Moon Mullins is an accomplished guitar picker
CHINA GROVE — Every so often, Moon Mullins goes to a nail salon so a manicurist can reapply fake nails to the tips of his right fingers.
This comes as no surprise to the fellow musicians who consider the guitar-playing Mullins a thumbpicking icon.
“For the people who know who he is and the kind of musician he is,” says Mike Lambert, an accomplished singer and strummer himself, “they are just in awe of him.”
Lambert says when you listen to the music coming from Mullins’ guitar, it’s “jaw-dropping.”
Mullins, 75, moved to North Carolina a couple of years ago so he could be closer to his only son, Mark, who lives in Catawba, S.C.
He settled in a small house in China Grove, where he has made fast friends with the neighbors’ dogs, and it’s a comfortable drive to Salisbury to attend Rowan Christian Church on Bringle Ferry Road.
A friend arranges playing engagements for him here and there. He usually plays for free — many times at local nursing homes.
It doesn’t take much cajoling, either, for him to make guest playing appearances at places such as the Cook Shack in Union Grove.
The Internet is filled with homemade videos of Comer “Moon” Mullins playing guitar.
“In my humble opinion of his style, which is the heavy thumb style,” says Clay Lunsford, president of N.C. Finger-Style Guitar Playing Inc., “he’s probably in the top five in the nation, and I’ve heard them all and seen them all.
“He’s a master at it.”
Every year, Mullins attends the Chet Atkins Appreciation Society Convention in Nashville, Tenn., where the best thumb and finger pickers in the world converge.
“Everybody knows Moon,” Lunsford says.
Mullins plays at the convention, and it’s always an honor, given the talent assembled and how much his own thumbpicking is derived from greats such as Atkins and, to a larger extent, fellow Kentuckian Merle Travis.
Not so long ago, over a period of 10 years, Mullins was considered the best.
In 1985, he won the National Merle Travis Tribute thumbpicking contest at the Ozark Folk Center in Arkansas.
He captured top honors in 1991 at the International Thumbpicking Contest in Central City, Ky.
Then, in a special 1996 contest allowing only the former international champions to compete, Mullins won first place as the “Champion of Champions.”
On a recent morning, Mullins scoots a kitchen chair into the living room and grabs his favorite guitar, made by master builder Dumitru Manea of Nashville, Tenn.
“I won this in a contest, by the way, and it’s an incredible instrument,” Mullins says.
He soon inserts his right thumb into a pick and launches into “Hello, My Baby,” which has a simple ragtime quality to it.
His thumb beats out the bass rhythm, and those fingers with the fake nails seem to make a sound of several instruments in harmony.
From more than 60 years of playing, Mullins’ fingers are heavily callused and a bit crooked. “Crazy fingers,” he says. “I keep trying to tell myself your hands are as old as your head is.”
An Air Force veteran and machinist by trade, Mullins took to playing professionally full-time about 25 years ago, becoming a regular performer at the Ozark Folk Center in Mountain View, Ark.
But he has made many other stops.
Over the years, he has played with Pee Wee King and the Golden West Cowboys. (King wrote “Tennessee Waltz.”)
Mullins was personal friends and jam partner with the late Johnny Paycheck.
He worked with Archie Campbell, known for his appearances on the old “Hee Haw” television show. He also played with Patsy Montana and noted violinist James Gambino.
Music dates took him into Texas, Missouri, Nebraska, North Carolina and Florida, to perform a venues such as college campuses, fairs and festivals.
His biggest audience was probably the 22,000 gathered for an Everly Brothers concert in 1991. He has picked his guitar on radio and television programs.
Sometimes his agent would line up work. Other times, it was up to him. But he made a living.
“I make it so it isn’t work,” he says.
Being a noted thumbpicker doesn’t necessarily make you a household name.
“A lot of thumbpickers are introverts,” says Lunsford, who lives in Union Grove. “It’s just you. If you mess up, the whole band messed up.”
Lunsford explains thumbpicking as creating one’s own quartet on a guitar. On the right hand, the thumb provides the bass component — the Johnny Cash lick, Lunsford says. The index finger picks out the lead — the church soloist, if you will. The middle finger takes care of the tenor part; the ring finger, the alto section.
Lunsford says his guitar players group really is known among musicians as the N.C. Thumbpickers Association, because he formed it as a way to preserve and promote the technique.
“You don’t see many young pickers doing it,” he says.
Comer “Moon” Mullins was a coal miner’s son, one of his parents’ 12 children born in Sassafras, Ky., in the eastern part of the state.
His family moved to central Kentucky when he was still a youngster. When he was older still, they relocated to Hillsboro, Ohio, where his father worked for Frigidaire.
When Mullins was about 12, he saw a movie starring Gene Autry, the singing cowboy.
That night, Mullins dreamt Autry had come to his family’s home, plowed the garden and walked down to the house for his mother’s supper.
After dinner, Autry sat in the living room and sang for everybody.
The next morning, Mullins could think only of playing a guitar like Gene Autry, and he knew it would take raising a lot of the money on his own.
A comic book advertisement promised an authentic Gene Autry guitar to any kid who could pay $4.25, along with selling two $4-dollar orders of garden seeds.
Mullins sold the seeds and raised the money. When the guitar came, “I plucked one string, and it was like a symphony,” Mullins remembers.
“I knew I had to play one.”
(Much later in life, Mullins’ son would buy him a Gene Autry guitar, just like his first one.)
Over months and years to come, the guitar seldom left his side. At night, after the lights were out, Mullins would lie on his back with his guitar resting on his chest, playing the chords he was learning.
Mullins shared a lot of information with his buddy, Ken Baxter, who also was playing. He also picked up several tips from three local musicians, who invited him to their gigs on Friday nights.
“Those guys were so kind and gentle with me, I’ll never forget it,” he says.
Mullins, Baxter and two other guys formed a band called the Ohio Valley Boys. It was one of those band members, Dave McCall, who showed Mullins the thumbpicking technique for the first time, and Mullins was hooked as a young teenager.
After high school, each one of the Ohio Valley Boys entered the military at the same time, thinking they would reunite after their four-year hitches were up.
But it didn’t happen. Mullins picked up his nickname of “Moon” in the Air Force,” thanks to a popular comic strip character of the day named Moon Mullins.
Mullins married at 22, became a machinist, played at square dances and eventually moved to Florida, then Arkansas, as he went through two marriages.
At one time he played in an early rock ‘n’ roll band, Johnny and the Wild Ones, but he generally hates rock music because of the many drug stories and tragedies tied to it.
Mullins tends to play old-time music that is part of the public domain. Lunsford describes what Mullins does as jazz, blues and country all mixed up.
“He generally likes to play by himself because that’s what he does,” Lunsford says. “That’s his forte.”
By his count, Mullins has put out seven to eight CDs. The songs you might find include “Nine-Pound Hammer, “I Am a Pilgrim,” “Ain’t She Sweet,” “Shanty in Old Shanty Town” and “For Me and My Gal.”
His favorite song is the old “Guitar Rag.”
Lambert likes when Mullins sings, though he often leaves the singing to others.
“He’s got kind of a gravelly voice, and he’s a little bit of a comedian, too,” Lambert says.
When he hasn’t been picking his guitar, Mullins likes to fish and is an accomplished marksman with a muzzle loader.
Mullins also has produced an instructional video on thumbpicking. Over time, he has written some of his own songs, but he tends to favor the standards of Americana.
There is a secret to songwriting, he says.
“All these guys who write great songs had a broken heart — or they were truly happy,” Mullins says. “You have to have a need, I think.”
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or mwineka@ salisburypost.com.
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