A senior lecturer in biochemistry at Otago University, Bailey called into the folk club soon after his arrival in New Zealand in 1972 and encountered a ragtag group of enthusiastic but not so authentic bluegrass practitioners. For the best part of a year he coached them on the finer points of mountain music before they played a gig.
Guitarist and dobro player Read Hudson, mandolin player Mike Pelvin and banjo player Bruce Fergus had all been part of The Pine Ridge Bluegrass Boys. Inspired by the music of Flatt & Scruggs and influential home-grown stars The Hamilton County Bluegrass Band, The Pine Ridge Bluegrass Boys had run their course and were doing their own things when Bailey showed up.
The newcomer set about gathering up the interested parties to start a new unit he christened The Bluegrass Expedition. Initial get-togethers included just Pelvin and Fergus but were soon augmented by singer and guitarist Barry Paterson. Hudson wasn’t aware he was part of the mix until Bailey telephoned and drawled down the line, “Why aren’t you at practice?”
There he exposed them to his vast collection of bluegrass records and slowly moulded them into shape, even demanding that the singers’ pronunciation had to be “more American”.
With Fergus moving to bass, the line-up mostly rehearsed in Bailey’s front room. There he exposed them to his vast collection of bluegrass records and slowly moulded them into shape, even demanding that the singers’ pronunciation had to be “more American”. In one song he insisted the word “heart” shouldn’t be the typical New Zealand flat-vowel sound “hart”, but “hawrt”. Paterson and Hudson henceforth ensured they always bellowed the word louder than any other in that particular song.
On another occasion he lectured Hudson, a self-taught dobro player, that the instrument was in fact played with a thumb pick and fingerpicks, not with a flat pick as he was doing. A bewildered Bailey was later heard to observe he suspected Hudson even played piano with a flat pick!
One of The Bluegrass Expedition’s first gigs was at a cold and foggy Roxburgh. Hudson and Paterson went for a walk and were thankful to an oblivious Bailey for picking his banjo on the balcony and guiding them back through the fog. A regular haunt was the London Lounge in George Street and they would often play at the folk club.
Although later they ventured to Hamilton for one of the annual National Banjo Pickers’ Conventions, most of their work was in and around Otago and Southland. At a gig in a Southland woolshed on the night of the 1975 general election there were probably only four Labour voters there and they were all in the band. They managed to hide their disappointment when news came through that National’s Robert Muldoon was the new prime minister.
That same year they did some recording at Robert Penty’s home studio. Penty ran his own Penty Productions label and had recorded brass bands as well as the earliest recordings of future That’s Country star Noel Parlane. Recorded live to two microphones, The Bluegrass Expedition session was released as the LP Wanted on Pye, thanks to contacts of mandolin player Mike Pelvin, who managed the EMI store in Dunedin.
Alongside traditional tunes and arrangements of The Beatles’ ‘I’ve Just Seen A Face’, Michael Nesmith’s ‘Joanne’ and a boisterous “campfire” rendition of the ubiquitous ‘Duelling Banjos’, Wanted included Bailey’s ‘Our Old Mackenzie Homestead’, which he would continue performing long after he returned to the United States, making a point to state it had been written and performed by a bluegrass band in New Zealand.
Back at the London Lounge, DNTV-2 producer Ian Ralston approached the band about a music show he was planning. The station had just received an outside colour broadcast van, and to make best use of it Ralston proposed to film musicians in the elements at various scenic spots around the city. The Bluegrass Expedition were exactly what he was after.
Six half-hour episodes of Young Country were screened in early 1976, each with a theme – whaling, settling, farming, gold, transport and coal – and the band were joined by local singers such as Phil Garland, Chris Noakes, Bruce Pownall and former Miss New Zealand Lyndal Howley (nee Cruickshank) to perform folk songs on each subject.
The Auckland Star of 27 February 1976 reported that Auckland promoter Phil Warren considered Young Country “the best New Zealand-made musical he has seen on the local screen”. Television One entered it in the Golden Harp Festival in Dublin, a competition for film and television shows with folk or ethnic content, but any thoughts of a second series fell by the wayside when Ian Ralston quit television.
The music for the show was recorded with Ralston at the TV1 studio in Albany Street, Dunedin, and released on the Kiwi label as the album Settling In. Amongst the traditional fare, it included Bailey’s title track as well as ‘Ghosts Of Arrowtown’ – a Dennis Hogan poem Read Hudson had put to music, sung by Howley – and ‘There Is A Time’, credited to Bailey and one-time Dillards collaborator Mitch Jayne.
The Bluegrass Expedition also made several appearances on the South Pacific Television show Touch Of Country.
The Bluegrass Expedition also made several appearances on the South Pacific Television show Touch Of Country. On one of them, a make-up girl was sent packing when she started powdering Hudson’s brand-new metal dobro because the director believed it was “too shiny”. When she relayed the message to her boss he made changes to the camera angles instead.
With Bailey’s work at Otago University done The Bluegrass Expedition broke up in 1977, although they did make one final appearance a few months later as invited guests of the touring Irish Rovers before Bailey eventually left the country. He passed away in October 2014.
Since the demise of the band, the members have remained active on various music projects in various cities and towns over the ensuing decades. When their first album, Wanted, was digitally released by Universal in 2016, they reunited as The Bluegrass Expedition for two shows in Dunedin, joined by Christchurch banjo player Russell George.
George Bailey - banjo, vocals
Barry Paterson - vocals, guitar
Read Hudson - dobro, guitar, vocals
Mike Pelvin - mandolin
Bruce Fergus - bass, autoharp