I recently had the great pleasure of renewing my acquaintance with one of the great banjo players of the 1970s and ’80s (and now for that matter), Mike Lilly. He and Wendy Miller are forever joined in history as part of the classic early version of Larry Sparks’ Lonesome Ramblers. After leaving Sparks, they formed their own band, Country Grass, in the mid-70’s and after many years apart they are back together, performing under same name.
At a recent performance at the Mountaineer Opry House in Milton, West Virginia, I had a chance to talk to Mike about his career. He started with Sparks in 1969, and stayed until 1973, recording on a landmark Starday release titled Rambling Bluegrass, which featured many of the songs Sparks became known for, including Goodbye Little Darlin’, Too Much Mountain Dew, A Face In The Crowd, Dark Hollow, Man of Constant Sorrow, Just Lovin’ You. Lilly left Sparks to join the Country Gentlemen when Bill Emerson departed to lead the newly formed U. S. Navy bluegrass band. Lilly enjoyed his tenure with the Gents, during which Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas were also with the group, but he and his wife lost a child and she didn’t want to move to the D. C. area, so Mike left the band.
In the mid-70’s, he helped out Larry Sparks for a while, and joined with Ricky Skaggs in recording another of Sparks’ noteworthy albums, You Could Have Called, which featured songs like Smokey Mountain Memories, When My Time Comes To Go, and a jazzy version of I Wonder Where You Are Tonight. During this time he did a lot of “helping,” performing with Jimmy Martin, Bill Monroe, James Monroe, the Russell Brothers Boogie Grass Band, and many others.
After spending much of the late 70’s with Country Grass, in the early 1980’s he joined forces with Harley Allen, with whom he performed for about five years. They were a formidable team, vocally and instrumentally, and we are fortunate to have some of their performances to enjoy.
In the years since his partnership with Harley Allen ended, Mike spent a considerable period out of the music business, quitting for about fourteen years. He has been very busy raising his five children, three boys and two girls, ranging in ages from 14 to 30. He spent much of that time working as a long distance truck driver, but multiple accidents, the last in 2009, have forced him out of that work.
Trucking’s loss is music’s gain, as he and Wendy rejoined forces to resurrect Country Grass in 2010. The group includes Mike on banjo and baritone vocals, Wendy Miller on mandolin and tenor vocals, Chris Miller (Wendy’s son) on guitar and lead vocal, and Jeff Dotson on bass.
It was a trip back in time to get to hear Mike perform again. He is a BIG personality, on and off stage, and has always had his own style, blending elements of Scruggs, Adcock, and Reno along with his own ideas, all delivered with an agressive “in-your-face” right hand. Personally, I would rank him as one of the all-time great baritone singers (along with Sonny Osborne and Eddie Adcock), and he still has no problem being heard in a “gather around the mic” configuration. Unfortunately, due to COPD resulting from inhaling iron dust in a factory job he worked for a couple year, he no longer has the breathing capacity to sing lead and upper register notes, but he was likewise a great lead singer in his earlier career.
His on-and-off-and-on-again partner, Wendy Miller, has certainly had his share of career achievements. During his initial work with Larry Sparks, he contributed greatly to developing many of Sparks’ signature songs, and wrote one of the more enduring bluegrass instrumentals, Kentucky Chimes.
After stints with the original Country Grass and the Russell Brothers, Wendy became a member of one of the great bands of the 1980’s, the Crowe-Whitley-Bryant-Slone version of the New South. Miller added his name to the list of great mandolinists that preceded him in the New South — Doyle Lawson, Larry Rice, Ricky Skaggs, Jimmy Gaudreau, and Gene Johnson. He contributed his talents to the last recording Whitley released with J. D. Crowe, Somewhere Between, as well as the subsequent release, Straight Ahead.
After leaving the New South, Miller has occasionally performed, but not as a touring professional. He has worked as a housing contractor and in other business ventures. Since reuniting with Mike Lilly, one of his great pleasures has been sharing the stage with his son, Chris. Wendy reports that they have a busy calendar for this year and will be going into the studio soon to record a new CD with their group, supplemented by the talented Stuart Duncan.
Do yourself a favor and catch Country Grass at a show when you get a chance.