Mandolin Man

York County Boy from Jamestown recalls the pioneer days of Bluegrass

Gavin Simms editor@thepacket.ca
Published on November 12, 2009
Rex Yetman. "We got to work with some of the best in the business, " he says of his glory days of the York Country Boys. Gavin Simms photo

His fingertips slide past the frets of his elderly instrument like a storm over the ocean, making not a wave.

Hands, that once chorded perfection and roughed up the neck of many a mandolin, are now as still as frost-laden air.

His fingertips slide past the frets of his elderly instrument like a storm over the ocean, making not a wave.

Hands, that once chorded perfection and roughed up the neck of many a mandolin, are now as still as frost-laden air.

Rex Yetman is a musical marvel. A bluegrass pioneer.

He's known across the land as mandolinist from The York County Boys, Canada's first bluegrass group. For nearly 60 years he devoted his life to strumming and singing the sounds of bluegrass.

At 76 he can rest assured he's made his mark.

"I'm holding my own," says Rex.

In 2007 he was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Illness has kept the man from being himself ever since. He's lost much of his strength and in two short years he's bowed into a shadow of who he once was.

While doctors say there is hope his condition can be improved, time goes by and the waiting game takes its toll.

Rex and his wife of 37 years, Marie, reside in Jamestown.

Their house sits on the same property where Rex was born and raised.

He can recall back when he'd creep downstairs with his brother at night to listen to the Grand Ole Opry, on a scratchy, battery-operated radio. It was his first taste of bluegrass.

When he was 17 he moved from Jamestown, with his family, to Niagara Falls. The years following he moved into Toronto and found work in construction.

It wasn't until Rex made friends in the big city that he started playing at all.

Tale of the York County Boys

(with files from Neil Rosenberg)

In 1953 Rex was introduced to a fiddler named John McManaman.

The two shared a love for bluegrass music like nobody they knew, even though there was no such thing as bluegrass back then. You'd hear it on a scattered stage in the city, but you couldn't buy a bluegrass record. In fact it wasn't called bluegrass until several years later. It was just beginning to be recognized as a style.

Rex and John sat and studied the acoustics and harmonies behind the music until they decided they wanted to play. John bought a banjo and Rex bought a mandolin - an old three-pointer Gibson F2 that he traded in his electric guitar and amp for.

They'd go to bluegrass shows and sneak backstage after the encore to get bands to teach them how to play.

In 1953, along with guitarist Mike Cameron, fiddler Brian Barron and bassist Fred "Dusty" Legere, they became known as The York County Boys.

The gigs poured in. They had no trouble finding a stage to play three and four nights a week.

Some time later Rex got a call from the pawnshop where he'd purchased his mandolin. It turned out the mandolin they'd sold him had been pawned by a kid who'd traded it without telling his family. They wanted it back, and Rex was in a bind. After some deliberation he traded it back to them, for a prized 1951 Gibson F5 - the same mandolin he has today.

Rex says there's a collector in the states who's willing to pay a lot of money for his instrument. But it won't be sold to a collector. He assures it would go only to someone who'd actually play it.

1956 was a big year for The York County Boys. Not only did they tour the Maritimes, but they gained national exposure playing on Toronto CBC-TV's Pick the Stars, a talent contest show that aired for an hour every Sunday night.

They were competing against dance groups and opera singers. Some groups would get two lines of a song out and be told to leave the stage.

Rex didn't think they stood much of a chance, but they got up and played a full song and were asked to play another. They came second to a dance group, but got a spot on the show. Only one other country performer, Tommy Common, was ever selected to appear on the show during its three-year run.

In 1958 they recorded their first and only album, Bluegrass Jamboree. It was one of the first bluegrass albums sold in Canada, and one of only a few bluegrass albums available anywhere at the time. It sold over 30,000 copies.

The group had a lot of song and dance ahead of them.

They were guests on the Ramblin' Lou radio show in Niagara Falls. They had regular performances at the Palace Pier in Toronto. They played shows with Bill Monroe and the Bailey Brothers and even served as backing band for Mac Wiseman on his Canadian tours. The York County Boys had several appearances on the Tommy Hunter Show.

"We got to work with some of the best in the business," Rex says. "And we were a bunch of nobodies."

When a call came for them to perform as a backup band for Johnny Cash at the National Exhibition in the mid-60s they put together a band with Rex playing guitar, John playing banjo and Roy Penney from the Carl Smith Show playing lead guitar.

As it turned out, Johnny Cash and June Carter showed up with their own band, so the York County Boys opened up for them.

At a 1965 coffeehouse gig, John and Rex were "discovered" by a television producer, which led to their working for a season as cast members on Carl Smith's Country Music Hall, on CTV. They'd tape three shows a day.

"We'd be guests on one show and we'd be part of the band on the other two," says Rex.

As the sixties wore on and bluegrass lost its popularity to country music, the York County Boys went their separate ways.

Encore

Marie, founding organizer of Jamestown's popular coffeehouse fundraiser, is originally from Ontario. She and Rex met while trapshooting in 1962. They were married 10 years later.

Rex was playing with the Toronto Bluegrass Band at the time.

In 1980 they moved back to Jamestown, working summers in Ontario.

Rex retired from his day job in 1993. They decided to stay put in Newfoundland for good.

In the late 90's he became acquainted with the members of Crooked Stovepipe, a bluegrass band out of St. John's. He stepped in as their veteran mandolinist.

In 2006 the group won an East Coast Music Award for Bluegrass Recording of the Year.

Rex resigned from the band shortly after. He hasn't lifted his instrument much since. If he can't play it like he used to, then he'd rather it just played in his memory.

"He's very modest about his music," says Marie, as her face reflects back from the accolades on the wall.

"I've heard people here say, the big thing was to turn on the Carl Smith Show back then, because Rex Yetman was going to be on."