R.I.P. Billy Ray Latham, The Country Boys banjo player from The Andy Griffith Show

When he was pickin', Andy was grinnin'.

Fans of The Andy Griffith Show know that before The Darlings came to town, it was The Country Boys who first rocked Mayberry. The bluegrass players were featured in the very first season of the hit series, and in episodes like "Mayberry on Record" and "Quiet Sam," Andy Griffith himself would join to play along with them. It was very special to watch Griffith during these scenes, because if you watched closely, you could tell by where his eyes go how much he respected the masterful pickers he was surrounded by.


Perhaps the player who drew Andy's eye most was the banjo-picking sensation Billy Ray Latham whose playing is prominently featured in these scenes. It's while watching Latham's flying fingers that you'll catch Andy smiling, and that's because Latham was not just some Mayberry hillbilly. He was a true-blue bluegrass dynamo who went on to play not just with The Dillards (who played The Darlings on The Andy Griffith Show), but also with country stars like Roger Miller.

On top of that, his own band The Kentucky Colonels is famous for being the first band to prominently feature the acoustic guitar as a lead instrument in bluegrass - and you gotta figure that had something to do with why a guitar player like Andy Taylor was such a big fan of The Country Boys. Even though the Kentucky Colonels never got to be as big as The Dillards, any bluegrass player worth his or her salt would consider Latham's band an influence in the bluegrass underground and that kind of musicianship can stretch into a lasting legacy.

That's the way Latham should be remembered: As a banjo player who just had more to offer than other players picking on the same scene. Why, according to Bluegrass Today, Latham even gave lessons to Jerry Garcia and went on to tour with Elton John. So whether you saw him picking on the TV or supporting The Rocket Man onstage, you were seeing the genuine article when it comes to bluegrass chops.

On Sunday, August 19, Billy Ray Latham passed away at the age of 80.


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