The Lost & Found – Finders’ keepers
“I left that band in ’73, and Gene had left before then, but he called me one day and said, ‘Let’s get together and pick some grass.’ Because a lot of times, he and I and two or three guys would get together and try to sing whatever the Osborne Brothers had going, because he liked Sonny’s banjo playing. I said, with who? He said, ‘A boy down the road, he can play some guitar with us.’ So we went to this fellow’s house and just the three of us picked some, just played for enjoyment. And it got to be a regular Wednesday night ritual, just playing for our own pleasure.
“Then, after we’d been doing that for a month or two, Gene said, ‘There’s a young boy, just 18 years old, he’s learning to play mandolin, and I think he’s going to be a good player, but he’s just learning. His name is Dempsey Young.'”
“I first started actually making money playing guitar in a rock ‘n’ roll band,” Dempsey Young says. “And then the fiddle player in a group called New Grass Express called me one day and asked me, could I play the mandolin? Because he knew I played the banjo, and he had seen me play the guitar. I said, well, not much — but my aunt had just bought a little Harmony mandolin and brought it to me and said, ‘Learn a little something on it and then teach it to me.’ Because I had a little bit of a knack for just picking up an instrument and getting a tune out of it. So these guys called, and after about a month we went to the fiddlers convention at Galax, Virginia, which is a big deal in that area. When we got up there, the boy who played the bass told me, ‘You need to enter the mandolin competition.'”
Though he only had one tune worked up, Young thought that getting his convention admission back for entering the contest sounded good. Performing with distinctly untraditional accompaniment — the group’s guitarist couldn’t quite grasp the tune, so Young performed with only a bass fiddle for backup — he took first place. “It was almost embarrassing,” he laughs. “When they said I won, I tried to give the ribbon back.
“After that, the band would introduce me as the guy that just won Galax last year, and people started calling my house. I knew this one song, and everywhere I’d go, these banjo pickers would come up and say, ‘I hear you won first place at Galax, let’s pick one,’ and I’d say, I can’t. I remember telling my dad about it, and he said, ‘Well, you need to start practicing.'”
“So before I realized it — within a year’s time — I had kind of a little name and reputation all around the area from winning this first place, and I couldn’t play all that much. So when Gene called me and said, I understand that you won first place at Galax, I thought, dear God, here’s another one.”
“He’d come down and we’d drill him real good,” Mills says. “They’d play ‘Red Apple Rag’ to within an inch, they’d play it this way, and then they’d play it that way, just every way they could.” The work was purposeful, because Mills had lined up an unusual gig: an appearance on Martinsville’s brand new cable TV operation. That meant a change in guitarists, too, since the original player wasn’t up for the show. Roger Handy, Dempsey’s bandmate in the New Grass Express, was recruited, and the group, now dubbed the Lost & Found, made its debut in October.
“As Vince Gill said, we was dumb as a fence post and green as grass,” Mills notes, “but I had had a little experience with the MC work, doing that dance and doing some radio, so we got by with it, and we did that show every week for about eighteen months.”
If playing for dances had stimulated Mills’ disregard for rigid stylistic distinctions, the demands of a weekly TV show cast it in stone for the entire band. “It eats up material like a chain saw,” Young says. “I’d give anything if I had some of those tapes now. Gene, from 20 years of experience, and Allen, being older, they started pulling out tunes that I had never heard. Gene would kick a song off, and then, when the next break came around, he would just look towards the wall and start clicking time, and the camera would zoom in on you, and I’m sitting there thinking, ‘Six more beats in A chord,’ and I’d have to come up with something to fill the hole, you know. I just did the best I could.”
By 1975, when the band released its first LP on a local label, his best was pretty good. With Mills providing some outstanding songs of his own — “Love Of The Mountains”, now a jam session favorite, appeared on their debut — and a set that included everything from “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” to “Daisy A Day” and Sonny Osborne’s crackling banjo showcase “Sunny Mountain Chimes”, the album earned the Lost & Found enough attention to play a circuit of clubs throughout Virginia and surrounding areas. Two more albums followed in short order, and by the time the third one came out in 1978, work was plentiful enough that the Lost & Found became a full-time ensemble.
Since then, the Lost & Found has gone through a half-dozen guitarists and nearly as many banjo players — guitarist Roger Handy was the first to leave, in 1980, while Gene Parker got off the road in 1987 — and each has infused the role that’s been handed to him with his own touches. Ronnie Bowman, who spent most of the 1990s with the high-profile Lonesome River Band, contributed an especially plaintive tone with his lead vocals on the Lost & Found’s 1989 release New Day. Barry Berrier, who followed him in the role, brought a hard country music sensibility and a Haggard-esque voice to back it up to their next two albums, January Rain and the spectacular A Ride Through The Country.
On banjo, Jody King, Lynwood Lunsford and Ben Greene took a similar course, reproducing Gene Parker’s signature work when that was called for and stepping out on their own as new opportunities arose. Still, it’s Mills and Young who constitute the Lost & Found’s center of gravity and remain the guardians of its signature sound — which, they both contend with a smile, was the result of improvisation and their musical limits.
“We had no direction when we started,” Mills chuckles. “We came up with the sound we have because we didn’t know any better. It was just us guys, the way you felt that you could play a song with the rest of the guys. It didn’t make any difference, because it was a fun thing, and if we did a song this way and somebody said, ‘Well, Flatt & Scruggs didn’t do it that way,’ we said, ‘So what?’ If I had my druthers, I would’ve played exactly like Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs and the Stanleys. They were the people. The Stanleys had the heart and soul, Monroe had the good, tight timing with the grass sound, and Flatt & Scruggs had the smooth rhythm. But if you ain’t got the personnel, you can’t do it.”
“I just tried to play what I felt fit the songs that our band did,” agrees Young. “I came up with a lot of little intro licks and ending licks, and twin things were something that worked for me, because in rock ‘n’ roll music I was a fan of the Allman Brothers, and they had twin guitars. So when Gene and I got together, I started trying to figure out how I could twin what he was doing, and worked at that.”