Don Parmley (Oct. 19, 1933 - Jul. 30, 2016 ) was a lifelong banjo player and patriarch of the legendary Bluegrass Cardinals.
Parmley was born in Monticello, Kentucky. As a 12-year-old he began learning claw-hammer/drop thumb banjo from his grandfather, but it was the driving three-finger banjo style of Earl Scruggs that he heard on the Grand Ol’ Opry that soon led to him taking up that method of picking the 5-string. Playing firstly just for family entertainment, Parmley quickly made a name for himself in the region, securing stints with popular touring groups of the era such as Carl Story and Hylo Brown.
He enlisted in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He was trained as a tank driver, but it wasn’t long before his musical talents became known among the ranks and his duties were expanded to provide music from “back home” to entertain his fellow troops. After his discharge, Don returned home and on May 26, 1956, he married Betty Jean Abbott.
Faced with a severe shortage of employment opportunities in south central Kentucky, the Parmleys soon moved west to southern California where Don found a steady job and entry into a welcoming music community.
He performed with the Golden State Boys regarded at the time as the top bluegrass band in the region. As well as Parmley, the Hillmen featured future Country music icon Vern Gosdin and his brother Rex, noted for his song-writing skills. 18-year-old mandolin prodigy Chris Hillman joined late in 1963.The band subsequently became known as The Blue Diamond Boys and then the Hillmen. Also, Parmley recorded with Glen Campbell, Doug Dillard and Billy Strange, the last named helped Parmley with an album mixing ‘Blue Grass and Folk Blues.’
From 1964 he played the banjo for the TV series The Beverly Hillbillies, contributing background music to the show throughout its nine seasons.
In 1974 Don Parmley formed the Bluegrass Cardinals with his 15-year-old son David (lead vocals and guitar) and tenor singer and mandolin player Randy Graham. The band’s calling card was their eponymous LP for Sierra Briar (released in 1976) that prompted the Parmley family and the Bluegrass Cardinals to move east to settle in Virginia where they quickly established themselves as a top name on the bluegrass festival circuit, charming audiences with their solid, tasteful picking and beautiful vocal harmonies.
According to the band’s manager/agent, the late Lance Leroy, a noted bluegrass and early country music historian, the Bluegrass Cardinals were the first bluegrass band to record bluegrass Gospel a cappella style. Many bands performed in that style long before but, for whatever reason, they didn’t record in that style. In all the Bluegrass Cardinals recorded prolifically during their 25-years existence.
Under Parmley’s leadership, the Bluegrass Cardinals provided a learning ground and springboard for the careers of Dale Perry, Mike Hartgrove, Larry Stephenson, Norman Wright, Bill Bryson, Barry Berrier, Warren Blair, Don Rigsby and Ernie Sykes.
Parmley retired from the Bluegrass Cardinals in 1997 with his son David moving on to form the band Continental Divide. Parmley occasionally sang in concerts with the Continental Divide. Health problems troubled Don in his later years. He died on July 30, 2016, at age 83 after experiencing complications related to Alzheimer’s disease. (Info edited mainly from an article by Richard Thompson for Bluegrass Today)
David Parmley & Continental Divide perform "Knee Deep in Loving You" with David's lengendary father Don Parmley (on banjo) at the 29th Annual Father's Day Bluegrass Festival in Grass Valley, California. The evening show of June 17th, 2004.