Bluegrass music covers the fields and landscapes of America in some very unsuspecting places. At times the salt-of-the-earth music reaches out from beyond itself into the deepest heart of the country. From Indiana to Nashville; from Mayberry to Memphis with a quick stop in California and Ohio and most of all through the eyes of children fighting cancer who would seem to have no hope, but through the healing power of bluegrass music and the love of those who love and care for them, perhaps have more hope than most on the planet. This is the essence of the popular bluegrass band the Grascals, who in their short history have proven to be a bright ray of light and a fresh, original voice in the musical tapestry of Americana music, extending beyond their traditional bluegrass roots into country classics (“Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line”), paying tribute to well-loved television show(The Andy Griffith Show) and to the children fighting cancer everyday at St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis. They do what the best musicians in our country do: bring people together in an otherwise, often divisive political national scene.
Consisting of five members, Terry Eldredge on guitar and vocals, Jamie Johnson on guitar and vocals, Terry Smith on bass and vocals, Danny Roberts on mandolin, Kristin Scott Benson on Banjo, and Jeremy Abshire on fiddle, they are an infant band by bluegrass standards where group life spans are measured by decades. They came together in 2004 when they were individually unemployed and went from playing a local Nashville oasis called the Station Inn to opening for Dolly Parton with a record deal within three months of their birth. If there was ever a near-perfect blend of tight harmonic bluegrassy high-lonesome vocals among Eldredge, Johnson, and Smith, soaring through such skilled and complimentary instrumentation meeting the traditional and the modern of country music, this is it. As Terry Eldredge states in this interview, this is a band even for folks who don’t like bluegrass. Their approach is as traditional as the Dillards but as accessible as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band during their Uncle Charly period. Their albums cover expected bluegrass traditionals like “Rollin’ in my Sweet Baby’s Arms,” southern gospel favorites like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” touching originals and country classics like “Today I Started Loving You Again.”
As a regular act at the Annual Musicians Fighting Childhood Cancer Bluegrass Festival in Ohio, last year they decided to visit St. Jude’s Hospital. When they saw the words on a huge wall sketched by a small child, “I Am Strong,” Jamie Johnson went home with his wife Susanne Mumpower-Johnson, and friend Jenee Fleenor and wrote the song in a flash of inspiration. Dolly Parton was so impressed she told Jamie it was God-given and lent her vocal support and appearance in the touching video. Following this year is the EP Dance Till Your Stockings Are Hot and Ravlin’, a tribute to the music of the Andy Griffith show, which includes the songs originally performed on classic TV show by the Dillards in 1961.
With a full touring schedule, Terry Eldredge was kind enough to take some time out to talk with the San Diego Troubadour about the band’s history as well as their current projects.
San Diego Troubadour: I’ve been listening to the new CD. I feel like I’m in Mayberry now.
Terry Eldredge: Well, that’s a good place to be!
SDT: Yeah, I’m a big fan of the show.
Terry: I don’t know who isn’t! I like to say, I think even communists like the Andy Griffith Show.
SDT: How did this project come about?
Terry: We wrote the song “Mayberry’s Finest” for a small food company in Nashville called Mayberry’s Finest. They do country cooking recipes, like Aunt Bee’s muffins and stuff like that. We got to know the owner. He said he needed a theme song so we wrote the song. Then, it was the 50th anniversary of the Andy Griffith Show. The owner is friends with Andy and talked to him about doing a tribute CD. Andy said he’d like us to do it. He loves our music. He was the one that said, “I want the Grascals!” So, it was all approved by Andy.
SDT: If I think about it, the Andy Griffith Show may have been the first time I ever heard bluegrass music.
Terry: Yeah, when I was growing up, I listened to the Grand Ole Opry. And we heard Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
SDT: I’m from the South, too – Southern California. Back in the early ’60s, I’d never heard bluegrass.
Terry: That may have been the first national exposure for bluegrass. It was about 1961.
SDT: I think I saw you guys at one of your first concerts in Takoma.
Terry: That was about 2004 when we first formed. I remember that. We were trying to figure out if we had enough material for a set!
SDT: How did the Grascals get started?
Terry: We came together when we were all unemployed at the same time. We all played in different bands and had all played together at one time or another. There’s this club in Nashville, the Station Inn, where, if someone didn’t make it, you got to fill in with the band. We all played together there. But, at one point, we were all out of work at the same time and that’s how it happened.
SDT: So, then, not long after that you met a pretty famous country icon.
Terry: Dolly Parton? Yeah, the planets were all in line. I had worked with Dolly before. The Grascals had three songs recorded at the same studio where she was working. She came in one day while were mixing and wanted to hear. She said, “that’s it! That’s what I’ve been wanting to do!” After that she asked us to tour with her. We were her opening act. Then we’d go out and change our clothes and come back on and be a part of her band. It was huge for us. We didn’t even have a record label. We went from playing the Station Inn to opening for Dolly. I always say, it’s like we had the rocket, but she had the fuel.
SDT: It was during that period when she was getting out of the pop music influence?
Terry: Yeah, she was getting back to her roots with acoustic music. So, we fit right in.
SDT: There’s something really appealing and accessible about your sound.
Terry: After the shows with Dolly, we’d go out and sign CDs. There’d be 500 people waiting in line to meet us. You know, a lot of folks said, “We don’t really like bluegrass, but we love you guys!” And man, you can’t get anymore bluegrass than us! We always have a traditional song on our albums, but if you noticed, we have some traditional country too.
SDT: I was just listening to “Today I Started Loving You Again.”
Terry: I guess you could call us grass-country. We’ve been played some on country radio. We just did a collaboration [that] has Hank Jr., Charlie Daniels, and Dolly. Tom T Hall came out of retirement to do “Clayton Delaney” with us. We got some of the newer acts too – Joe Nichols, Randy Owen from Alabama. Brad Paisley is with us on “Tiger by the Tail.” We got him last minute. He was busy and just finishing up a tour and starting to lose his voice. But, we got him on literally up the last day before we had to turn the record in. We had send it off to his house. He’s got his own studio at home. Then he sent it back; we got it mixed and turned it in.
SDT: There’s something in the nature of your sound that’s not only like the Dillards but also has the easy pop sensibility of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.
Terry: Yeah, I’ve thought about that, too. They’re great. That album Will the Circle Be Unbroken was really something.
SDT: There are some of those songs on each of your albums I could hear on today’s country radio. That one “Me and John and Paul,” tells quite a story with an emotional punch.
Terry: Oh yeah, that one was written by Harley Allen. He’s written so many hits. He was Red Allen’s son. He just recently passed away. That song got some pretty good airplay.
SDT: Do you write your own songs?
Terry: Yeah, Jamie writes quite a few.
SDT: Tell me about “I Am Strong.”
Terry: Jamie wrote that one. He wrote with our fiddle player and his wife. It was really inspired. We do a festival in Ohio called Musicians Against Childhood Cancer. It’s an annual three-day festival. All the proceeds go to St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis. We went to the hospice. Man, everyone should do that. At first, you think, “This is going to be really sad,” and then you see a bunch of kids playing, laughing. It’s how the doctors and the staff are so uplifting. They really give the kids hope and confidence. The kids are out riding tricycles. It’s very heart-warming. Jamie was inspired because there’s a big wall in a hallway there and in the middle of the wall it reads, “I Am.” Then, all the kids finish the sentence. Some say, “I am sick,” “I am tired,” “I am weak.” But then, this one kid wrote, “I am strong.” Jamie went home and the next day his wife and a friend wrote the song. It was truly inspired. Then, we made the video. You know, Dolly’s in that. Steven Seagal even sings on it. Dolly told Jamie, “You might write another 100 great songs, but you won’t write another one like that one! God gave that to you.” You know, coming from Dolly, that’s pretty good.
SDT: Have you ever worked with Herb Pedersen?
Terry: Yeah, oh yeah, I know Herb. We played out in California a while ago on this TV show called The Talk. He came out and did the show with us. He told us he usually doesn’t do that but he wanted to make sure those TV guys didn’t mess around with us. He wanted to make sure they didn’t push us around. It turned out everybody was great. But, Herb has always been like an older brother.
SDT: I’ve talked with Herb some about the one-mic dynamic in bluegrass and much of the sound of the music was formed by that. How do you feel about that?
Terry: We’ve done that before. We don’t do it that often. Sometimes we do it when we do TV shows. That’s how Flatt and Scruggs did it. You know, that leaves it to the players to mix the music themselves. I think we feel we can mix it better ourselves sometimes. What really screwed up the music was when they introduced monitors. A lot of times they’ve just caused trouble, you know, with feedback. Sometimes we’re hearing one thing and the audience is hearing something else. The monitors might be loud and it might be too quiet for the audience or vice versa. The one-mic way allows you to mix it yourself and to hear what the audience hears. With bluegrass and acoustic music, you really want a soundman who isn’t riding the knobs. You’re hoping for someone who’ll set things and then go have a cheeseburger.
SDT: Well, it’s been a pleasure, Terry. I hope to get out to see you while your in So Cal.
Terry: We’ll be there August 19th and 20th at Summergrass. If you come out, stop in and say hi!
Summergrass, the annual bluegrass festival, is held at the Antique Gas & Steam Engine Museum, 4420 N. Santa Fe in Vista. Go to www.summergrass.net for complete details.