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Maine Bluegrass Legend Al Hawkes Dies At 88

Susan Sharon
Maine Public
Al Hawkes, left, playing with Travis James Humphrey at Lenny's Pub, on the site of Hawkes Plaza - and Al Hawkes' original recording studio - in Westbrook, Feb. 24, 2018.

Award-winning bluegrass artist and Westbrook resident Al Hawkes has died. He was 88 years old.  Hawkes is being remembered as a musician with a style all his own.

Al Hawkes is nothing short of legendary in certain music circles.

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"He was an icon. He was a pioneer, at a time when there wasn't much bluegrass here. And so, he was the go to guy," says long-time friend Joe Kennedy. 

Kennedy had worked with Hawkes to form the Bluegrass Music Association of Maine more than two decades ago. But by that time Hawkes had already established himself.

Al Hawkes was born in Rhode Island and his family relocated to Maine when he was 10. He picked up a love of Appalachian folk music through the radio.  He began playing that style of music as a youth, and even went on to found his own country music pirate radio station. 

It was a short-lived experiment after he got word that the FCC was trying to locate the source of the signal, as he told interviewers for the documentary “The Eventful Life of Al Hawkes."

"We did that for almost a year, maybe a little more than a year," he said, "and then we finally shut it down. My father came over and said, 'Where's the power chord?' I showed it to him over there on the wall and he went over and pulled it out of the wall and said, 'We're not going to prison. The station's going off the air.' "

But Hawkes couldn't shake the bluegrass bug. He continued to play, building a reputation as a performer. In the 1950's he teamed up with Alton Myers, a black musician, to form what's been called the first popularly known interracial bluegrass duo: Allerton & Alton.

Even in that era of segregation, says Joe Kennedy, the duo got play on the radio.

"They got hundreds and hundreds of letters and people would ask for a picture," Kennedy says, "and they were very surprised to see that there was a black man that they were enjoying on the radio."

In the late 50s, Hawkes co-founded Event Records and a studio which he ran in Westbrook. He recorded music by noted Maine musicians Dick Curless, Lenny Breau, and others.

Musicoligist Cliff Murphy, who wrote a book about country and western music in New England, says those early albums were integral to preserving the music of the region.

"Without Al Hawkes, I think some of the finest music that 's ever been recorded in New England by New Englanders would have never been recorded," Murphy says.

Hawkes himself, agreed. "We had some outstanding recordings but it was in Westbrook, Maine, and it was a hard place to do a business in the entertainment field."

Hawkes was forced to abandon the label after a warehouse fire in Boston destroyed most of the company's vinyl albums. More recently, Hawkes could be seen performing at Lenny's, a club in Westbrook, and at festivals in his signature red cowboy hat, though he had to give up playing mandolin and guitar after developing Parkinson's disease.

Bill Umbel, the owner of Lenny's, remembers Hawkes as a true force. "You know, the man just had a huge love of life, a zest for life, and he loved what he was doing," Umbel says. "You know, he - like most country musicians and musicians like him - they believed in what they're doing and he went after it. Hard."

Hawkes’ most recently recorded songs focused on his home state. He released the album  “I Love the State of Maine" in 2015.

Al Hawkes died early Friday, according to family members.  He had just turned 88 years old on Christmas Day.  His wife, Barbara, died on Dec. 3.