Starkville resident Larry Wallace is one of the nation’s top bluegrass banjo players and has been active for over thirty years. He was born in 1961 in McCall Creek (west of Brookhaven) in Franklin County and grew up listening to the fiddle playing of his maternal grandfather, Lewis Rushing. According to Wallace, Rushing was one of the most in-demand fiddlers in the region in the ‘30s and ‘40s and had an exquisite sense of timing.
Rushing taught Wallace to play the fiddle when he was eleven, and at thirteen Wallace picked up the banjo himself. Wallace also learned guitar, an instrument also played by his father, George Wallace, who was himself taught by Rushing. The three generations of musicians often played together, and—augmented by others—performed as the McCall Creek Bluegrass Boys, mostly at local events including peanut boils.
Wallace’s talents on the banjo first gained wider recognition in 1978, when he won the Mississippi State Banjo Championship. He proceeded to win the contest annually through 1984.
In 1981 the McCall Creek Bluegrass Boys (without Rushing) recorded an LP, McCall Creek Bluegrass, for C.A.P. Records of Brookhaven. In 1981 Wallace began attending Mississippi State but continued to play with the group until 1984. That year he was a co-founder of the Starkville-based group Perfect Tyming, with whom he worked until 1989.
The group, whose members were initially all under twenty-five, traveled widely across the country. Among their notable performances was a 1986 show at the Bluegrass Afternoon at the Agricultural Museum in Jackson that was simulcast on public television and radio.
In 1989 Wallace joined the Rounder Records recording artists the Warrior River Boys from Cullman, Alabama. The group already had a national reputation and was one of the best groups devoted to traditional bluegrass and he played with the group until 1991. In June of that year, he fulfilled a long-time dream when he joined the Sunny Mountain Boys, the band of bluegrass pioneer Jimmy Martin, whose music had captivated Wallace since he was a boy. Wallace had actually approached Martin about a job in 1980 and was honored when Martin later sought him out. In addition to playing the banjo, Wallace also sang bass and baritone parts in Martin’s band.
Highlights of Wallace’s years with Martin included performing on the Grand Ole Opry and at a Bill Monroe tribute at the Ryman Auditorium, playing on Martin’s 1995 CD Got It Made In the Shade, and appearing in the 2002 documentary The King of Bluegrass: The Life and Times of Jimmy Martin; Wallace also appears on the soundtrack CD, Don’t Cry To Me, on Thrill Jockey Records.
Wallace played with Martin longer than any other banjo player and attributes his long tenure to his deep understanding of Martin’s music. “I didn’t play for Jimmy Martin, I played with Jimmy Martin,” Wallace says. “He always told me I played correctly, and I was one of the lucky ones that made it in his band, musically. I was one of few who understand what he wanted.” He was particularly influenced by Martin’s strong will for playing the music with feeling and his unique timing.
Martin’s guitar work was featured on Wallace’s debut CD Sunny Mountain Banjo, an all-instrumental album recorded in 1994 for Atteiram Records that also features bluegrass fiddle great Charlie Cline.
The Martin band performed only about thirty times a year, and in 1999 Wallace also began performing regularly with the Mississippi-based group the Vernon Brothers. In June of 2000, he left Martin’s band, and the following year left the Vernon Brothers. After a brief hiatus, he returned to performing in early 2002, forming the Larry Wallace Band. He sings mostly tenor in the group but cedes lead vocals to others.
Although the group’s membership has changed considerably over the last few years, Wallace says that it retains a distinctive sound because of his emphasis on timing and commitment to early bluegrass traditions. In 2003 the group recorded the CD Live At The Princess in Columbus for Luxapalila Records. The band has performed at the Grant’s Bluegrass Festival in Hugo, Oklahoma, at the Country Music Hall of Fame, and on the Cumberland Highlanders’ show on RFD-TV.
After spending literally every Saturday away from home for decades, Wallace decided to cut back on traveling and currently performs with the group about thirty dates a year. He has taught private lessons on the banjo, guitar, and mandolin since the early ‘80s, works with the Magnolia State Bluegrass Association, and otherwise advocates the sounds of bluegrass pioneers Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, and, particularly, Jimmy Martin. “I feel an obligation to continue the traditional style of bluegrass,” Wallace says.
See also: The Larry Wallace Band website