too difficult to pronounce, he abbreviated it to “Val” and the name stuck for the rest of Val’s career. In 1957, when Stover spent six months in Bill Monroe’s band, Val filled in for him on banjo with the Lilly Brothers.
In 1960, now playing mostly mandolin, Val joined the Berkshire Mountain Boys with fiddler-guitarist Herb Applin, a tenor who became his singing partner for much of the decade. The pair began collaborating with singer-songwriter-guitarist Jim Rooney and banjoist-autoharpist Bill Keith, both Boston natives, and soon joined them regularly onstage during their weekly gig at Club 47 in Cambridge; “Joe’s high vocals stopped the show every time we played,” Rooney says.
In 1962, after playing on Rooney and Keith’s Prestige/Folklore LP Living on the Mountain – Val’s first studio experience – Val and Applin formed a duo named simply “Val and Applin,” playing some of their favorite duets by groups including the Blue Sky Boys, the Webster Brothers and the Louvin Brothers. For the next two years, the pair played twice a month at Club 47.
In1964, Val joined the Charles River Valley Boys (CRVB) and played on their final two albums, Bluegrass Get Together (1964) and Beatle Country (1966), the latter a groundbreaking collection of Beatles songs covered in bluegrass style. A staunch traditionalist, initially Val was reluctant to work on the boldly innovative project but eventually he embraced it and critics often cite his vocals on “Norwegian Wood” as one of the album’s most electrifying elements.
In 1967, after CRVB broke up, Val and Applin reunited and formed the Old Time Bluegrass Singers with banjoist Bob French and bassist Bob Tidwell. After a few years performing at colleges, coffeehouse and clubs – and securing Bill Monroe’s blessing to use “Bluegrass Boys” as a tribute to Monroe’s band of the same name – in 1970 they rebranded themselves as Joe Val and the New England Bluegrass Boys. After playing across the region and landing a highly sought-after guest spot at promotor Carlton Hanley’s country-bluegrass festival in Virginia, in 1971 the group signed with Rounder Records – the label’s very first bluegrass band – and recorded their debut, 1972’s One Morning in May, which received broad critical acclaim, especially Val’s rendition of “Sparkling Brown Eyes” for its distinctive two-part harmony yodels.
Over the next 14 years, the group toured the US, UK and Europe and recorded six more albums, all on Rounder except 1981’s Live in Holland, released by Strictly Country Records. The band was a staple at multi-day events along the eastern seaboard including the Cajun-Bluegrass Festival in Escoheag, Rhode Island, and the Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival, playing an impressive range of material including country songs by Merle Haggard, Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton and bluegrass classics by Monroe, the Louvin Brothers and the Stanley Brothers. Val and Applin anchored the group as frequent personnel changes resulted in eight others being part of the band: guitarists Dave Dillon and Dave Haney, banjoists Paul Silvius, Karl Lauber and Joe Dietz, bassist Eric Levenson, fiddler Sonny Miller and dobroist Roger Williams.
Tragically, Val was diagnosed with lymphoma in 1984, shortly after playing his final show at the Keene (NH) Music Festival in September that year. While hospitalized, he received visits from Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, Ricky Skaggs and other notable folk figures, and musicians, friends and fans organized two benefit concerts to defray his medical expenses. Those events morphed into the Joe Val Bluegrass Festival, now held every February in Framingham, Massachusetts at the Sheraton Hotel and named Event of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) in 2006.
On June 11, 1985, Val died at age 59, his legacy being as a humble, extremely talented mandolin-playing tenor who, according to his friend and collaborator Jim Rooney, “wanted people to know that bluegrass knew no geographical bounds.” His headstone is engraved with an image of his cherished 1923 Gibson ‘Lloyd Loar’ mandolin.
In 1995, the IBMA gave Val a posthumous Distinguished Achievement Award and Rounder released Diamond Joe, a compilation of songs from his five LPs on the label. In 2018, he was induced into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame.
“In his wildest dreams,” Rooney wrote upon reading the Hall’s announcement of the induction, “Joe Val, modest and unassuming as he was, would never have imagined that more than 30 years after his death there would be one of the most successful bluegrass festivals held in his honor and that he would be joining his hero Bill Monroe and former bandmate Bill Keith in the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. It’s hard for me to believe that our little band that played at the Club 47 back in 1962 would produce two members of the Bluegrass Hall of Fame. As Joe might have observed, ‘Jamie, who would’a thunk it!!!!’”
(by D.S. Monahan – July 2022)
Published on December 28, 2012