During the 1980s, the Johnson Mountain Boys were contemporary masters of traditional bluegrass music who remained faithful to the old styles while keeping the songs fresh and original. The band was founded in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., by vocalist/banjoist/guitarist Dudley Connell, banjoist Richie Underwood, mandolinist David McLaughlin, fiddler Eddie Stubbs, and Larry Robbins on bass. The personnel changed over the years, but the group's sound remained consistent. The Johnson Mountain Boys made their recording debut with a single in late 1978; an EP soon followed and helped build a loyal audience in the D.C. area. They became festival favorites after the release of their self-titled debut. Their second album, Walls of Time, came out in 1982 and featured Connell, McLaughlin, Stubbs, and vocalist/banjoist/mandolinist Tom Adams. The same lineup recorded four more albums for Rounder during the early '80s. In 1986 Robbins departed and was replaced by Marshall Wilborn; Underwood left soon after, to be officially replaced by the mandolinist Adams. In 1988, the Johnson Mountain Boys announced that they planned to retire after a farewell concert in Lucketts, VA. Two years later, the Boys reunited briefly to play two festivals. But the reunions were so successful that the band basically reconstituted itself. The Blue Diamond LP appeared in 1993, followed by a live recording. By 1997's Working Close, Underwood had returned to the fold.
Q - David, I think I recall reading or maybe you told me that you started out a fiddler and went to the mandolin when going with the JMB in the early 80's. It was shortly after that you landed onto the '23 Loar F5 you have played all these years. There was a fascinating story behind how you got this original F5. Can you tell us the story? and the price you paid way back? Have you done any kind of work to the mandolin since you got it? If you were a fiddler and went to the manodlin by force, how did you adapt to a Monroe style so quickly? Other then having a keen ear for the music of Monroe where there any other methods you used to learn so fast? Any tips you can offer on pick technique? Left hand technique? Strings you use? Pick you use?
A - I grew up playing all kinds of music on many different instruments...violin, viola, cello, piano, classical guitar, etc. Mandolin was an instrument that was always in my hands. I was also a Tacoma Mandoleer for a while in the 1970s. I was given an A-Jr. when I was real young, and my father bought me an A2Z when I was a boy. The first mandolin I played was one of my fathers several taterbugs.
A good friend of my dad's had the old F-5 (Loar # 73481) in a cabinet in the dining room. When I was a kid, I would ask to see and strum it. It was never tuned up, so I would carefully tune it up and play it. For years, I loved that old F-5. It was in dead mint condition and very shiny, as if it had just been made. It had belonged to a Gibson sales agent in Illinois who died. The mandolin was in inventory of his estate. My dad's friend acquired it from the Gibson agent's brother in the 1950s. It was a gift to me in about 1980. The only work that has been done is a refret by Pete Becker at the Mandolin Brothers. He and I went to college together and picked together for a year. The fingerboard fell off once at the Merle Watson Festival. I glued it back on myself when I got home. The mandolin has had no other work. It is still in perfect shape.
The Monroe style was chosen for the JMBs simply because it was appropriate for that JMB sound. I actually like to play many different styles depending on what is right for whatever band I am working for. I have always liked and used LaBella strings. I have been an endorser for LaBlella for more than twenty years now. I chose them. They did not choose me. I like my strings dirty and dead, but LaBellas sound real good when new and crisp.
I use many different types of picks, including, nylon, tortoise, plastic, or whatever, depending on the application and tone I am trying to get.
As for technique, I always suggest relaxing and not fighting to keep up to speed. If you can't play fast, take notes out of the playing. I say do that anyway.
Q - Thanks for being our CGOW. You're one of my favorite players and I'm pleased to have the opportunity to ask you a few questions. You have a very traditional style, yet your sound is easily recognizable. How did you develop that style and was it a conscious decision, or did it just evolve from the music that influenced you as you were developing your style? What were your influences?
A - I have been influenced by all kinds of music. My parents were audiophiles who collected thousands of records of every type of music. They used to hang out with the jazz greats and took me and my brother along as well. On mandolin, I am best known as a Monroe stylist, because of the Johnson Mountain Boys. That was a conscious decision because it was right for that band. I grew up playing classical, jazz, and swing mandolin, but those styles were not applicable to the group for which I am best known.
Q - I know that you use fairly heavy strings, per the Murphy video. Where can you get those strings. I can't seem to find them anywhere.
A - I use 40/26/17/12 for the JMB sound. I use 40/26/16/11 for just about everything else. Since the JMBs have not done a show since 1995, I have had only the later set on my F-5. LaBella makes both sets.
Q - Where can we hear you play?
A - I don't often appear live on mandolin, but you can hear me play drums or electric guitar just about anywhere. Bring your ear-plugs! My latest mandolin work will be released on Cracker Barrel in a couple of weeks (Springfield Exit). It is the best representation of my mandolin sound ever. No EQ was used at all. Most of my mandolin tones through the years have been severely EQed to what other people thought my mandolin should sound like. This time (since I am the producer and engineer). it sounds completely natural without any tone enhancement at all.
Q - As someone who plays in a Monroe style, how was this a help or hindrance when you were finding your own voice?
A - I think that the high profile job I had playing a Monroe style makes people think that I never DID have my own style or voice. The fact that I am thought of as a Monroe stylest means that most people call only when they need a Monroe stylest. It is simply type casting. If I had been in a famous DAWG style group, I would be thought of as a Grisman stylest. I may never be thought of as a David McLaughlin stylest, but that's OK, because I don't really consider myself an instrumentalist, at least of any one particular instrument. Playing an instrument of a particular type is not my main thing. I think of myself as an music arranger. I therefor play many instruments (slightly) and figure out how they work or don't work together. That is my main thing (or art). I am, however, very fortunate to have made a name for myself even as a Monroe mandolin player, and honored to be worthy of participating in this discussion as a featured guest.
A long time ago, Lynn Morris asked me to develop a mandolin style that would be unique to her band. She wanted it to be only very slightly Monroe based, but softer and different. I presented a mandolin style which I thought would fit her sound. Now it is the Lynn Morris Band mandolin style. Jesse Brock has developed it very nicely and taken it farther. The Lynn Morris mandolin sound is a somewhat unique style. I am proud to be one of the creators of the LMB mandolin style.
Q - Are you working on anything currently, technique-wise? if so, can you explain?
A - I am constantly playing, and developing. My main challenge is always "How many notes can I leave out and still have it work".
Q - What was your first bluegrass band and how did you get in the band?
A - I grew up filling in with several D.C. area square-dance and old-time bands. I don't remember specific band names, but I was a regular area participant. I also was active in the jazz, classical, and rock and roll scene around D.C. My first actual band was the Johnson Mtn. Boys which we started as a full five-piece group in January of 1978. Dudley Connell and I had met at the Red Fox Inn, and discussed getting together to sing and pick. He had a duo with Ron Welch which he had recently named the Johnson Mtn. Boys. We got together with Gary Reid, Frannie Davidson, and Ed D'zmura. We didn't know what instruments we would play so I brought a banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin. Dudley brought his guitar and banjo (he had been the banjo player with the duo with Ron Welch). Anyway, we all tried different instruments until we figured out who played what the best. When we heard Dudley's guitar playing, we knew that it was the best rhythm. Ed D'zmura had a mandolin chop that matched w! ell, and I was the only one who could play fiddle. Frannie Davidson was the best banjo player, and so with Gary Reid on the bass, we became the bluegrass group known as the Johnson Mtn. Boys. We recorded our first 45 rpm record soon after...Johnson Mtn. Hoe-down / When I Can Forget. It is the rarest of all JMB records and has never been reissued.
Q - What bands have you been in since?
A - I did the Crowe & McLaughlin thing, which was not really a band but a duo. I have been a long standing fill-in for the Lynn Morris Band. I fill in a bit with Red and Murphy Henry. I play a lot of shows with Winchester's famous banjo picker, Dalton Brill. I have been playing drums and electric guitar in various groups over the years as a fill-in. I am now a founding member of a brand new Americana/folk/country/bluegrass group called Springfield Exit with David and Linda Lay. We are a trio, but we sometimes hire outside musicians depending on the show. We have just finished recording a CD for Cracker Barrel Restaurant and Country Store, which will be released in a couple of weeks. I played mandolin (my 1923 F-5) plus several other instruments on the Springfield Exit CD.
Q - What are your favorite recordings of your work?
A - Right now, it is the new Springfield Exit CD. I am very excited about it. Other than that, I don't really have a favorite. I like and dislike them all for different reasons.
Q - What are you doing musically at the present time?
A - I am currently a full-time freelance musician and recording session person. I also operate a recording studio here in Winchester, VA at my house. It is called Shepherd Productions. I'll be playing snare-drum with the Chieftains and Earl Scruggs on July 4th down at the Washington Monument. I'll be at Galax, VA soon with Springfield Exit and the Stony Point Quartet (which is another Cracker Barrel Group). I'll be at the National Folk Festival in Maine in a couple of months.
Q - First, let me say that I've enjoyed your mandolin playing since I first heard the JMB when I was in college, in the mid 80's. In fact, not only did I spend a whole lot of time trying to learn "Maury River Blues," but that tune, in particular, made me realize that one could have a great, gutsy, lyrical bluegrass mandolin voice without actually being Bill Monroe. In its own way, that tune and some of your great breaks have really been inspirational to me, at least in terms of trying to hack out a few tunes on the mandolin!
OK, gushing fandom aside, here's my question: what words of advice can you offer about developing that clean, even, precise pick-hand thing you've got going?
A - Thanks! Relax, and practice...a lot. Growing up, practicing to beat all challenges was an obsession of mine. When I decided I wanted to be a cleaner player, I practiced six hours a day (with normal frustration when after several years I still could not play as clean as should be). After I figured out how to play fairly "clean enough", I decided it wasn't any good unless it's even cleaner, so I practiced 8 hours a day. When I wasn't doing well in math class in tenth grade, my teacher knew it was because of my obsession with music. She said if I passed the class, she would give me her 1924 A-Jr., which she had bought at a yard sale for three dollars. I ended up with the mandolin, but barely!
Q - Your breaks are often very bluesy - what can you tell us about that?
A - I grew up with blues and jazz because of my parents. They raised me on some really great records and live shows. We used to hang out with Elizabeth Cotton and people like that.
Q - Thanks for allowing the considerable time and patience that is required to be our guest musician. Twice now, in seperate answers you have alluded to your style, saying something like:
"I am constantly playing, and developing. My main challenge is always how many notes can I leave out and still have it work"
This really caught my attention. Could you please tell us more about this approach to mandolin? Where could I hear an example of your playing that would be a good example of this?
A - The soon to be released Cracker Barrel CD, Springfield Exit is an excellent example of this minimalist approach. I played several instruments on the record. Each one is played so simply, but the way they all work together creates a slightly complex sonic tapestry. A work of music is like a painting. A little of each color goes a long way. Each musical instrument is sort of like a color. Many musicians today like to grab the whole bucket of their color and throw it on the group canvass. When I work up ideas on the mandolin or any instrument, I continue to remove unnecessary notes. Fingerboard acrobatics does not impress me. Letting notes sustain and decay pleases my ear.
Q - David, Would it be possible for you to offer the comando group your new CD first? I know Cracker Barrels are bad about running out of inventory and nothing would make me madder than to go get your new CD at the store only to find an empty spot where it was. I've been trying to get a copy of the Bluegrass Country CD they had last season since November only to find empty spots in 48 stores on the East Coast. We won't tell Cracker Barrel you did this. Just sell us those few hundred promos you will be getting. You are a cult hero here at comando and nothing would be finer then to know we got it first.
A - It is a good thing that the Cracker Barrel CDs are selling out everywhere. Unfortunately, I will not be getting any promo copies. It is very easy to order any of their Heritage CDs online at;
There will be no advance copies. I will not receive my own copy until it is in the stores. It will be available any day, now...the name: Springfield Exit.
Q - I know you don't consider yourself a mandolin player, per se, but I wanted to get your take on writing tunes for the mandolin. You've written some real gems - like Georgia Stomp, for instance.
Do you start with something, a variation of a different melody? Some of Monroe's tunes sound quite similar to other trad tunes, for example. (IMO)
A - Tunes are always popping into my head, every day.
Q - What about 'B' parts? Lots of times I will get stuck on the B part. Going
to the relative minor is always a good choice, but obviously you can't use
that crutch all the time.
A - B parts are not a problem, and often I add a third and forth part.
Q - Who are some of your favorite mandolin players?
A - Red and Chris Henry are pretty amazing. simple and tasteful, yet aggressive and complex when the need arises. Then they can soften up and play the sweetest, lightest mandolin tinkling you've ever heard. They leave a lot of notes out, which is good. I love Chris T., David G., Mike C., Ronnie Mc., Jesse B., Bobby O., Jesse Mc., Tom R., Butch B., Barry M. The list can get very long. I love so many. There are actually very few if any mandolin players that I don't care for. Mandolin is an instrument that is difficult to make sound bad. They sound great from the very start, even in the hands of a beginner. When kids who have never played before pick up and strum a mandolin, it always sounds good.
Q - Can I ask if you have a practice regimen, and what you do?
A - I always have a mandolin accessible, and I play it frequently. Just pick it up and play, even when you're called to dinner, or told to do your homework, or when you should be mowing the grass...play the mandolin. You may not do too well at more important things in life, but you'll certainly develop into a great mandolin player. My mandolin playing proves that I immediately go to the dinner table, always do my homework, and mow the grass every week, but at least I pick up a mandolin several times a day between those more important things in life.
Q - Or what you used to do when you would play 5-8 hours a day?
A - That was when I was single without kids. I still practice a few hours a day now.
Q - Exercises, etc etc...
A - I just work out at anything, scales, junk playing, tunes, chords, strange noises, whatever. It all develops the relationship one has with the instrument. Quality time spent together will turn a person into a good mandolin player. It has to be a love affair. It doesn't really matter what you and your mandolin do behind closed doors, as long as you're making sweet music. Then the music gets sweeter with every passing minute.
Q - David, as a novice/low intermediate, I have a recurring problem with
timing/learning a tune. It is as if my priorities are skewed, I am more
intent on getting the right note(s)than keeping the right time, when I hit a
stumble spot in a jam situation, rather than skipping the trouble notes, or
just laying out till I am back on solid ground, I (eventually) get those
notes but drag the tempo down (or just get totally out of sync with the
others) in the process.
A - I am a big believer in practicing with a rhythm machine. Timing is critical. The rhythm machine should really help.
Q - I have not gotten that steady eighth note metronome up and down right hand down, I am seeking out and "picking" the individual notes of the melody line, rather than "picking them up" in the course of the right hand up and down. This also leads to pick direction problems on occasion. don't know if this is an intelligible description, but
wonder what advice you could give me, I seem to be stuck.
A - With your rhythm machine, play very slowly at a speed which allows you to go up and down ( a tempo below the "mess-up" threshold) until the up/down stroke becomes consistent. Then as you get better with practice, put the tempo up a very slight bit. That way, you will gradually be increasing your mess-up threshold. Your speed and smoothness will increase over the months until you are a mando-speed-monster with amazing timing.
Q - Big fan of the JMB and looking forward to hearing Springfield Exit.
A - Thanks. I forgot to say that I also play mandolin on the Stoney Point Quartet CD and on Linda's Mechantile Store CD both currently available on Cracker Barrel's Heritage Series.
Q - What kind of action do you have on your mandolin and what kind of pick do you use?
A - My action average is medium now. I change it depending on the style I need to play for any given job. With the heavier JMB setup, I had a higher action. I use many different picks, light to heavy, depending on the sound I need for any given job. I use T.shell, plastic, nylon, whatever.
Q - In earlier replies you talked about practicing for 6 to 8 hours to get
a cleaner sound. How and or what did you practice for that long without
getting bored? Did you have a set routine that you practiced or did you vary
things to keep it interesting.
A - I cannot get bored, ever... even if I were to play a single note using a down-stroke for eight hours. I don't know why, but the tone and decay of a single note on a mandolin would entertain me forever. I actually do things like that. I bought a big house, just so my family can escape to the other end. I practice drum patterns the same way. I do it on guitar, organ, viola, cello, or whatever is close by. I remember when I was a kid, I would play a single lick on an instrument for about six hours, and my parents would say if you do it for another six hours it will only improve. So I would do it. Other parents might say, "Will you please play something else?!" But my parents did the same thing with their music when I was little. My mother would play the most beautiful piano things over and over all day, and my father would work on a single song with banjo, guitar, or the old taterbug mandolin all day long and into the night. What a way to express love to your child! Hearing them practice like that with such determination until I fell asleep at their feet certainly affected me. Maybe my children with be affected in a good way by my passion for practice. To answer your last question, I don't do anything in particular to keep it interesting. I just have a brain which won't allow me to ever get bored.