The Lost & Found – Finders’ keepers
Even in bluegrass, where one eye is always fixed on the past, August 1973 was a long time ago. Sure, Ralph Stanley, Jim & Jesse, the Osborne Brothers, Del McCoury, Larry Sparks, J.D. Crowe, Ricky Skaggs and more are still around; but with the exception of brother acts, groups without a focus on — or at least led by — a single personality generally aren’t.
The cover story of Bluegrass Unlimited that month, for instance, was the New Tradition, a quartet that changed its name within a year (and within another was gone for good). The Country Gentlemen are still around, but they’ve turned into Charlie Waller & the Country Gentlemen, and the Seldom Scene is, as ever, sui generis, its show but not its identity built around the late John Duffey.
It’s all the more remarkable, then, that the Lost & Found, which sidled into existence 29 years ago this summer, is still in existence. The group has survived significant personnel changes as well as chronic underappreciation — not among their fans and fellow musicians, but just about everywhere else — thanks to a partnership between two men: Allen Mills, bass player, lead singer, songwriter and MC; and Dempsey Young, mandolin picker, harmony singer and occasional fiddler.
Their collaboration has lasted longer than those between Flatt & Scruggs and Reno & Smiley, the two greatest archetypal pairings in the bluegrass pantheon. Like theirs, the Lost & Found’s work is instantly recognizable, armed with both craft and emotion, and irreversibly grounded in a place where distinctions drawn between country music and bluegrass simply miss the point.
These days, especially, there’s a price to be paid for that. It’s not the best of times for a bluegrass band that favors restraint and clarity over rock ‘n’ roll energy or the high lonesome sound, at least when it comes to making the most out of the current wave of interest in the genre. For some musicians, that might provoke ire, or at least disappointment; but to Mills, a man for whom the word “affable” might have been invented, it’s an incentive for a good punchline.
“I’ve not had a day job since 1978,” he says as we chat in the band’s serviceable but well-traveled bus on a hot June afternoon at a festival near Falmouth, Kentucky. “I made a vow that I was going to make a living playing music or starve to death, and this morning when I weighed myself at home, I’m down to 210 pounds!”
It’s the not so simple truth — acknowledging both the decades of support from fans as devoted as any band could hope for, and the sad fact that their number could be larger. Bluegrass trends come and go, but the Lost & Found has endured, and though they’re hoping the aptly titled It’s About Time — their first album in seven years — will bring some new attention, they’ll endure a while longer even if it doesn’t.
For Allen Mills, geography was, at least musically speaking, destiny. Born and raised in Danville, Virginia, he grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio, and to Charlie Monroe, Bill’s older brother. “My dad was a dirt land tobacco farmer, and when I was just a little kid, he would listen every day to Charlie Monroe on the Noonday Jamboree,” he recalls. “We’d lay down on the floor — in the summertime, when it was hot, you’d eat dinner and lay down on the floor — and I’d lay on his arm. If I got to wiggling, he’d thump my head; he’d want you to stay awake and listen to the radio, you know.”
It was a good area for an aspiring musician in his mid-teens, as Mills was in the early 1950s. There was plenty of work to be found playing for Saturday night dances at fraternal organization halls in the area. There was live music on the radio, and there were some strong models to study — especially Jim Eanes, a native of nearby Martinsville and a pioneering member of both the original Flatt & Scruggs lineup and Bill Monroe’s late-’40s Blue Grass Boys before he returned to the area around the time Mills was getting his start.
Though Eanes preferred to live and work in the Danville area, he had a national reputation, thanks to a series of recordings made for Decca in the early 1950s and Starday after that. On them, and in his appearances and radio shows, Eanes employed an approach that eschewed rigid distinctions between country music and the emerging bluegrass style, helped considerably by Allen Shelton, a banjo player who could translate pedal steel and electric guitar licks with stunning creativity.
“It was the same with Clyde Moody [another former Blue Grass Boy], who also worked in our area,” Mills reflects. “I think it was because of the area we grew up in and lived in, and the customs of the people. It’s hard to change those people. You may a little bit, but not too much, and instead of you trying to change them, you try to get on their side. And in order for you to do anything much, you had to play dance music, and you needed to do what was current on the radio. If Carl Smith had ‘Hey, Joe’, you needed to do ‘Hey, Joe’. And you did it with the instrumentation that you had.
“They would basically do what we know as country music, with steel guitar and electric guitar, and a slap rhythm — the drums hadn’t come about at that time. And they would just use a fiddle and maybe bring in a banjo just to play for the square dancing, and then they would do the crooning songs. You know, Monroe said, ‘That ain’t no part of nothin’, we don’t need no crooners,’ but that’s what they were doing. They had to; that’s what the audience had been hearing, and they wanted to hear them do it.”
By 1973, Mills had been working for eight years with a country band called the Country T-Birds, while holding down a job with a trucking company. Among its members had been Gene Parker, who had succeeded Shelton as Eanes’ banjo man in the early ’60s.
“We were working a big old dance on Saturday nights, maybe a thousand people every week,” Mills recalls. “We had a piano, drums, steel guitar, electric guitar and a boy played some fiddle, and Gene was playing some banjo. The fiddle player and Gene played the square dances, and Gene and I would do some vocal harmonies — some ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs.’ But mostly he would be laying in the back room on the sofa there and we’d holler, ‘Hey, Gene, square dance time,’ and he’d jump up and run on.