While many have forgotten, there was a time when the Kingston Trio was the most important singing group on the charts. Between 1958 and 1967, Dave Guard, Bob Shane, Nick Reynolds, and later John Stewart released nineteen albums, 14 of which ranked in the top 10. Five reached number 1 with hits like “Tom Dooley,” “Scotch and Soda,” “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?,” “Greenback Dollar,” and “M.T.A.” In November and December 1959, four of their albums were in the Top 10 simultaneously for five weeks, a feat not duplicated for 50 years.
During their heyday, the Trio endured its share of controversy while they were pioneers on stage and in the studio. In particular, despite the fact the group repeatedly said they weren’t folk singers, purists blasted their smooth recordings and denounced their unwillingness to become involved in left-wing politics. No one credited them for helping make the 33 1/3 album a viable commercial format, nor did many notice they recorded the first “folk” albums without the then obligatory orchestral backgrounds.
On the other hand, Martin guitars did notice that the placement of their instruments on the Trio’s LP covers helped put their guitars on the map. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences created the folk category after the Trio won the “Country and Western” Grammy in 1959 when no one really knew what to call them. Only in hindsight did anyone realize the Trio opened the doors for the college circuit, which, before them, hadn’t included music by popular artists. And all this doesn’t include the countless number of up-and-coming singers and musicians who picked up their own guitars and banjos due to the success of the Kingston Trio.
One performer who cheerfully acknowledges his debt to the Trio is Renaissance Man, Bill Mumy. Yes, the same Bill Mumy who was Will Robinson on Lost in Space, half of the comedy song duo of Barnes and Barnes (“Fish Heads”), and singer, player, and composer of a series of albums on Global Recording Artists. Touching nearly every style in music, he has performed the straight-up blues in Glorious In Defeat, crafted the intriguing concept album Until The Big Bang Whimpers, and produced the criminally neglected bare-bones Carnival Sky.
Now, as Bill told me in a 2011 interview, Thank You Kindly is pretty much “Kingston Mumy.” By this he meant the album is 12 songs taken from the Kingston Trio’s catalogue, many of which he essentially copied note-for-note. Others he made subtle changes to, but you’d really have to know your Trio to spot them. For one matter, Mumy didn’t do any of the hits. He chose songs he happened to like. Two were Trio staples that were covered by other artists, like “John B,” remade by the Beach Boys as “Sloop John B,” and “Long Black Veil,” which Johnny Cash re-arranged for his own shows.
Most of the songs are Trio versions of standards ranging from the percussive Calypso of ”South Wind” to the jumpin’ Gospel hymn, “You Don’t Knock.” Mumy’s instrumental chops are on full display. You can hear the guitar and banjo interplay the Trio was known for, as well as the influence of the two bass players who recorded and toured with the Trio for ten years, David “Buck” Wheat and Dean Reilly. One notable example is Mumy’s delicate guitar work on “Senora.” While Mumy tries to be faithful to the spirit and letter of songs like “Oh Miss Mary,” “Getaway John,” and “You’re Going to Miss Me When I’m Gone (Frankie and Johnny),” anyone familiar with Mumy’s past work will quickly recognize his distinctive, dusty voice on the lead vocals. But it’s fun to imagine how much pleasure he had recreating the three-part harmonies with the phrasings and ranges of Shane, Guard, Reynolds, and Stewart.
In fact, it’s easy to hear the joy Mumy felt assembling this album, and few listeners will miss just how much a tribute this tribute is. Any Kingston Trio fan should enjoy this collection. As Mumy is the master of the eclectic, his followers will just have to try out Thank You Kindly to see if this one is their cup of tea. For listeners currently enjoying the vogue for “Americana” and “roots” music, this is an album well worth exploring. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of a group that made such genres possible and roots music accessible for millions of listeners.