In today’s world of bluegrass, many musicians find it difficult to keep a band together for even a short period of time. However, there are a few who seem to have endured changes in personnel and within the genre, and only continued to increase in talent.
With the title of a Jimmy Martin song as their band name, Big Country Bluegrass, based out of Mouth of Wilson, Virginia, has been showcasing their abilities in traditional bluegrass since January 7, 1987. The group was formed by Tommy and Teresa Sells (on mandolin and rhythm guitar, respectively) along with Wade Petty (fiddle), Charles Delp (guitar and lead vocals), and the now deceased Alan Mastin (bass) and Larry Pennington (banjo). Now, with sixteen recordings to their credit, the group is celebrating 25 years together in 2012.
Proving that some things truly do get better with age, these Rebel Records artists have experienced commercial success with their most recent project, The Boys in Hats and Ties. The album’s title track reached number one on the Bluegrass Unlimited charts, staying on the charts for a year, while another single, Black Mountain Special, charted at number ten with staying power of more than 11 months. The album itself was named one of the top ten bluegrass albums of 2011 by the Roots Music Report. Previously, their album Open for Business also found itself on the bluegrass music charts, with both the album and the single High Alleghenies reaching number two.
According to band leader Tommy Sells, one of their fondest memories was appearing on the Grand Ole Opry on July 17, 1999. To celebrate the 100th anniversary of Martha White Flour, a competition was held to recreate the Martha White jingle made famous by Flatt and Scruggs. Beating out some 75 other bands, Big Country Bluegrass received an all-expenses paid trip to Nashville in recognition of their version.
Throughout the years, the band has stuck to a traditional sound, inspired by such bluegrass greats as Larry Sparks, the Johnson Mountain Boys, and Jimmy Martin (whom Tommy recalled staying with several times, even accompanying him on coon hunts).
Over these 25 years together, the band has obviously seen some member changes. However, this band which has appeared as both a 5 and six piece, boasts fewer than 20 members during its existence, two of whom passed away while with the group (original members Larry Pennington and Alan Mastin). Currently, Big Country Bluegrass hosts an annual festival in memory of these two former members and beloved friends. While a complete listing of performers for this year’s event is still pending, the festival will be held the first weekend in November at the Fairview Ruritan Building in Galax, Virginia.
For anyone just starting out on their own musical pathway, Big Country Bluegrass can provide an excellent example. Tommy considers himself lucky and believes the band has endured thanks to remaining consistent on the same musical track. He advises new groups to do the same, suggesting that they form their own style both vocally and musically while remembering to place a song’s simple melody at the forefront of their efforts. Tommy sums it all up with a simple remark:
“You have to play to the crowd that paid five dollars to get in. It ain’t how good you are, it’s how you come across on stage.”
The band is currently working on material to be part of a new album which they hope to see released in the fall. In fact, for this next one, listeners should expect to hear both old and new material, as the band plans on resurrecting some forgotten pieces by artists such as Red Allen in addition to including some more recent tunes penned by songwriters like Tom T. and Dixie Hall.
Achieving 25 years in bluegrass is no easy task and therefore congratulations are in order for Big Country Bluegrass! Please visit their website, www.bigcountrybluegrass.com, for more information about their tour schedule and available recordings.