Bill Jenkins remembers the moment when he and his bluegrass band were asked to play The National Press Club in Washington for the first time, back in 1964.
"A gentleman came across us at a hootenanny and left us a note. We thought it was a joke," Jenkins said, thinking back to his days leading the group Bill Jenkins and The Cottingham Brothers. "We thought, 'Yeah, right ...'"
The offer was serious, though, and the show turned out to be a turning point for the Middle Peninsula string band. Jenkins and his young bandmates made important connections at the Washington concert, connections that would serve them well in years to come.
A newspaper editor, a music critic for the Washington Post, an agent, friends and fans all met Jenkins and the band through that appearance. Bookings seemed to accelerate from that point forward.
"The press club opened up everything," said Jenkins, who still lives on the Middle Peninsula and still plays bluegrass music. "Something like that really does open doors. We were just country kids at the time, right out of Gloucester. We were Hayes people."
On Friday, March 28, Jenkins will return to play The National Press Club for the first time in five decades. His group has been invited to perform a 50th anniversary concert there. Jenkins and his current band, The Virginia Mountain Boys, are sharpening their act in preparation.
Truthfully, though, little sharpening is necessary. Looking back at the set list from that concert 50 years ago, the singer and guitarist realized that he is still playing many of those same songs today: "In The Pines," "Pretty Polly," "Little Bessie," "Rose Connelly."
"Every song on that list I never stopped doing," Jenkins said.
That's not a matter of being stuck in a rut, said Ken Worrell, another guitarist and vocalist for The Virginia Mountain Boys. Jenkins is devoted to doing a form of musical living history, he said.
"His mission is to keep traditional bluegrass music alive," said Worrell, who has been playing and singing with Jenkins since Worrell was a teenager, some 43 years. "I think of him as a preservationist."
Worrell remembered decades ago hearing Jenkins tell stories about playing the press club in Washington. Worrell said he didn't fully appreciate the achievement. "When you're a kid, you don't think to much about things like that, but it's a big deal. I don't think that Bill realized how big a deal it was. He was only 19 when he played there."
Besides Jenkins, The Virginia Mountain Boys includes another musician who played that first appearance in Washington. Mandolin player Robert Cottingham recently rejoined Jenkins in order to be part of the anniversary show. The group also features Clyde Bailey on banjo, Bill Collier on bass and guitarist Joe Gilley.
Worrell is excited to be able to play such a prestigious show with Jenkins, a man he considers his musical mentor. He said it caps a remarkable run for The Virginia Mountain Boys.
"The fact that we've been friends all these years, this sort of brings everything into a big circle for me. It's almost indescribable," Worrell said. "The places we've played just in the past year have exceeded anything I thought I would do musically."
The list includes shows at The Ferguson Center for the Arts in Newport News, The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen and The Paramount Theater in Charlottesville. Later this summer, the group will make its fourth appearance at The American Theatre in Hampton.
"Each place we've played has been better and better," Worrell said.
Credit for getting the press club show goes to Virginia Mountain Boys manager Ray Merritt. He started handling the band about a year ago. Talking to Jenkins about his exploits as a young musician, Merritt started to wonder if they could orchestrate a 50th anniversary return to the press club. It turned out to be as simple as sending an e-mail.
"Lo and behold, I got a message back from them saying they would love to have us," Merritt said. "The response wasn't 'We can fit you in sometime,' it was, 'When do you want to come?'"
Thinking back to that show 50 years ago, Jenkins said he can remember being nervous. "We were scared to death to begin with. But we played and the audience was so receptive. It all happened so fast ... We were sort of in glory land."
McDonald can be reached by phone at 757-247-4732.
What: Bill Jenkins and the Virginia Mountain Boys 50th anniversary show
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 28
Where: Ballroom of The National Press Club, 529 14th St. NW, 13th floor, Washington, D.C.
Tickets: $35, $21.99 for students and veterans, from http://press.org/events
More information: http://virginiamountainboys.com
The local show
What: Bill Jenkins and the Virginia Mountain Boys
When: 6-8 p.m. April 16
Where: Hampton History Museum as part of the Front Porch Music Series, 120 Old Hampton Lane
More information: http://www.hamptonhistorymuseum.org, 757-727-1610.