Remembering Mitchell Land
By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
June 4, 2009 - 6:30 am
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.
I didn't know Mitchell Land personally, but he's a hero because his playing on the 1974 Stone Mountain Boys recording struck a new awareness about mandolins and bluegrass in me.
The only time I ever stood close to him, at the 1978 Rocky Mountain Bluegrass Festival, he was talking with Curley Seckler and I was too shy to interrupt and tell him how much I loved his playing on that record.
Land was a Texas-raised bluegrasser living in Wyoming about then, and in the following years he became a hero whose fate went unknown to me.
Now, I'm reminded to never put off chasing down stuff that interests you, especially in the regular-folks bluegrass world. A few days ago I got the old vinyl LP out for a listen and then starting firing off e-mails and telephone calls to track down Mitchell Land. He had died in 2003 while living in my home state of Missouri. I could have picked one with him.
Part of the mist over my awareness was that Land never became famous in the mandolin world, which is a common situation for many great mandolin players. That 1974 Stone Mountain Boys album on Briar-Tacoma records was the only widely-released recording he ever played on.
It's an excellent album and for it's time was cutting edge. Byron Berline produced the record. He fiddled a bunch on it and wrote the liner notes. The vocals and musicianship of Ed Shelton on banjo, Tootie Williams on bass, James Durham on rhythm guitar and Bob Davis on lead guitar is first rate.
Click images below for additional detail and options for viewing and/or downloading larger copies of photos. All photos circa 1969 and with photo credit and copyright by Fred Robbins.
They were true-blue, lonesome bluegrass. A version of the band was invited by Bill Monroe to appear at Bean Blossom in the late 1960s and then other editions of the band appeared there through the years.
"When we got ready to leave, Monroe told us our music sounded good and we had nice hats," said Bosco Land, a guitarist and Mitch's brother.
Yet on the '74 LP, they also tackled the Beatles classic "Yesterday" and the Stephen Stills song "So Begins the Task." This was new in the bluegrass world back then, as was the flatpicking Davis was doing. When most bands of that day did modern material, it was usually with a newgrass or smoothgrass sound. But when the Stone Mountain Boys mined modern songs, they still sounded gravel-road, rural lonesome.
Still, nice as that was, through the years it's the clean, clear, soulful mandolin playing of Mitchell Land that stuck most in my mind.
You have to remember that bluegrass was hard to find in record stores back in the early 1970s (although I guess I could say the same about shopping mall stores today). I couldn't afford much of what was available.
The banjo, especially played Scruggs style, lit the bluegrass fire in my generation and that's what we looked for. I'd heard Bill Monroe, but I'd not yet heard the best of Monroe's mandolin playing to know what the instrument could do.
Land did that for me. His timing was right on the money, his mandolin tone loud and clear, woody but sweet. His solos reached out and grabbed me and took me for a ride.
Those who did know him personally felt the same way.
"Mitch was just a super, super, super good picker," Tootie Williams said. "He never had to take a back seat to anyone. Mitch had a lot of Monroe in his playing. He had a perfect chop and his timing was good."
Land was born in December, 1936, in Kaufman County, Texas. His father raised cotton and the children helped. He and Bosco Land listened to bluegrass on a battery-powered radio and they started playing music as youngsters.
"He got his first mandolin at 13," Bosco Land said. "It was sort of a resonator mandolin, a Blue Comet."
By the late 1960s, the Stone Mountain Boys was a play-for-pay band in the Dallas area. Mitchell Land made his living as a machinist in the oil business, but he always had his hand in music.
"He was a big influence on me and my learning bluegrass music," Berline said. "He was always eager and willing to play and show me tunes and songs. During my college days, I would get together with him, his brothers Boscoe and Bruce, Eddie Shelton, Tootie Williams and several other guitar players. Mitch lived in the Dallas area at that time. So we spent alot of time in that area or they would come to Norman or Oklahoma City to jam all weekend. It was great for me because these guys were very knowledgeable about bluegrass. Mitch was always willing to play a show with me or put one together himself."
When Berline was playing fiddle for Bill Monroe, Land played guitar on same dates and joined a long list of Bluegrass Boys. But guitar wasn't a comfortable instrument for him and there was only room for one mandolin player in that band.
Later, Berline was in the Army and stationed at Fort Polk, La. Land and the gang came down, brought him a fiddle and they played a show together on the base. A colonel decided Berline was more valuable with a fiddle in his hands than a gun, and he wound up staying stateside as an entertainer for the troops rather than shipping out to Vietnam.
By 1974, Berline was a fixture in the Los Angeles music scene and a star of stage and studio with ties to both the bluegrass and country rock worlds. He put those resources to work on Stone Mountain Boys LP.
I have no idea how well it sold. It was a hit to me. I did a Google search on it recently and found a copy for sale as a "classic" for $40, so somebody else must have liked it, too. The LP had mighty fine versions of songs such as "Roustabout," "Browns Ferry Blues," "I'll Stay Around" and a song Land helped write, "Living In the Past."
Regardless, Land grew tired of Texas in 1975, pulled up stakes and moved to where his wife's parents lived near Bear Oil, Wyo., Bosco Land said. They both worked in the oil business in that state. The Stone Mountain Boys became Stone Mountain Bluegrass because Mitch's wife was playing bass. Their band worked out of Casper, Wyo., all over the West into the 1980s and ventured east sometimes to places such as Bean Blossom.
"You could always find Mitch in the dark at a bluegrass festival," Bosco Land said. "You just walked around and listened for the bark of his mandolin in a jam session."
His mandolin was a 1966 Gibson F5 Fern. Williams remembers that in the early 1970s they left it with luthier Randy Woods for a re-graduation of the top and tone bars. It sounds great on the LP.
But I suspect Land's right hand power and clean fretting with the left had as much to do with the good sound as anything. He could play blues licks like Monroe or crosspick like Jesse McReynolds.
"Mitch could mimic anybody," his brother said. "But he had a lot of his own stuff, too. He could play hard, but he knew when to back off."
In fact, that '74 LP in some ways was just an early point rather than a high point. Land developed lots of other music while playing with Stone Mountain Bluegrass and others. He was nominated as a SPGMA mandolin player of the year a few times. .
Berline hosted a Stone Mountain Boys reunion in 1999, Williams said. Health problems were slowing Land down by then. Although Bosco and Mitch played Uncle Pen Days at Bean Blossom together in 2000.
Land was living at Dixon, Mo., when he died a few years later due to heart problems and other complications.
"Mitch was a kind hearted person and loved to play," Berline said. "He is dearly missed by those of us who knew him."
Well, I regret hugely that I didn't get to hear him play more.
But I can sure relate to the way his brother sums up their career.
"We had a lot of fun," Bosco Land said, "and we met a lot of fine people."