Lynwood Lunsford: Determination, Talent, and Leadership Bluegrass
Published in Bluegrass Unlimited 2001
By Art Menius
When veteran professional banjo player Lynwood Lunsford traveled to Nashville in early March 2000 to attend IBMA’s Leadership Bluegrass, he wanted to advance his career. Then playing with Savannah, a group of experienced musicians with a new debut compact disk for Outlet Records, Lunsford carried an impressive resume including some experience as a bandleader and stints as a member of Jimmy Martin’s Sunny Mountain Boys, the Sand Mountain Boys, and the Lost & Found. Yet he knew things, for both himself and the whole bluegrass industry, could be improved. Lunsford wanted change, and he found it at Leadership Bluegrass.
By the time the IBMA World of Bluegrass arrived in October, Lunsford had results from a whirlwind of planning and action. “I started my own band on September 1st, called ‘Lynwood Lunsford and the Misty Valley Boys.’ I have a management team in place. We want to do publicity blitz on this new band. It includes two former members of Sand Mountain, James Crain and Jason Barie. James and Jason both are easy to travel with, dependable, good musicians. They believe in what I want to do and are willing to work with me to make it happen. Our first recording project, on the Hay Holler label, titled A Portrait of the Blues is just out.
“My idea with this band is to try to reproduce some music that I think is great music, but might have been a little ahead of its time — the music played by J.D. Crowe when he had the Kentucky Mountain Boys. It was based on Jimmy Martin timing with some Osborne Brothers style singing, but with some new twists, too, like the choice of material, for example. Our shared goal as a group is much like mine, to make good music, present a professional image, and take advantage of any opportunity that exists to make money. If you plan well and work hard to achieve that goal I believe that bluegrass music can be a worthwhile career.”
In the Misty Valley Boys he has assembled folks who, like Lunsford, are reaching their prime years as bluegrass artists and ready to make a run at the summit. Milton, Florida’s James Crain, son Wayne Crain and most recently lead vocalist for the Sand Mountain Boys, handles guitar and most of the lead singing, including eleven of the first album’s thirteen cuts. Perhaps best known with Sand Mountain for his work on Molly Rose, he cites the influence of Martin, Clarence White, and Mac Wiseman. Jason Barie, seven-time Florida state fiddle champion, appeared, like Lunsford and Crain on the 1998 Molly Rose CD while with the Sand Mountain. He can also help on baritone and tenor if needed. Barie, from Lakeland, Florida, has also released a self-produced solo album, My Great Grandfather’s Fiddle, which included Crain, Lunsford, and the rest of Sand Mountain and earned very positive reviews. After rehearsing with others, Lunsford finally completed the quartet with Gary Baird from Oxford, North Carolina, a few miles east of Roxboro. He plays upright bass and sings mostly tenor and occasional lead and high baritone. “His only claim to bluegrass fame,” says Lunsford, who handles most of the baritone needs, “is playing in my band, The Southern Drifters, before they came to a screeching halt, and I joined the Sand Mountain Boys.”
How did this all come together so quickly, even for someone with Lunsford’s experience? The short answer is that opportunity knocked at a perfect time right after Lunsford had experienced a learning situation as intense and inspiring as his year with Martin when he participated in the very first Leadership Bluegrass class. In its debut outing, Leadership Bluegrass brought more than two dedicated dozen bluegrass professionals and semi-professionals to Nashville for three days of intensive discussions, seminars, and team projects. Participants included such well-known names as Missy Raines, Ken Irwin of Rounder Records, and former Loretta Lynn manager David Skepner. Facilitator Fred Bartenstein, former editor of Muleskinner News, helped the passionate and opinionated members of the group stay on topic and contributing knowledge freely and sincerely. To a person, the classmates left reaffirmed in their commitment to the bluegrass music profession.
“After attending the IBMA Leadership Bluegrass, I finally had a better understanding of what you have to have to really succeed with a band. I would like to tell those folks that say you can’t make a living in bluegrass to attend the next Leadership Bluegrass and learn the ways you can make a living. Then, completely out of the blue, came this offer from Kerry Hay to front a band and be a solo act.”
In October 1999 Hay Holler Records had released Lunsford’s solo banjo project, Pick Along, which featured mandolin great Hershel Sizemore and Spider Gilliam, bassist for Savannah. As with Dempsey Young on the Lost & Found’s Just Picking CD, Lunsford’s banjo sparkled when paired with a first rank yet unpretentious mandolinist. Pick Along resulted from a chance conversation with Hay. Its success led Hay to up the ante at just the right time.
“I was impressed with Lynwood’s picking, particularly how he does the backup and fills for vocals, since I first heard him with Lost & Found,” explained Hay Holler’s Kerry Hay. “After getting to know him personally, I recognized that he had a good understanding of the business side of our music, even before he attended the first Leadership Bluegrass.” The music Lunsford wanted to play impressed the label chief as well. “Industry wide, I think there is a dearth of bands playing what I call ‘real’ bluegrass. In the ten years I have been operating this label, I’ve found that there is a huge market for the music of new bands who play in the old ‘raw’ style of bluegrass.”
“I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, so I set out to put together a management team, just as I had learned at Leadership Bluegrass. I have done that, having the record label, a booking agent, Johnny Williams [with whom Lunsford once played in a nice neo-traditional group called Grass Tank], and a publicist, Rebecca Pittard, as well as a financial backer. We’ve been working on a media blitz to publicize this new band. People started seeing the ads in the September 2000 Bluegrass Unlimited. We are trying to pour as much publicity into this thing as possible to: 1) prove it doesn’t take ten years to be an overnight success, 2) follow the outline of our three year business plan, and 3) build a career.”
Songwriter, singer, and guitarist Williams jumped at the chance to represent Lunsford, explaining, “A couple of years ago Lynwood filled in as our [Jeanette Williams & Clearwater] banjo player for about a four month period. The more time I spent with Lynwood on and off stage, it was easy to sense his passion for bluegrass music. His concentration for the music is unique, and his professionalism on stage always shines through. He puts his heart into the music each and every time he plays.
“After his time with us, I suggested that Lynwood organize and front his own band. He has quite a following for his banjo style,” continued Williams. “Finally he has decided to give it a try. He has assembled a band that works together with no one striving to be ahead of the rest. With the new CD release and the airplay it is receiving, things are beginning to happen.”
The first three months more than exceeded Lunsford’s expectations. “First, we met the deadline with the new recording. We debuted it at the IBMA with some excellent results. We were able to give promoters a copy right away, and it has paid off with several bookings already. Bookings and radio airplay have blown my mind. For 2001, we are booked on big festivals in Grass Valley, California and Charlotte, Michigan. We are going to Texas for a festival near Austin in August. We got on the Butterwood Festival in Littleton, North Carolina. All these and we’re just been concentrating our efforts on the southeast! We are getting tremendous airplay throughout the country.”
The banjoman is equally happy about how the talented ensemble has come together on stage. “The band sound has developed in to everything I hoped it would. From the first stage appearance in Maine this past summer, we have developed a stage show that incorporates some comedy and a short segment of gospel music, done with just guitar and mandolin. That transports the audience back in time, via the Misty Valley Boys Quartet ‘time machine.’ We have the jackets with sequins that look somewhat like the old Buck Owens and his Buckaroo’s outfits. We have gotten a good response from these.”
Leadership Bluegrass focused his thinking. Three days in a crowded a meeting room at the BMI Building filled with professionals equally as passionate about the bluegrass music industry has a way of doing that. As teams, the class members deconstructed then reconstructed the field. From breakfast far into the evening, the Leadership Bluegrass participants spoke from both head and heart about the business they loved.
Like the rest of the class, Lunsford already knew a lot, for he has spent more than half his life as a full or part-time musician grown long since as fascinated by and opinionated about the business and the stage show as well as the music itself. His North Carolina hometown of Roxboro proved close enough to Camp Springs to feel its bluegrass influence thirty years ago. His dad, until then an electric country guitar picker, and two cousins thus formed a bluegrass unit called the Country Cousins. “That band and the Country Gentlemen’s recording of ‘Matterhorn’ are what made me devote myself to bluegrass. Later, in ’78, I became the banjo picker for the Country Cousins. I stayed in that band for 6 and one-half years. Before joining them, however, my first banjo picking gig was on the E.J. Harris show, broadcast live every Saturday on WKRX, Roxboro.” Lunsford later hosted a needle-drop bluegrass program on WKRX. The Cousins’ fiddler, Earl Link, played so aggressively, that the youngster quickly grew into an authoritatively loud, albeit unpolished, five-string man.
Joe Wilson, his predecessor with the Country Cousins, and, more importantly, Reno-style player Briggs Elliott first influenced his five-string playing. Lunsford soon demonstrated his now characteristic determination to succeed. “Unfortunately, I really had learned the rolls all wrong. I had to change my playing completely three times. Once when I met Briggs, second when I tried to copy Bill Emerson, and last when I tried out for Jimmy Martin. Jimmy really showed me how wrong my playing was. If I am considered good by anyone today, it’s because of the time Jimmy took up with me to show me the right way to pick a banjo.” The Reno and Emerson influences, followed by Martin’s thorough training especially in timing, and then a long stint in a band where Gene Parker set the standard have developed Lunsford from loud, flashy, and confident into a versatile, forceful, and recognizable five-string stylist with abundant feeling and expression.
Lunsford got there the old-fashioned way. “I was determined to be a professional musician. I actually tried out with Jimmy five different times before I was hired in February 1990 at the SPGBMA convention. The first time was at the fall Arcadia, Maryland bluegrass festival in 1985. I thought I was about as good as you could get until Jimmy started asking me which songs of his did I know. Well, I didn’t really know any, but that didn’t discourage me…. Little did I know just how little I did know. As I was tuning up to audition, Jimmy was getting ready to go on stage. From the back of the bus, he said, ‘Play one of my tunes.’ When I finished he said, ‘what was that you were playing?,’ and I said ‘Tennessee.’
“He said, ‘Hoss, it ain’t even close!,’ and he went back to getting ready to play. After Jimmy came off stage, he called me over, and I stood behind the record table while Jimmy talked to me about using the right roll on the banjo to play his timing. My roll was all wrong. He tried to explain how using your thumb to play most of the melody put yourself at the correct point in the downbeat. Jimmy’s music is based on the middle of the downbeat rather than in front of or behind the beat. Then I picked most of the melody with my index finger, making me play mostly in front of the beat. Jimmy also told me of the importance of working the record table, acting professional, knowing his material well and playing in rhythm. Finally, he said that Chris was not going to play with him the next year, so if I wanted a job with him, I needed to go home and learn all his material ‘just like the record.’ If I did that, he would give me a try again. If I could do the job, then had a job with him. And that is exactly what I did. And each year, I would get another tryout. And each year, Chris would decide to stay. Until 1990, when Chris actually quit.”
While doggedly waiting his turn as a Sunny Mountain Boy, Lunsford played for two years with Big Sandy. The north central North Carolina band also included future Country Gentleman Tim Ashley, Adam Poindexter, who would become a fixture in James King’s band, and David Nance, now a member of the Sunny Mountain Boys for thirteen years and counting. After a 1987 split with Big Sandy’s manager, Nance and Lunsford began performing as the Southern Drifters. That Nance plays Dobro with Martin directly results from Lunsford obsession. When he and Nance jammed outside Martin’s bus, the man Raymond Fairchild called “the teacher” ironically and unexpectedly hired the latter.
Ten years before joining the initial Leadership Bluegrass class, Jimmy Martin gave Lunsford his first great bluegrass education. “That first meeting, with Jimmy, changed my picking forever. Getting a job with him changed my musical life forever. I can only compare working for Jimmy with being in basic training in the military. Jimmy was my drill instructor, and he was very tough on me. I think he knew that if I could survive his training and learn from it that would prepare me for what might lie ahead. That is exactly what it did. I only wish every young want-to-be professional bluegrass musician could go through Jimmy’s training. I learned much more than just music. I learned the importance of the business end. That this is, in fact, a business, and those that complain they can’t make a living playing bluegrass, don’t have a grasp of the business. I learned how to act like a professional around the fans and around other professionals. I learned that you can’t be all accessible to the fans all the time, because you lose your mystique, thus losing your drawing power. Musically, I learned that your singing can’t be wimpy, your playing can’t be without feeling, and everyone must play in the same rhythm as well as the same timing (believe me, they are two different things). I learned what it means to really love this music. That means loving it when times are good and loving it when times are bad. So many young pickers today will simply give up if things get a little rough. What if Bill Monroe, or Jimmy, or Flatt & Scruggs, or the Stanleys had given up when times were a little rough?
“I feel very fortunate to have studied under one of the first generation, the ones who created the music. That is why I am driven to take what I’ve learned and try to make a career playing this music. And, all the while, try to pass on this great knowledge that I feel lucky to have acquired.” Post-Martin, Lunsford spent 1991 through 1996 with the Lost & Found, with whom he handled the concession table, waxed three CDs, and appeared on the “Grand Ole Opry” in 1993.
A Portrait of the Blues finds Lynwood Lunsford and the Misty Valley Boys well on their way to developing a strong sound both distinctive and within the tradition. Long-time Sunny Mountain Boy Ronnie Prevette guests on mandolin. The project displays the admitted influence of J.D. Crowe & the Kentucky Mountain Boys both in the arrangement of such songs the title cut and the willingness to adapt material from country (Mel Tillis’ “Mental Revenge” and the title song from Bill Carlisle), hard core classic ‘grass (Jimmie Skinner’s “Will You Be Satisfied That Way,” as interpreted by Red Allen and Crowe), and rock (“How Long” by Mark Knopfler of Dire Straights). Lunsford produced with Wesley Easter engineering at Eastwood Recording Studios in Cana, Virginia.
Overall, A Portrait of the Blues demonstrates a confident ensemble, which reflects the prior experience of Lunsford, Barie, and Crain together, plus Baird’s time with Lynwood. The album displays strong, well-rehearsed harmonies and crisp, authoritative picking. The longer they stay together, the more powerful will become their sound. Further, the Misty Valley Boys bring together the talents of three songwriters. Crain and Barie each contribute one title, while Lunsford adds a pair. Lunsford had provided no less than five compositions for Nance’s album, originally written for an abortive 1996 revitalization of the Southern Drifters that included Baird. “The stuff Lynwood writes I feel like I can sing really well,” said Nance. “The stuff he writes matches my voice and my feelings, so I haven’t really tried to write.”
Now Lunsford and the Misty Valley Boys are using up-to-date business and marketing planning to make it possible to earn a living while playing modern bluegrass steeped in the tradition started by that first generation. Lunsford credits Leadership Bluegrass for most of the concepts incorporated in the Misty Valley Boys’ strategic business plan. Edited down to an outline, their goals encompass:
A. Band officially starts September 1, 2000:
1) An article in BU
2) String endorsement with ad in BU
3) New recording project with a release date to coincide with IBMA trade show
4) Publicity around the launch date of band
5) Start building a website that will offer MP3’s of the new recording at www.dedmaus.netherweb.com/lynwood
B. Year One
1) Concentrate booking efforts on the Southeast, building a fan base one region at a time
2) Do as much radio, newspaper, TV, and live concerts as possible; be in as many places as possible
3) Try to book the Station Inn or E.T. Record Shop to show our faces around Nashville
4) Try for a guest appearance on the “Grand Ole Opry”
5) Work on corporate sponsorship
C. Year Two
1) Concentrate booking efforts on venues east of the Mississippi
2) New recording project, all gospel
3) Concentrate on TV exposure as it creates a mystique
4) Try to get a feature article in a major publication outside bluegrass
5) Increase corporate sponsorship
D. Year Three
1) Perform on IBMA awards show
2) Perform on Bluegrass at the Ryman series
3) Concentrate bookings in western US
4) Be in the upper 1/3rd of the major acts in bluegrass, i.e. succeed in being an overnight success
5) New recording project, maybe live or instrumental
“That’s the plan. We may not accomplish everything but if we can do most of them, I think we can achieve success. I made a comment in our initial meeting, quoting JFK from his speech about putting a man on the moon, ‘We choose to do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.’ That was my challenge to the team, and so far they have met the challenge.” This proves significant, for, as author, feminist, and abolitionist Lydia Maria Child wrote, “They who aim at the stars, will at least hit higher, than if they aimed at a pine tree.” Lynwood Lunsford & the Misty Valley Boys have their sights aimed far above the North Carolina tree line and are moving forward toward their goals.
Well ahead of schedule, the band planned a return to the studio in February 2001 for an all gospel project. “With a tentative working title of The Land of Heaven and a possible release date of June 1, 2001, it will be in that same style as A Portrait of the Blues with that straight-ahead traditional approach,” promises Lunsford.
“I believe bluegrass music offers more opportunities than ever for new bands to succeed. However, they must do their homework. They must plan, have goals, be good at what they do, have their own sound, and be willing to make sacrifices and work hard to succeed. If you expect a talent buyer to hire your band over others, you must be better than the competition. They must attend Leadership Bluegrass. I want to encourage anyone with a real interest in learning how this industry really works, to attend the next one, if at all possible.”
“I think Lynwood can take his band just as far as he wants to go,” concluded Hay. “He understands the music and the marketplace better than most bandleaders I know, and he has the burning desire to make it in the industry.”
“The reason I choose to make bluegrass my career is because I love it, and I believe in it, for now and the future. I believe it is a good investment,” said Lunsford. “I don’t want the real, heart-felt bluegrass to die or get homogenized like it’s beginning to sound today My new band is going to go back and do some things that the first generation guys used to do. We even plan on carrying a ball team, softball rather than baseball, on the road like Monroe used to do. We are going to challenge any promoter and any bluegrass band that will play us, to a softball game at some festivals.”