By James Reaney, The London Free Press
With the death of Ken Palmer, the London music scene is mourning one of its icons.
The London Music Hall of Famer with the Dixie Flyers and former artistic director of the Home County Music & Art festival died Wednesday of pneumonia following a heart transplant at University Hospital last week, friends said. He was 65.
In a career spanning more than 40 years on the London scene, Palmer was the mandolin ace and vocalist with long-running bluegrass icons the Dixie Flyers. He was a former CBC Radio host and ran a record retail outlet in London. He helped shape Fanshawe College’s radio station. In the 1970s, he was the talent coordinator for the old Smales Pace and Change of Pace folk clubs.
He was born in Montreal and grew up in Port Stanley and faced heart-related illness throughout his life.
Friends turned to social media on Wednesday sharing emotions and memories about “Big Kenny” – a master of the mandolin who always ready with a witty comment or a heartfelt observation as the occasion required.
Palmer always marveled at how the Dixie Flyers went from being a part-time band, playing the old York Hotel in 1974, to finding admirers in bluegrass royalty.
When he teamed with guitarist and singer Bert Baumbach as the Dixie Flyers took flight, the two became lifelong friends on and off the stage.
“We had a goal of being a good bluegrass band,” Palmer once said, looking back. “We thought nothing will ever happen with this thing,” Palmer said then with a characteristic smile. “All of a sudden, Bert got us on the Carlisle Bluegrass Canada (festival). That was by 1975. We had a year to practise for that. We met Bill Monroe.”
When they performed at Carlisle, near Burlington, in 1975, U.S. bluegrass icon Monroe encouraged the young Canadians to be themselves. “I’ll never forget this as long as I live,” said. “We came off the stage, and Bill Monroe was standing there, and he said, ‘You boys are pretty good.’ Here’s the guy that invented the music, and he’s there waiting for us when we come off the stage.”
Later, Monroe would welcome the London band at top U.S. festivals.
Palmer retired from the Dixie Flyers about three years ago and the band eventually went on hiatus after decades of recordings, radio and TV appearances and countless gigs.
The Dixie Flyers were inducted into the London Music Hall of Fame this spring. Palmer and Baumbach watched from the stage of the London Music Hall as a star-studded group of alumni and friends played a bluegrass medley in a salute.
Palmer was at Home County’s helm for 15 years, starting in 1990 when it was known as the Home County Folk Festival. He led its 20th and 30th anniversary celebrations.
Like many of his other positions, it was a volunteer job and not salaried. “I think I’m like a lot of people who have taken stuff from the community, but they’ve also given it back,” Palmer said when he was being honoured with an award in 2006. “You want to give back to the community . . . quite frankly, the more your help the music community, the more you help yourself.”
Visitation is Sunday at the Williams Funeral Home, 45 Elgin St., St. Thomas, from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.
The funeral service is at the Williams Funeral Home on Monday at 1 p.m.
I am sad, but I’m smiling too as I think of Ken … a true original & like many, I feel luck to have known him.
Canadian bluegrass band the Dixie Flyers will be honoured at the Ninth Annual Jack Richardson Awards (JRMAs) Sunday, Apr. 14 at the London Music Hall in downtown London.
Formed in 1974, London’s Dixie Flyers will be inducted into the JRMA Hall of Fame after an impressive career that includes nine recordings on Boot, Stony Plain and their own Flat-top labels,traveling and touring Canada in their own custom fitted highway coach, their own live radio show on BX93 (CJBX-FM)-”Live From the Wellington”, a syndicated TV series, Canadian and US tours,many appearances on national radio and television (CBC Radio’s “Morningside” with Peter Gzsowski always a favorite) – being included in “Canadian Encyclopedia of Music in Canada” – and producing a consistent ,high quality show with top notched players and singers and their own bluegrass festival.
The Flyers’ alumni reads like a who’s who’s of Canadian music scene:
“I think over the 37 years,the band has consisted of only about 20 different members” said JRMA steering committee member Darin Addison. “Even though the band is not active now and everyone in the band is getting older, I think it’s the right time to recognize the Dixie Flyers.”
Back in the day, The Dixie Flyers impressed bluegrass legend Bill Monroe.
The co-founders, guitarist and lead vocalist Bert Baumbach and mandolin player Ken Palmer, never expected to wind up in the Encyclopedia of Music in Canada years ago or the London Music Hall of Fame, where they join Tommy Hunter ,Guy Lombardo, Kittie and Orchestra London
We thought nothing will ever happen with this thing. All of a sudden, Bert got us on the Carlisle Bluegrass Canada (festival). That was by 1975. We had a year to practise for that. We met Bill Monroe (there).”
The band came off the stage and there was Monroe — not a man who was easily impressed. “He said, ‘You boys are pretty good,’ ” Palmer recalled. “Here’s the guy that invented the music, and he’s there waiting for us when we come off the stage.”
Later, Monroe invited the young band to the famous Bean Blossom festival in Indiana. “The Dixie Flyers play good bluegrass, they play it the right way,” Monroe said of the band.
Recordings, TV and radio appearances, and hundreds of gigs with top-flight lineups followed before the band went on hiatus in recent years.
The official presentations will take place at the 2013 JRMA gala, scheduled for Sunday, Apr. 14 at the London Music Hall in downtown London.
The Dixie Flyers have accomplished many things that were thought impossible for a Canadian Bluegrass band: nine recordings on Boot, Stony Plain and their own Flat-top labels – their own weekly radio show for BX-93 (CJBX-Fm),London-”Live From the Wellington” for 5 years – a syndicated Television series-Bluegrass Express (guests included the Country Gentlemen, Tony Rice, Graham Townsend) – traveling and touring Canada in their own custom fitted highway coach – running their own Bluegrass festival-Back 40 in Woodstock, Ontario – their groundbreaking appearance at Bean Blossom on the invitation of Bill Monroe “…the Dixie Flyers play good bluegrass, they play it the right way.” – many appearances on national radio and television (CBC Radio’s “Morningside” with Peter Gzsowski always a favorite) – being included in “Canadian Encyclopedia of Music in Canada” – and producing a consistent ,high quality show with top notched players and singers.
The Flyers’ alumni reads like a who’s who’s of Canadian music scene: Bert Baumbach (guitar) Canadian Bluegrass Entertainer of the Year, and Ken Palmer(mandolin), former CBC Radio host of “the Country Music Perspective” – Gordon Stobbe, host and fiddle guru of ATV’s ”Up Home Tonight”, Peter Robertson, 7-time Juno winner John P. Allen of Prairie Oyster (violin), David Zdriluk, Brian Abbey, Luke Maynard, Rick Thompson and Chris Ingram(bass), and Canadian banjo legend Denis Lepage, David Jack, two time Grammy nominee David Talbot of Grascals/Dolly Parton fame, former Ontario banjo champion, the late Walter Maynard and Paul Hurdle on banjo plus Allan Widmeyer(the Old Houndog) of Stompin Tom Connors band and Darin Parise(dobro) and legendary songwriter/Juno winner Willie P. Bennett and Mike Ethelston (harmonica)
but all the Flyers’ alumni will tell you – it was a team effort, and always a lot of laughs