Ray Lunsford - Shelia (Excellent EX-400), 1958
Here we have a nice record by Ray Lunsford, "King of the Electric Mandolin." Lunsford (somtimes mis-spelled as "Lunceford") is mostly remembered as being Jimmie Skinner's mandolin player but otherwise largely forgotten today. Not more than a footnote in country music history, his impact on Skinner's distinct sound is nevertheless noteworthy. Also, he was one of the few musicians to play an electric mandolin as a lead instrument in a band during this era, being mentioned in the same breath as Tiny Moore of the Texas Playbos or Bob White of the Brazos Valley Boys.
Raymond "Curly" Lunsford hailed from Brodhead, Kentucky, and was born on November 8, 1908. Therefore, he was only a couple of months older than his later long-time companion Jimmie Skinner, who was born April 29, 1909, on a farm in Blue Lick, twenty miles away from Brodhead. Eventually, the Skinner family moved north to Hamilton, Ohio. Jimmie Skinner started out in the music business with his brother Elmer, auditioning unsuccessfully for Gennett Records in 1931 and for Bluebird ten years later in 1941. During the early 1940s, the Skinner brothers recorded a couple of demo sessions that included Skinner's later claim to fame "Doin' My Time."
Reportedly, Skinner and Lunsford were neighbors for several years when Skinner invited Lunsford to a barbecue and discovered he was a musician. Skinner had worked as a deejay and also tried his hand at songwriting. In 1946, Ernest Tubb recorded his "Let's Say Hello (Like We Said Goodbye)" and in late 1947, Skinner held his first professional recording session at E.T. Herzog's studio in Cincinnati. The backing for this session consisted of Ray Lunsford and an unknown bass player, possibly Joe Depew. This sparse line-up was a bit reminiscent of later rockabilly bands, especially the slap bass technique. The results from this session were released on Red Barn Records (Red Barn #1101), a custom label.
In early 1948, Skinner and his band, consisting of Lunsford on electric mandolin, Esmer Skinner on fiddle, and Joe Depew on bass, returned to Herzog's studio in order to cut more sides, including the famous prison song "Doin' My Time," which became a classic in country but especially bluegrass music.
During the next years, Lunsford played on nearly all of Skinner's recording sessions. Approximately in 1948, Skinner moved to Cincinnati, where he met Lou Epstein, who signed him to a recording and managing contract. Epstein owned the Radio Artist label, which released several singles by Skinner and his band during the years 1949 and 1950. Afterwards, they recorded for Capitol (1950-1953), Decca (1953-1956), and Mercury (1957-1962). At some point in 1961, Lunsford dropped out of Skinner's recording band.
Already in 1952, Lunsford had backed up Estel Lee on some of her recordings for her own Excellent label (first based in Hoover, Ohio, then moved to Cincinnati). In 1955 and 1956, Lunsford also made some solo recordings for Excellent. He returned to Excellent in 1958 to record the instrumental "Shelia," written by him and Skinner. It was released in 1958 (Excellent #400) with the flip by Ralph Bowman "Tragedy of School Bus 27." Lunsford followed up with an EP on Hollywood's Sage label in 1959 featuring mandolin instrumentals.
In 1966, Lunsford appeared on a single on Style Wooten's Style label of Memphis. Credit was given to "Randell Barker, Ray Lunsford and the Melody Boys" and the disc featured "Down and Out Feelin' (Called the Blues" b/w "Mt. Vernon Rag" (Style #45-1928). In the late 1970s, Lunsford reunited one last time with Jimmie Skinner and recorded a session at Rusty York's Jewel recording studio in Mt. Healthy, Ohio. The results were released on a Rich-R-Tone LP. Jimmie Skinner died on October 27, 1981.
Ray Lunsford passed away nearly two years later on October 17, 1981. Please visit hillbilly-music.com, emando.com and The Ohio Valley Sound for pictures of Ray Lunsford.