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McLain Family Band celebrates 50 years

Katherine Scoggins • Nov 14, 2018 at 10:23 AM

Family bands have been a part of the bluegrass scene from the very start. And one family - albeit with different family members at the microphone - has been a part of the fabric of that musical heritage for 50 years now.

Straight from the hills of Kentucky, the McLain Family Band will visit our region for a series of three concerts celebrating their 50th year. They'll join Symphony of the Mountains for performances at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 16, in Pound; at 7:30 p.m., Nov. 17, at Emory & Henry; and at 3 p.m., Nov. 18, at the Toy F. Reid Eastman Employee Center in Kingsport.

The current touring McLain Family Band includes Raymond W. McLain, Alice McLain White, Ruth McLain, Al White (Alice’s husband) and Daxson Lewis.

The original McLain Family, which started it all in 1968, consisted of the late Raymond K. McLain (Raymond's father) and his three oldest children, Raymond W., Alice and Ruth. Siblings Nancy Ann and Michael also joined in from time to time. They, along with Michael's wife Jennifer Banks McLain, have all been touring members in the past. Though Raymond K. and wife Betty have passed away, the family's musical legacy lives on.

Before the family set out to travel to our area, members Raymond W. McLain and Daxson Lewis took the time to answer some questions about the past 50 years of family, old friends, new friends, life on the road and making wonderful music. While Daxson isn't actually a McLain, he was welcomed into the fold.

Where did the band play “in the beginning?”

Though it’s difficult to mark the very first performance years ago, the family decided to mark the beginning of its professional career with the WKYT-Hazard weekly television show in 1968.

The early years included a very strenuous touring schedule during which time the McLain Family Band performed in all 50 states, 62 foreign countries (mostly sent by the U.S. Department of State, as “cultural ambassadors” representing the United States, our Appalachian region, the State of Kentucky, folk music and so forth). We played over 200 orchestra shows all over the U.S. beginning in 1973, including Carnegie Hall, the “Today Show,” Lincoln Center, Kennedy Center, lots of schools and arts councils.

What were your first concerts like?

“In the beginning, we were playing for family, friends, the local PTA at the school, places like that. We weren’t playing a show exactly, although once we did have places to play, there was more reason to increase our repertoire.”

How did the family rehearse or learn the songs?

“We learned to play ‘by ear.’ Although our father was classically trained, his real love was folk music and composition, and he helped us learn to play as bluegrass musicians ‘by ear,” McLain said. “We tape-recorded early shows for years and reviewed and critiqued ourselves learning from our mistakes. Our father said that we should be able to play a piece three consecutive times with no mistakes if it was ready to perform. We worked hard from the very beginning.”

When or why was the decision made to ‘strike out’ further?

“We were just playing music for fun and finding others who were doing the same. We enjoyed setting challenges, and sharing music we loved. When we began the weekly live TV show at WKYT-TV on Tuesday evenings, we played Saturday nights in the Pike County Jamboree in Belfry, Ky., and Sunday afternoons at Jenny Wiley State Park in Prestonburg, Ky. We were doing a minimum of three shows a week, and needed to practice hours daily to work up new material.”

How long did the family continue to perform after the “children” grew up and got married?

“Alice was the first to marry in 1977 and she married Al White, a professional musician she met at the Grand Ole Opry. He was at that time a member of the Bluegrass Alliance, based out of Louisville, Ky. Al later joined the band after marrying Alice. The band continued with the addition of younger siblings, Nancy Ann and Michael. The McLain Family Band decided to get off the road full time in 1990, so that we could raise our own children (Alice and Al, Raymond, and Ruth had children at that time) without needing nannies so that they could attend school. It is important to realize that we were gone from home sometimes two to three months at a time, often overseas, and we felt that it was important to us to raise our children ourselves. Raymond continued playing music full time for 10 years with Grand Ole Opry stars, Jim and Jesse McReynolds.”

How did Raymond transition from playing music with the family to expanding the Bluegrass program at ETSU?

The program was started by Jack Tottle. Raymond had been teaching at Belmont University in Nashville. When Jack moved to Hawaii, Raymond stepped in. Under Raymond’s direction, the ETSU program expanded. He was asked to come to Morehead State University in Kentucky to head the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music, where he is currently director. The MSU program is unique in that it enables students to obtain an undergraduate major in traditional and bluegrass music, one of very few programs in the U.S. to have such a major. Ruth McLain and Daxson Lewis are currently also teachers in the MSU program. All three lead bluegrass bands at MSU. Al White teaches the Appalachian instruments at Berea College in Berea, Ky., and leads the Berea College Bluegrass Ensemble and Mariachi Berea, a college mariachi band.

What and where was the family’s first “big” concert?

“Every concert is the next big concert. The most important place to play is the show you are giving at that time.”

How much time does the family spend on the road?

“The amount of time we spend on the road has varied over the years. Currently, we are employed teaching and schedule ourselves around that. However, we have toured extensively this year, including a European tour. We spent two weeks in Denmark, followed by two weeks in Ireland, playing in a different town or city each night. That was a very busy schedule!

What is the most rewarding part of traveling?

“Sharing music with others. Getting to meet new friends, and seeing old ones!”

What stands out most about the last 50 years?

“Family and friends! We cherish these relationships very much! We have made lifelong friends over our 50-year career and always look forward to seeing our friends in each new place we play.”

What do you look forward to most about the next 50 years?

“Family and friends, continuing to share our music with folks.”

From Nov. 16-18, area residents have the opportunity to hear the McLain Family Band and Symphony of the Mountains share the musical storytelling for which our mountains are known.

The mini-tour starts with a free school concert at J.W. Adams Combined School in Pound on Nov. 16, and includes three shows (Nov. 16 in Pound, Nov. 17 at Emory & Henry and Nov. 18 in Kingsport) and a free masterclass at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol on Nov. 17. Adult tickets for the concerts are $25 each. Students and children are admitted free in select sections. Call (423) 392-8423 for ticket information.

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