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Mike Lunsford And Whiskey River Band

By Jean Metcalfe

Mike Lunsford never gave a thought to becoming anything other than a musician. His parents and both sets of grandparents played music, although not professionally, and his great-grandfather played the fiddle for old-time dances.

Mike Lunsford at the Village Pub. Photo by Jean Metcalfe

Well, actually, while playing Little League baseball in his junior high and high school years, Lunsford did consider a career as a baseball player. But after taking up the guitar at about the age of 13, Lunsford changed his mind.

Mike Lunsford was born and raised on a farm in Oklahoma. After receiving a Bachelor of Science Degree in Business Administration from Panhandle State University, in Goodwill, Oklahoma, he moved to the first big city he ever lived in -- Nashville, Tennessee.

"When you're 23 years old and got more guts than you've got brains . . . I don't know if I'd do that again or not," Lunsford confessed.

"I'm going to be 40 years old the 30th of this month (June) . . . it's been up and down and level, so I don't think I really get as excited about it as I used to. But I'm real happy to be in music and I don't consider it a failure if you're not on the top of the charts all the time anymore. I feel like if you're playing music and making a half-way decent living . . . (you're a success)."

After playing clubs in Nashville for a couple of years Lunsford landed a contract with Gusto Records, and got his first chart record for "While the Feeling's Good." It was on the charts for twelve weeks, peaking at No. 56 in March of 1975. (Kenny Rogers later recorded the song and it was on the charts for him for twelve weeks also, reaching No. 46.)

Another Lunsford tune, "Honey Hungry," went to No. 16 on Billboard's country charts in 1976 on the Starday label, and it, too, stayed on the charts for twelve weeks. "Stealin' Feelin'" reached No. 28, and at least eight other Lunsford tunes broke into the Top 100, including "Tonight She Went Crazy Without Me" in 1988.

Lunsford had listened to the Grand Ole Opry as a youngster, he said, and "I got to be on the Opry, too, after the record hit. I was on there probably six or eight times, so that was a big thrill for me." That was in 1975.

Although his roots were in country music, Lunsford didn't want to play country music when he was 14. He preferred instead to play the songs of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and other big names of the '60s.

When he reached the age of 16 or so, and his rock 'n' roll groups "kept bustin' up," Lunsford started playing lead guitar for "an older guy" who played country music around the rural wheat-growing community of Milo, Oklahoma, where he grew up. That association lasted for about two years.

Lunsford played with so many bands in his early years that he can't remember the names of all of them. The first time he named a band after himself was when he formed a group called "Mike Lunsford and the Country Wheels" in about 1968 or '69, while he was still in Oklahoma. At that time he was going to college, working on the farm, and playing music on weekends.

Lunsford didn't have his own band in the early years in Nashville, however. He and three other guys were the house band for about two years at the Plantation Club, playing six nights a week. When he landed the Gusto contract and went into the studio, they used studio musicians. After the record hit, he flew all over the United States working as a single at different clubs and shows, using the band provided by the venue.

Mike Lunsford relaxes with a cup of coffee before a recent performance at the Sahara Club. Photo by Jean Metcafle

It wasn't until about 1976 or '77 that Mike Lunsford and Whiskey River Band came about. While on the road, Lunsford went to Alaska to play for about a week. He did a show with Dolly Parton in Fairbanks, and three days in Delta Junction near the famous Alaskan pipeline. There was a little combination store and restaurant and lounge, with rooms above it, he said, located about 100 miles from Fairbanks. The last 50 miles or so was a dirt road. The house band was called "The Whiskey River Crusade." Lunsford enjoyed working with the guys in the band; they were nice and they played well.

Back in Nashville, Lunsford was getting tired of playing as a single. "I was running into so many bad bands, it got to where it wadn't fun to play anymore."

While in Missouri, the guys from Alaska found themselves with a free week on their hands when a gig fell through, and they called Lunsford. Lunsford, even though booked as a single, took the guys along to back him up on his engagements, paying them out of his own pocket. That arrangement paid off in the long run, Lunsford said, because he had a better sound and the crowds picked up. They called themselves Mike Lunsford and Whiskey River Band. The name stuck.

After playing a number of gigs in Louisville, Lunsford moved from Music City to Derby City in 1977.

Lunsford's Whiskey River Band is comprised of Dan Berry, lead guitar; Ron Payne, bass; and Mike Alger, drummer. They have been together for about four years.

"All the guys in the band have rock 'n' roll backgrounds. We're all about the same age . . . we've all played rock 'n' roll music, so when we get together we can play about anything, a little rockabilly, and we can play some blues or some rhythm and blues or rock 'n' roll . . . but our specialty is country."

I mentioned to Lunsford that I had read about clubs where chicken wire was strung between the band and the patrons to prevent the musicians from being hit by airborne beer bottles. Had he ever worked in such a place?

"I've worked in some pretty rough places before," Lunsford related. "But personally, I've never had any trouble with anybody bothering me," Lunsford said with a chuckle. "I've witnessed some pretty nasty scenes. There's a lot of places that are really pretty rough," he added.

I asked about interesting things that have happened to him during his years playing music in clubs. He thought for a minute, then related an incident that happened in Bardstown, Ky.

Mike Lunsford and Whiskey River Band. Left to right, Dan Berry, Lunsford, Mike ALger, Ron Payne. Photo by Jean Metcalfe

Patrons were dancing and having a good time, when one of Lunsford's good-sized speakers fell and hit an older man right on the head. "It kinda bounced off his head, and he kinda shook his head and kept on dancing. His head was bleeding, and I said, 'Oh, Lord, we'll get sued for everything we've got.' So we took a break -- I didn't know what to do -- we set the speaker aside . . . he didn't act like it bothered him. So I went and apologized to him and bought him a drink, but I thought, whew, it sure could have been bad. It was like seeing all our equipment going down the drain, seeing that thing fall off there . . . a helpless feeling."

Lunsford felt bad that it had happened, but glad that everything turned out all right.

During one period in about 1982 Lunsford disbanded the group for about three years and went to Nashville to see if he could get some things going down there. During that time, his fiddle player, Jimmy Mattingly, after playing for a couple of bands around Louisville, went to Nashville, landed a job with the Forester Sisters for a while, and now plays for Dolly Parton. "He did real good. I'm really happy for him," Lunsford said, sounding very sincere.

Lunsford spoke of how the music business had changed. Talent wasn't as important as dollars, and he was becoming disillusioned.

"A lot of people are running the business part of it who really don't know anything about country music," he said. "They don't have any roots in it and all they know is business . . . so unless you're the kind of person who can hang out and try to fit in . . . and I just can't do that. . . . If they told me to hang around with this guy 'cause he can really do something for you, if I didn't like that person, I'm not going to hang around with him, I don't care what he can do for me. I just can't do it.

"So I got to thinkin' maybe I was lookin' for somethin' for the wrong reason. Instead of just enjoyin' playin' music and gettin' back to really enjoyin' that, I was lookin' to be a star."

We spoke of radio stations and their pared down play lists and the adverse effect Lunsford thought it would eventually have on country music. After a few minutes of lamenting that fact, we went on to other things.

When asked, Lunsford said that he doesn't think much of synthesized music.

"Personally I like something with a little bit of a rough edge on it, a little bit of earthiness. . . . To me, if something's too perfect, it's like Muzak -- you hear it, but you don't hear it. If something don't get your ear . . . if there's not a little humanness or a little feelin' to it, it don't move you."

"It's the ultimate rip-off of your followers, your fans, I think," Lunsford said of the growing number of performers who lip-synch to recorded music at their concerts.

"I'm glad somebody's caught it," Lunsford said, "because it would have been very easy for them to come along and do that for a long time, and all they have to do is go out and lip-synch to a record and charge $20 a ticket for people to come in there and watch that. It takes that whole human element out of a live show."

Instructors were teaching the two-step on the nearby dance floor at the Sahara Club as we talked. I had seen students doing the dance at Lunsford's concert on June 15 at the Village Pub in Jeffersonville, Ind. I asked Lunsford about it, musing that perhaps I'd like to take some lessons.

"It's really strange out here," Lunsford said. "Out there (in Oklahoma) they've been doing the two-step forever. There wadn't nobody giving lessons -- everybody knew how to do it. When you're born out there, you know how to two-step, you know," Lunsford said in his friendly Oklahoma accent.

Lunsford stays busy playing Louisville clubs such as the Village Pub, the Sahara Club and Annie's, as well as LaBo's in Lebanon Junction, Ky. I asked whether he'd be interested in signing on as the house band at a club. He wouldn't mind, he said, if business was good enough. But he feels that right now it's hard to find a place that's doing well enough for him to "put all his eggs in one basket."

"But you're not sweating getting jobs, are you?" I asked. "No, knock on wood," Lunsford said, laughing.

I asked Lunsford if he has time nowadays to pursue songwriting. "Yeah, sometimes I have the time, but I haven't got the motivation, seems like, a lot of times, you know," he confessed.

"You're probably tired," I suggested. "Yeah, might be, right," he agreed.

He said that he and his wife are planning a little trip in July for a few days just to get away. Lunsford and his wife have no children, although he has a daughter and a son from a previous marriage.

What would Mike Lunsford like for our readers to think about him?

"Well, I would just like to think that they enjoy coming out to hear our music as much as we enjoy playing it for 'em."

"You wouldn't be doing something else -- not even a baseball player?" I asked rhetorically. "No," said Lunsford, "my career would be over by now if I had gone that route. . . . I just believe even considering something else would be almost giving up on what I'm doing. So as long as I can sing, I'll just kinda leave it up to the man upstairs to kinda guide my career around wherever he wants it to go."

* * *

Mike Lunsford and Whiskey River Band kept the dance floor full on a recent pleasant evening in mid-June at the Village Pub in Jeffersonville, Ind.

Cowboy hats and jeans dominated as the couples (and on a number of tunes, individual students of the two-step classes) moved around the parquet floor under the two mirror globes and an assortment of colored lights.

Lunsford's four-piece band played mostly country favorites, old and new, including his enduring hit "While the Feeling's Good."

Whiskey River is a good, solid group, and they play what the patrons want to hear -- what they want to dance to. Songs ranged from the Waylon Jennings hit "Bob Wills Is Still the King" and Hank Williams Sr.'s "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)" to "Walk Softly On this Heart of Mine" and "Dumas Walker," the latter two doing pretty well these days for those hot Kentucky HeadHunters.

It's difficult to single out one particular favorite, but I will have to give the nod to Lunsford's heartfelt rendition of his 1975 hit "While the Feeling's Good."

The Village Pub is a well-run, pleasant place to spend an evening. The ladies room is clean (it even has those nice pull-down cloth towels) and the patrons are clean-cut. Between Lunsford's sets, a deejay played country favorites while videos were shown on a large movie screen.

If you enjoy listening or dancing to country music, and if Mike Lunsford and Whiskey River Band are onstage, the $2 cover charge is a sure bet.

During the month of July Lunsford and his band will be appearing at the following area clubs:

Annie's, 8009 Terry Road, Louisville, Ky. -- July 6, 7, 13 and 14.

Village Pub, 525 Broadway, Jeffersonville, Ind. -- July 18, 19, 20, 21, 25 and 26.