10 Questions For Wayne Helfrich
By Mandolin Cafe
August 12, 2010 - 6:00 am
We'd like you to meet Wayne Helfrich (known as "Tom" to his friends), a 76-year old Bluegrass fan who makes his home just outside of Detroit, Michigan.
In a recent visit to the popular photo sharing site Flick we noticed some remarkable vintage Bluegrass photos that were new to us. We followed the links and arrived at Wayne's Flickr hosted photo archive, the content of which suggested someone steeped in the experiences of a time when Bluegrass festivals were still a relatively new phenomenon.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Wayne's interest in music and photography (he says he's a parking lot picking guitar player) found him in places where musicians were performing, so it was only natural that his camera followed. As a result, he documented the Bluegrass festival experience when it was still relatively new. He continues photographing a wide variety of subjects to this day. His online photo archive is especially rich in nature photography, but back to those vintage music photos...
E-mails and a phone conversation with Wayne followed, and we found him to be someone not only with an amazing collection of photographs, but also a really interesting person with some wonderful stories to share. Those stories and photographs deserve the attention of a wider audience, and we are pleased to share some of these with our readers. But most of all, follow the links to his photographic collection. You won't be disappointed.
Mandolin Cafe: What was your introduction to Bluegrass?
Wayne Helfrich: My introduction to Bluegrass and Country Music was when I was in my pre-teens back in the 1940s. My maternal grandmother was a former teacher and very strict, proper lady of English descent. She would secretly listen to the Grand Ole Opry on our radio every Saturday night. One night I asked her what she was listening to and she let me listen with her. What I heard was Bill Monroe singing Muleskinner Blues and it simply bowled me over and I have been a fan ever since.
Mandolin Cafe: Your photo collection from the early 70s is a veritable Who's Who of first generation Bluegrass greats (Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Mac Wiseman, Jim & Jesse, Jimmy Martin, Reno & Harrell, Carl Story), but also contains many young players that would go on to be legends or were already well on their way (Ricky Skaggs, Keith Whitley, J.D. Crowe, Larry Sparks, Jimmy Gaudreau, Del McCoury, etc.).
Wayne Helfrich: The 70s seemed to me to be the heyday of Bluegrass Festivals as there was such a mix of the old and new as you stated. I got very little sleep at the festivals as I would spend so much time listening to the bands and amateur musicians alike. In fact, I probably spent more time listening to the parking lot and camping pickers than to the stage shows. So many times the stage stars would be found picking in the parking lots and campgrounds.
L-R: Ricky Skaggs, Jack Cooke, Keith Whitley with the Ralph Stanley Band. Photo by Wayne "Tom" Helfrich. Click to see original photo on Flickr.
One of the more memorable moments was when I was listening to three musicians from Japan playing guitar, banjo and mandolin and doing a very good job, too, when up walked the legendary Lester Flatt who listened to them for a few minutes and then said in that distinctive Flatt voice, "You boys sound mighty fine." It turned out that the Japanese pickers spoke no English and when Flatt realized this he just gave them a thumbs up and pointed to his guitar as if to say, "can I sit in?" Sit in he did for about 15 minutes to the joy of all onlookers. This scenario was to be repeated by various musicians in every festival I attended. At another festival I watched Jimmy Gaudreau and Jesse McReynolds play some incredible duets on mandolin while other campers just stood with their instruments in hand and watched in awe until Jesse asked others to join in, and a real jam ensued.
Mandolin Cafe: You had a chance to meet these performers. There must be at least a few good stories from those enconters.
Wayne Helfrich: At one of the festivals two of the legendary performers, Bill Monroe and Carl Story were on the same show and I spent some time talking with Carl Story when Bill Monroe happened to be on his way to the stage. Carl asked me to take a picture of them together. You can imagine how thrilled I was to do this. I talked with Mr. Monroe for about 10 minutes after I took the photo and one of the last things I said to him was, "Mr. Monroe, are you ever going to retire?" His face hardened a little and he looked me right in the eye and said "Retire to what? This is my life, son." He stuck out his hand and thanked me to taking the picture. Any of you that ever met Bill Monroe will attest that he had the regal bearing of a very proud and self-assured man.
Bill Monroe and Carl Story at a festival in Ottawa Ohio, circa 1970. Photo by Wayne "Tom" Helfrich. Click to see original photo on Flickr.
Another time I was watching Jimmy Martin and he stopped singing right in the middle of a song and looked out at the sound engineer (who was a very young fellow) and said "Son, you need to give me a little more bass on my guitar mic." The engineer replied "I have been engineering shows for many years and know what I am doing and it sounds fine to me," to which Jimmy replied "Son, I have been doing my music since before you was borned and I have a distinct sound that I have been known by for more years than you have been on the earth. Give me some more bass on my guitar mic or I will come down there and do it myself!" At that time the crowd started to yell at the sound man to "Do what Jimmy wants!" The sound man showed some humility and finally and gave Jimmy what he wanted. Jimmy started the song again and when he finished his set he went and talked to the young man explaining the ins and outs of Bluegrass sound. It turned out that this was the first Bluegrass that this youngster had worked.
One time I was standing in line at the snack bar when I turned and noticed that Bill Harrell was standing behind me and I started a conversation with him about his singing. I always thought that Bill had one of the purest voices in Bluegrass and I loved his guitar playing. He thanked me and had his guitar slung across his shoulder. He swung it around and said "That ol' D-28 sure does growl don't it?" I replied, "it sure does." Then he floored me by handing me the guitar and saying "Here, pick a few chords." I don't remember what I played except for the fact that I was all thumbs!
I think, by far, the nicest artist I ever met was Del McCoury. He was so accommodating when I asked if I could take his picture. We talked for quite a while backstage and he spent most of the conversation asking me about my interests and family.
I found Bluegrass musicians to be very friendly and generous with their time and knowledge and were always willing to share little tricks and licks if they had the time. I don't know how many times I saw the pros in the parking lots and campgrounds pickin' with crowds and whenever they left the group to go on stage they would leave with, "Sorry, gotta go, it was fun pickin' with ya'll."
Mandolin Cafe: Photos of your 78 rpm collection include the best of Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Bob Wills, Hank Williams and early rock 'n roll and country hits.
Wayne Helfrich: When the LP (long play) albums first came out there was a rummage type store near us that had hundreds of 78s for sale (very cheap) and I bought up a bunch that I liked just to have them as keepsakes. An interesting thing happened when a friend of mine and I were talking music one day and were discussing the various influences on our particular music favorites (Blues & Bluegrass). He suggested we put on a Bill Monroe record (78 rpm) and play it at 33 1/3. I was astonished to hear blues. We put on Memphis Jug band with Gus Cannon, Sleepy John Estes and Hammy Nixon and we heard primitive Bluegrass! It just illustrates how our American music is so intertwined with different influences.
A few "hits" from Wayne Helrich's 78 collection. Photos by Wayne "Tom" Helfrich. Click to see his a collection of his 78 photographs on Flickr.
Mandolin Cafe: In addition to Bluegrass, you also photographed some classic Folk and Blues groups.
Wayne Helfrich: One thing I learned very early was, don't be shy. Country, Folk, Blues and Bluegrass musicians are very approachable, especially if you want to take their picture. I was able to take performance pictures others were not allowed to because I respected the artist and was not intrusive. Several of my photos have been used in publications recently and a couple have been used on CD covers. Recently several of my shots of Brownie McGhee (blues performer) were used by Homespun Tapes on an instructional DVD of Brownie's guitar styles.
Mandolin Cafe: Another other stories that stick out in your mind?
Wayne Helfrich: I remember an incident that happened at the Ohio National Bluegrass Festival in Ottawa, Ohio. I had noticed that Bluegrass festival attendees had been evolving since I first started going to them. A lot more of the young folks, hippies, in particular were attending festivals and along with them came drugs. One night a group of young long-haired young men and women had camped not far from us and were smoking weed and drinking a lot and were very loud, and I don't mean with their music. Their language was especially crude and my friend and I were about to go over and ask them to be a little more respective of the families camping there. We were beaten to it by our neighbors, who were from Tennessee. Both of them very very big men and strolled into their camp and let them know that they were out of line. We could not hear everything that was said but picked up phrases like "this is a family festival," "tone it down," and something about whoopin' some ass if they didn't. The story has a very happy ending as the young folks were very well behaved and even seen picking with their antagonists throughout the weekend.
Mandolin Cafe: Are there more vintage photos you've taken than what appear on Flickr, and if so, do these exist in print only or do you still have the original film?
Wayne Helfrich: I know I have more photos tucked away somewhere in my archives, and one of these days I will find them and put them up on Flickr. Most of them are either prints or on transparencies.
NOTE: as this article was being published Wayne has informed us he's in the process of uploading some brand new vintage photos and those are now visible on his Flickr web site—and yes, they're great photos.
Bill Monroe on stage at a festival in Ottawa, Ohio, circa 1970. Photo by Wayne "Tom" Helfrich. Click to see original photo on Flickr.
Mandolin Cafe: How has photography changed for you over the years? Many of our readers are photography buffs and would be interested in hearing about the equipment you've used.
Wayne Helfrich: For my older shots I did not use anything fancy, just a Pentax K1000 with 200 mm lens, most of the performance shots in B&W were taken on Tri-X film pushed to 1600 asa and developed and printed myself. The color shots are either on Kodachrome slide film or Kodacolor negative film, all but a few on 35 mm. I shoot now with a Canon S31s digital camera, as I said, nothing fancy, just a 12x optical zoom. I like the small compact size of the Canon as I hike a lot in local nature preserves here in Michigan and in the south during the winter and don't want to be burdened down with tripods, huge lenses, etc. Canon now has a 20x optical zoom on their S20 camera and I have been looking to upgrade, but just learned that a 25x is on the drawing board and might wait for that.
Mandolin Cafe: There's a photo of guitar great Roy Lee Centers playing banjo on stage. Do you know the story behind this?
Wayne Helfrich: At a festival at Frontier City in Port Huron, Michigan, the Ralph Stanley Band was performing and Roy Lee Centers who was Ralph's guitar player at the time was playing banjo. It seems that Ralph had another engagement which did not involve the band and took a flight to join the band on the road. The flight was delayed and Roy Lee filled in on banjo for Ralph. I might add that he did a right creditable job too, which did not surprise me as many of the artists I have come in contact were multi-instrumentalists.
L-R: Dan Beune and Wayne Helfrich (the creator of the photos in this article) at a festival in Port Huron, Michigan, circa 1970. Click to see original photo on Flickr.
Mandolin Cafe: If you had to pick one favorite Bluegrass photo of your collection, what would it be?
Wayne Helfrich: It would be very hard to pick a favorite photo as I have so many that I personally like, but if hard pressed I would have to say that my favorite would be the B&W of Bill Harrell with his old Martin, there is just something about that B&W shot that speaks to me, especially since I got to strum a few chords on it as mentioned above.
Bill Harrell at the Ottawa National Bluegrass Festival, Ottawa, Ohio, August, 1973. Photo by Wayne "Tom" Helfrich. Click to see original photo on Flickr.
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I'm sure it's all related to location and available light but I noticed an interesting contrast between the Bluegrass and the Folk pictures. Most of the Bluegrass pictures are in color and all but one of the Folk pictures are B&W. Given the historical belief that B&W was the format for 'serious' photography this kind of goes with the belief that folk music is 'important'.
I like your point! Folk music is important! I like the Doc Watson picture as I do the multiple pics of Brownie McGhee. Just look at the picture with the fretboard. Criminently did that poor thing stand pressure. It reminds me of my younger days. Great pics, all the way.
Is this a young Bill Richmond playing the fiddle?
Man I recognize a lot of those folk from way long ago at Charlotte, not sure if I ever knew their name then.