A bluegrass band navigates between past and future

by Jordan Green

Lynwood Lunsford, banjoist and conceptualist of the Misty Valley Boys, nods toward the new stand-up bass player as he introduces the next song. The multigenerational audience sitting in the pews at the Presbyterian church near UNCG stares evenly at the four men dressed in matching black vests and standing ramrod straight in front of the altar.

Lunsford tells the audience that ‘“The Cotton Mill Song’” was written by former bass player Jerry Jones, who left the group in November. Lunsford has been telling them all night that the new bass player, Steven Block, is on 30-day probation even though he played his first gig with the group a total of 42 days earlier.

‘“Steven took it upon himself to learn this song,’” Lunsford says, ‘“and I think he does a fine job with it.’”

Block stands out with his eager smile and his head bent toward the neck of the imposing bass, against the cool, restrained country boys of Scots-Irish extract playing the banjo, mandolin and guitar.

The new bass player sings with conviction in a keening, harmonic voice that references the early Beatles but reaches back a decade earlier to the Louvin Brothers and the God-stunned, desperately poor and violent upper South.

‘“And when he came home in the evening we’d all gather ’round at suppertime,’” he sings. ‘“Before we all were fed Daddy thanked the Lord for bread he made from that old cotton mill.’” At the end, the song notes with pride that ‘“yes, Daddy worked in the Dan River Mill.’”

The band members and audience probably cannot predict that tomorrow the newspapers will report on the closing of the Dan River Mill ‘— acquired by India-based Gujarat Heavy Chemical Ltd. on the Dec. 26 ‘— and the layoff of some 500 workers was announced this very day.

Who better to deliver the eulogy than Block, a student of Americana born in the Morningside Heights section of New York City in the shadow of Columbia University. Block left New York to pursue a degree in American Studies at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, where he fell in love with folk music. He played with the Middle Spunk Creek Boys, who would later perform on the first broadcasts of a public radio program called ‘“A Prairie Home Companion.’” In fact, Garrison Keillor, the show’s future host, took a history class with Block’s uncle, the bass player discloses.

Block, by the mid-’70s back in New York, placed an ad in Bluegrass Unlimited advertising his talents on the bass. He auditioned for a band in Texas and for a band in Winston-Salem called Boot Hill. Both bands offered him a job, but he chose Winston-Salem and has been there ever since.

Along with Lunsford and Block, Adam Poindexter, a stout, red-haired guitar player and lead vocalist from Roxboro, and Roger Martin, a mandolin player and tenor singer from Oak Ridge, complete the group.

Block’s journey ‘— and Lunsford’s ‘— illustrate the strange, post-modern fate of bluegrass music, a genre that rests on a three-legged stool of loss, upheaval and tradition.

The Misty Valley Boys proudly identify their music as ‘“bluegrass, Piedmont style,’” which is also the title of their 2005 CD, which was released by Virginia’s MasterShield Records. The Misty Valley Boys’ territory straddles the North Carolina-Virginia state line, with hubs in Eden and Roxboro on the Tar Heel side, and Martinsville and Danville in the Old Dominion State.

Lunsford often tells audiences that the group doesn’t have the ‘“high and lonesome’” sound of Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass, or the old-time mountain sound of Ralph Stanley. Instead, it’s a more harmonically balanced music with a smoother vocal delivery borrowing a little from the gospel and barbershop quartet traditions. Another distinction is that the Misty Valley Boys, unlike many bluegrass bands, don’t make use of the fiddle.

Lunsford, who is originally from Roxboro, now makes his home in Cascade, Va. He spends his days at his store in the mill village of Draper ‘— now incorporated as part of the city of Eden ‘— in North Carolina, where he sells acoustic instruments. He found the storefront while working for Huffy Service First, a job that required him to drive around to area K-Mart stores assembling bicycles, grills and furniture.

‘“I just liked the way this area looked,’” says Lunsford, who turns 44 on Jan. 31. ‘“It kind of reminded me of Mayberry.’”

Like a premonition of Danville after the mill closes, Draper lies upstream along the Dan River, its shopping strip anchored by the ghostly brick hulk of the shuttered Fieldcrest-Cannon textile plant at the bottom of the hill.

Lunsford’s Draper Music Company shares the storefront with Dickerson’s Pawn, whose sign advertises ‘“gold,’” ‘“silver,’” ‘“diamonds’” and ‘“guns’”; Pharmacyland, a drugstore with a small dining area and banners hanging in the plate-glass window announcing ‘“50% off sale’” and ‘“now accepting food stamps’”; and Los Angeles Curb Market, a tienda that proudly displays the Mexican national flag.

Confederate battle flags are also conspicuous in Draper and the surrounding countryside ‘— on vanity license plates on battered pickups and mopeds, and as frayed cloth flapping on poles in front yards.

‘“Both the textile and tobacco industries are things of the past,’” Lunsford says. ‘“Most folks in this part of the country worked there. That’s gone. That’s tough. A lot of people were put out of work. They just hunker down. Many of these people have to drive to Danville or commute to Greensboro.’”

‘“I wish they’d never let Wal-Mart come in,’” he adds, noting that the city of Eden is banking on mom-and-pop stores to replace the big single-company industrial plants of the past as the new economic cornerstone of the area.

Back at the Church of the Covenant in Greensboro Lunsford tells a fan that, like textiles and tobacco, the profession of music also looks like it’s in for a period of upheaval.

‘“I swear, I don’t know what the future holds for music,’” he says, ‘“but if you don’t get on the web you’re gonna lose out on a lot of money.’”

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