There are two popular schools of thought about bluegrass music. One believes that traditional bluegrass is the solid foundation that can have additional construction from contemporary music influences. The other conviction praises the founders of the music with no desire to stray from the roots of the original sound. No doubt Big Country Bluegrass subscribes to the latter philosophy, and they have proved it with their diehard traditional approach since the band’s beginning in January 1987.
“I don’t criticize bluegrass musicians,” bandleader Tommy Sells says of the more contemporary players. “I just love traditional bluegrass. It’s all good. But if you’re going to do bluegrass, you just as well do what you’re calling it. So that’s what we try to do. We play for the people that pay to get in, not the other musicians, because they won’t buy your CDs anyway,” he adds with a laugh. “It’s all great music, but I love traditional heartfelt music.”
“I was raised up in it,” Sells wife, Teresa (rhythm/vocals) said. “It’s got a feel that, to me, the more modern stuff don’t have.”
“We’re one of the few groups playing traditional bluegrass music at this time,” Lynwood Lunsford, BCB’s banjoist said. “There’s a lot of great music being played, but because of the age of the players perhaps or the influences they’ve had in their lives, the music they’re playing is not quite what us old fogies call traditional.”
The band’s loyalty to the bluegrass beginnings has certainly garnered a strong fan following, especially with the older crowds. “They come up and shake your hand and tell you that they’re really proud that we’re still playing real bluegrass music,” Sells said while attending the 39th Annual SPBGMA ( Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music Association) Awards and National Convention in Nashville, Tenn. “That’s what they were raised on—Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Don Reno, and Red Smiley. They can relate to that type of music. Like Lynwood plays some Don Reno stuff on the banjo. When they hear that, they wake up, because that’s what they grew up with. You don’t hear that anymore.”
The newest configuration for Big Country Bluegrass is made up of Tommy Sells (mandolin/vocals), Teresa Sells (rhythm guitar/vocals), Eddie Gill (lead singer/guitar), Lynwood Lunsford (banjo/vocals), Tony King (bass), and Tim Laughlin (fiddle/mandolin/vocals).
The band has seen a few changes in musicians over the years. Wade Petty, Ronnie Gravley, James King, Udell McPeak, Keith Vollmer, Jeff Michael, Jimmy Trivette, Tom Brantley, Billy Hawks, Tim Lewis, Ramona Church Michael, and Johnny Williams contributed their talents. For the most part BCB has remained a cohesive group.
“We try to get along,” Sells said. “We’re all on the same page. We all like the same style of music, and we do our own thing. A good bluegrass band that everybody gets along with is like family. You just try to make a go of it and do the best you can. There’s been good times, and there’s been bad times,” Teresa added. “You just try to keep it all together and keep going.”
Two veteran members of the band who had been with Sells since the band’s earlier days passed away during the last decade. In 2003, Larry Pennington, who was the banjo man for over 15 years, died of Lou Gehrig’s disease. The band hosts a memorial festival for their departed friends each year in Galax, Va. Alan Mastin, the bass player for 21 ½ years, died of an apparent heart attack in May 2010 on his way back from the Festival In The Pines in Rocky Mount, Va.
“Larry was one of the best to ever put a set of picks on!” Tommy said. “He came from the old school and had an outstanding three-finger-style roll on a banjo. He told us when he started with us that he knew we were wanting to do something with it, and he would stay with us until he had to quit or died. We never had a cross word in 15 years of traveling and playing anywhere.
“Alan was just a fun guy to be around,” recalls Tommy. “He was a good solid bass player and loved to travel. He had a good sense of humor and kept everybody laughing.”
King, who has played bass with the band the last three years, had to be a quick study when he unexpectedly joined the group following Mastin’s death. “Actually, the first time I played with them was at Alan’s funeral,” King remembers. “It was tough, but I’m glad I’m here. I love doing it, and I hope Alan’s proud of what I’m doing. That was a hard way to come into the band.
“I hadn’t been listening to any of their music, and then all of a sudden, boom. I played his funeral, and the next week I’m at Gettysburg playing on stage with them—one of the biggest festivals there is, and I’m standing there scared to death. There was no time to learn anything. I learned it all on the fly. It was a tough test. I think I made it. I don’t want to do anything like that again.”
The transition was easier for Lunsford (who replaced Ramona Church Michael), because he was familiar with BCB’s style and had some time to prepare for the show. “He come in on a show with us and kicked off everything and knew the CD up one side and down the other,” Sells said. “We did a show just like we had played together for ten years. He’s a good man and a great traditional banjo player. He can just walk that banjo in right behind a song.”
Lunsford’s resume includes playing with Lost & Found and Sells’ hero, Jimmy Martin. “It was like coming back home again,” the former Sunny Mountain Boy said. “This is the music that has always been in my heart. Coming back to play what I love to play and enjoy was really like homecoming.”
“Jimmy used to say this, and people thought he was being arrogant,” Lunsford said. “But I’ve found it to be true: ‘If you ever learn to play my music, it would be difficult to play anybody else’s.’ If it’s not based on Jimmy’s music, then it is difficult for me to play.”
Eddie Gill most recently performed with Travers Chandler & Avery County. He joined Big Country Bluegrass in March of 2012, replacing long-time fiddler Jeff Michael. “His voice, style, and personality fit us to a T, and we’re extremely happy to have him in the group!” Tommy said.
“I think it was a real good step in my career to join them,” Gill said. “I’ve listened to their music through the years.”
Gill is a fourth generation musician with a legacy of banjo playing family members behind him including his late father, Hermon Gill. The father and son started Eddie Gill and the Grassmasters in 1993. “When I joined Big Country, it was like I thought it might be a little bit more pressure playing with people that I had never played with before,” Gill said. “But it was just like playing with family.”
While Gill wasn’t familiar with some of the band’s original songs, he could easily hang with them on bluegrass standards. “From the moment we did our first two practices, just to run over and see what’s going to work, it just seemed to fit. They play the type of bluegrass I like. The songs that they named off, I knew them. I had played them.”
Tim Laughlin’s first official show with the band was on New Year’s Eve 2012. “I’ve been out on the road with all kinds of different bands over the years,” Laughlin said. “Tommy, Teresa, and the band—we just all seemed to jell good. We all get along. You’ve got to be able to run up and down the road with people like that.”
Laughlin has played mandolin with many professional bands including his latest stint with Marty Raybon. He may play some twin mandolin with Tommy, but for the most part, he’ll be sizzling on the fiddle. “I know a lot of their songs,” Laughlin said. “If I can hear usually a verse and chorus of a song, if I can just keep it in my mind long enough to get through it on stage, I can play it.”
Big Country Bluegrass’s newest album, Memories Of The Past (Rebel Records), is the band’s 17th project and holds true to the creators of bluegrass music.
“I’ve been recording since 1977,” Lunsford said. “I don’t know how many projects, but a lot of them, and for me, this is the best thing I’ve ever recorded, and I usually hate everything I do on a recording. It’s feeling, I think. It’s really, really difficult to capture feeling on a recording, but somehow on this recording, magic happened. The songs really touched all of us. We could relate to them. It was just a really fun recording session. It doesn’t sound manufactured. It sounds like we just got up there, had a good time, and played.”
“I’m the happiest with this CD of any we’ve ever made,” Sells said. “We’ve got a new singer on there. He’s one of the Red Allen/Joe Val style singers. He can sing high or low, kind of like Hylo Brown.”
This project marked the first time that Gill and bassist Tony King had recorded with the band. “Everybody was worried it was going to be a different sound,” King admits. “It is a different sound, but it’s Big Country Bluegrass.”
Although Gill had recorded in the past, he confesses he wasn’t sure what to expect in the studio with his new band. “Everything just seemed to fit together,” Gill said. “It was really no pressure. [Engineer] Wesley Easter is just awesome to work with. He made it easier for me. It was like sitting down at a festival somewhere, jamming, except you had headphones on your head. It was real laid-back. I thought it would be a little harder.”
Fourteen songs with the 1950s sound are on the disc including Jim & Jesse’s “My Time Is Running Out.” Tommy explains, “I heard it on the Ronnie Reno show on RFD-TV one morning. We fell in love with the high baritone and the meaning of that song. My wife sang high baritone on it and Don Rigsby sings tenor. It gets on up yonder. It’s bluegrass. I mean, folks if you’re going to call it bluegrass, play bluegrass. That’s what we’ve done for 26 years.”
BCB turned Bill Monroe’s “Little Girl And The Dreadful Snake” into a duet with Gill and Don Rigsby, who filled in some on fiddle with the band last year. “I’m telling you when it kicks off, it sounds like Monroe in the early 1950s. We didn’t know we were going to record it until we got into the studio for the last session. Don and Eddie had been doing it on stage. I tried to remember how Monroe had kicked it off with all the slur notes instead of playing it straight. I went in there and nailed it the first time. Don said, ‘Come on out!’ He said, ‘You got it!’”
The band also turned to the award-winning songwriting team of Tom T. Hall and Dixie Hall for the comical, hard-driving number, “I’m Putting On My Leaving Shoes.”
The Band’s Beginning
Tommy, the founding member of the group, got a late start playing bluegrass. He was 29 years old when he entered the fold, while his wife began playing when she was a child. “Her daddy, the late Junior Bowers, influenced us a lot,” Sells said. “He was a musician himself. We’d go down on Sunday afternoons and eat, and we’d all sit around and pick. We got to going to bluegrass festivals and just fell in love with it. We decided to form a group. I never dreamed of anything like this.”
“Back in the mountains, there’s not a lot of entertainment,” Teresa said. “You’ve got to make your own entertainment a lot of times. It started out just sitting around picking and developed into a band.”
Named after Jimmy Martin’s instrumental, “Big Country,” the band began on January 7, 1987, with no major expectations and no paycheck. They simply loved the music. Charles Delp (guitar/lead vocals), Freel Taylor (bass), and Larry Pennington (banjo/vocals) joined Tommy and Teresa as original members. “We used to play in people’s kitchens and carports all around the country for get-togethers. They’d feed us when we first started. We were just thinking about playing fire department shows, benefits, barbecues, fall festivals, birthday parties, and stuff like that,” Sells said.
To keep his beloved bandmembers, he knew he had to start bringing in the bucks. “I decided to keep them busy and see how many bookings we could get. We do the traditional style of bluegrass, and at that time it was going pretty good.”
People fell in love with the band’s sound, down-to-earth traditional bluegrass influenced by Tommy’s upbringing and mountain way of life. He recalls, “My daddy used to listen to the Stanley Brothers on WCYB and of course the Grand Ole Opry, Bill Monroe, Lester and Earl, and the Don Reno show on TV when I was a kid. Two groups that were a big influence on me were Jimmy Martin and the Sunny Mountain Boys and the Johnson Mountain Boys. I carried a little old eight-track player around. We used to walk to church, and here I go carrying in a little eight-track tape player and would listen to Jimmy Martin sing ‘Freeborn Man’ and ‘Sunny Side Of The Mountain.’ Those were good memories. Later on, I heard the Johnson Mountain Boys do ‘The Waves On The Sea,’ and I just fell in love with their sound. To me, they’re one of the tightest vocal and picking groups that’s ever been in the history of bluegrass. David McLaughlin is my idol on the mandolin.”
In short order, success began to build for the Virginia/Carolina Blue Ridge-based group. As they became better known and recognized for their award-winning talent in contests, promoters started calling, and the band ended up on the festival circuit. The group recorded ten CDs on their first major recording label, Hay Holler Records. Although they had four previous recordings, the label deal was another positive step forward.
In 1999, the band’s classic sound helped them replicate Flatt & Scruggs’ Martha White jingle for the flour company’s hundredth anniversary. They beat out 75 other entrants across the nation to win the top prize, an all-expense paid trip to Nashville and an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry.
“It seemed like a dream,” Sells remembers. “You listen to the Grand Ole Opry, and it seems like it’s so far away when you’re listening to it. They put us in that dark circle on the floor before the Opry started, and it made cold chill bumps run up you’re back. I don’t care who you are the first time you step on that stage, you’re going to get nervous.”
The band’s next big stepping stone to success came further down the road when they recorded the album Open For Business (Mountain Roads Recordings). It included the single “High Alleghenies” that remained on the bluegrass chart for 11 months and held the number two spot for two months.
A year later with Rebel Records, Big Country Bluegrass released The Boys In Hats And Ties. The title track, written by Tom T. Hall, Dixie Hall, and Don Rigsby, stayed on the Bluegrass Unlimited chart for a year, topping out at number one. Another single, “Black Mountain Special,” reached number ten and remained on the charts for 11 months. The Roots Music Report named the CD one of the top ten bluegrass albums of 2011.
The band has been nominated for a handful of awards in recent years at SPBGMA including Vocal Group Of The Year, Instrumental Group Of The Year, Bluegrass Band Of The Year, and Entertaining Group Of The Year.
Twenty-six years later, BCB now has taken the band’s music as far as Missouri and have traveled extensively on the East Coast. They hope to extend their range even more and add other tour dates to the schedule. They continue to remain faithfully tied to traditional bluegrass and to touching the ones that matter the most, their fans.
“The main thing is the people that pay to get in—give them something that they enjoy, give them their money’s worth and enjoy it with them,” Sells said. “When they see you enjoy it, they’ll enjoy it.”