The White Lightning Boys
by Barney Quick
photo by Cindy Steele
The spirit of Brown County is perhaps most apparent in its stringbands. The respect for legacy, the sense of one’s neighbors as treasured friends, and pride in craft are on full display among its players of guitars, banjos, fiddles, mandolins, and basses. The White Lightning Boys epitomize this ethos.
When you look at the performance calendar on the group’s MySpace site it is apparent that the boys are sharing the Brown County hill sounds in towns all over central Indiana. “Our ability to branch out in our gigs happens naturally,” says multi-instrumentalist and volcalist Dan Bilger.
Their marketing effort may be laid-back, but their music is aggressively jubilant. “We drive it hard,” says Barry Elkins, who sings and plays mandolin and guitar. “The faster the better.” In addition to Bilger and Elkins, the current lineup includes Bird Snider on banjo, Toby Purnell on guitar and vocals and Ryan Deasy on bass and vocals.
The group has its origins in the friendship of Elkins and the late Sean Harris. “We kind of filled out an existing band and did some gigs they had booked,” Elkins explains. “Once we all got together, Sean, who was real meticulous, quit for a while.”
Bilger concurs regarding Harris’s musical standards: “He was a phenomenal guitar player, a huge fan of Tony Rice, Norman Blake, and Doc Watson. He was keen on doing it as cleanly and as close to their spirit as possible.”
Harris rejoined the band, but tragedy intervened. He passed away after suffering injuries from a vehicle accident in October of 2007.
Another former band member whose influence still looms large is bassist Cleetus Lamping. He left in November 2008 to devote more time to family and school, but the others consider him a good friend who is always welcome to sit in.
Deasy, the new bassist, has formal musical training. He is currently pursuing a degree in Indiana University’s ethnomusicology department. “He knew all our material after one practice,” says Elkins.
Elkins has been the main singer, but is pleased to share those duties with Bilger and Purnell. “With multiple singers, you don’t box yourself in,” he says. “Toby’s been in lots of bands, so he has experience with several vocal approaches.”
Elkins stresses the refreshing lack of ego in the band. “No one’s irreplaceable in this kind of music,” he asserts. “If you think you are, just go listen to the nine- and ten-year-olds at the IBMA [the annual awards event of the International Bluegrass Music Association, held for many years in Louisville, and now in Nashville, Tennessee]. You can get humbled real quick listening to those prodigies.”
He sees a clear parallel between his group’s approach to bluegrass and the freedom of jazz. “Every performance of one of our songs is unique,” he notes. “There’s so much space for artistic license.”
Bilger says that the White Lightning Boys represent the improvisational school of bluegrass, as opposed to the formulaic approach. “Some bands’ fans want to hear a song the same way every time. We’re more inclined to go for broke.”
One recent show that was particularly memorable for the boys was a Bob Dylan tribute at the Crump Theater in downtown Columbus. Several notable acts performed Dylan’s songs in various configurations. In addition to the White Lightning Boys’ performance of a half-dozen tunes, a highlight of the evening was Elkins, along with singer-songwriters Tim Grimm and Jennie Devoe and drummer Danny Deckard, playing “One More Cup of Coffee.”
One aspect of the bluegrass life that appeals to the boys is the camaraderie. Rather than an environment of competition, the relationship among bands in the genre is that of a “brotherhood” in Elkins’s formulation, or, as Bilger puts it, a “relaxed community.”
Knowing each other well helps all the members temper their serious musicianship with levity. Elkins says, “We can laugh when we hear something that didn’t go right.”
The White Lightning Boys can be contacted at