august 2008

Keepin’ On Keepin’ On

The Grascals Search Their Souls On Keep On Walkin’(And Go #1)

By David McGee

The Grascals (from left): Jamie Johnson, Terry Smith, Terry Eldredge, Jimmy Mattingly, Danny Roberts and Dave Talbot. In the current lineup, Mattingly has been replaced by Jeremy Abshire and Talbot by Aaron McDaris. 'What we want on our albums is great songs,' says Terry Eldredge, 'and we try to perform them to our best ability.'

When the Grascals’ lead vocalist/guitarist Terry Eldredge says “a lot of the things we do just happen,” and adds: “I guess the good Lord is looking down on us saying, ‘I’ll lead you this way,’” it is time to take him seriously. Because all evidence seems to affirm his suspicions. In little more than three years together, the band has racked up multiple IBMA awards, two Grammy nominations, an Everest-like pile of rave reviews for its (now) three albums, the respect of its peers and the affection of both traditional and progressive bluegrass fans. Upon the mid-July release of the group’s third exemplary long player, Keep On Walkin’, the good Lord led the assembled multitude to the top of the Billboard bluegrass chart first week out.

“Usually to get as far as we have a band would have to be around for eight, ten years at least,” Eldredge muses, with no small amount of wonder in his voice. “It’s happened pretty quick for us and that astounds us. We love it—come on, bring it on, we’ll take it!”

The Grascals emerged from a shifting lineup of bluegrass musicians who worked under the rubrick The Sidemen at Nashville’s Station Inn (who were billed as The Little Grascals: Nashville’s Superpickers on a project put together under the aegis of a foreign distributor and included not only some current Grascals but esteemed musicians on the order of Mike Bub, Mike Compton and Jason Carter). The original configuration included fellow Hoosiers Eldredge and vocalist Jamie Johnson; bassist/vocalist Terry Smith; fiddler Jimmy Mattingly; banjo man Dave Talbot; and mandolinist Danny Roberts. Mattingly left the group shortly after completing Keep On Walkin’ and has been replaced by the heralded Jeremy Abshire, formerly with Dale Ann Bradley’s group; Talbot left the group before work on the third album started and has been replaced by Aaron McDaris, late of the New Tradition, the Larry Stephenson Band and the Mashville Brigade, and has stepped in to become a force to be reckoned with on Keep On Walkin’. The band’s first big break came as the opening act on Dolly Parton’s 2004 summer tour, during which time the Grascals and Dolly worked up a vivid cover version of the great Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman-penned Elvis classic, “Viva Las Vegas,” which helped get the Grascals’ self-titled 2005 debut album off to a fast start, before a memorable reading of Harley Allen’s “Me and John and Paul” leaped off the album and became a fan favorite, winner of the IBMA’s “Song of the Year” and spearheaded the group’s capture of the IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year all at once. The next year the fellows won four SPGMA Awards and released a second album, Long List of Heartaches, another critical and commercial winner culminating in a 2006 IBMA award as Entertainer of the Year.

Keep On Walkin’ consolidates all the Grascals’ strengths as players, singers and writers. McDaris’s banjo work is remarkable throughout, but Eldredge serves notice of his continuing development as a vocalist, handling ballads with heartwarming conviction and hard driving numbers with dynamic presence. Smith steps in to add his voices to those of Eldredge and Johnson and the resulting three-part harmonies are exquisite. All in all, the cohesion evident here, however subtle, makes a difference.

“I think one of the main things is we’ve been playing together now going on five years,” Eldredge posits. “Every show date it seems to get better, and I think that has a lot to do with it. We’re getting to where we now know what the other guy’s gonna do before he does it. I think that’s one of the main factors. And the vocal blends are better with Terry Smith singing the third part with us now.”

As for McDaris’s debut, Eldredge is no less impressed than is an outsider. “You know, from the very first show we did with him, a little over a year and a half or so, he was that way,” he remarks in reference to the banjo picker’s seamless integration into Grascals society. “So he’d evidently listened to our other two records. He walked in there with full authority, took hold of it and went with it. He’s been Grascal-fied!”

Although the recording of Keep On Walkin’ took only two months (in increments—the band would stop to play dates, then come back for more recording), Eldredge says the song selection process extends that timeframe to nearly a year. Told that the band could quit looking so far afield and instead go right to the Aubrey Holt and Harley Allen songbooks—considering that the Grascals have become among the foremost interpreters of those outstanding songwriters’ work (this album contains three Holt tunes and two Allen tunes, one of the latter being a co-write with Jamie Johnson)—Eldredge laughs and admits that everyone’s fondness for both Holt’s and Allen’s work does make for a certain comfort level. Not to mention that Jamie Johnson played in the Wildwood Valley Boys with Aubrey’s son, Tony Holt, and has gained an encyclopedic knowledge of the Holt catalogue.

Holt’s writing strikes a responsive chord in Eldredge because “it’s just pure, straight to the head wording. You don’t have to wonder what he’s talking about. It doesn’t need explaining; it explains itself. Just straight ahead talk. It cuts through the bullcrap, tells you the story and that’s it. There’s not a line in there that makes you think, Now wait a minute—wonder what he was talking about there?”

As for Holt, Eldredge asserts he’s “never heard a bad Harley Allen song. Every song is great. He doesn’t throw one line away; he doesn’t throw a filler line in just to make it fit. Every song he’s written that I’ve ever heard is great. He’s given us a ton of songs and they’re great songs, but they don’t always fit us. Of course he doesn’t think that. He wants us to do a tribute to Harley Allen!”

Courageous Covers

Continuing the pattern they started with “Viva Las Vegas,” the group shows admirable courage in its choice of cover songs, not opting for obscurities but tackling songs one might say are owned by the artists who cut the originals (this is discounting “Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arm,” which has become regular repertoire for many bands), namely George Jones (“Choices”), Merle Haggard (“Today I Started Loving You Agani”) and Waylon Jennings (“The Only Daddy That Will Walk the Line”). Finding new ways into these sturdy warhorses is a Grascals specialty, and they pull it off in grand style here. “Choices,” the one done closest to its original, haunting arrangement, also fits in with a theme running throughout the album, that of reflections on love gone wrong and the haunting consequences of irresponsible behavior, as well of what lives on in memory of people and places long gone, but lovingly recalled, such as the Harley Allen-Jamie Johnson gem, “Indiana” which features Eldredge giving a Del McCoury-like twist to the lyric, “I may see a corn field in Atlanta/But Indiana’s where I am,” that is every bit as piercing as the master’s way. An Allen solo composition, “Remembering,” hits even harder in chronicling the changes WWII wrought in the singer’s grandfather, who returned with a “heart of gold that had hardened into stone,” and knew no more peace until, with his life ebbing away, he was cheered by thoughts of seeing his old shipmates again in the next life. Although mandolin, fiddle, piano and dobro are swirling around the soundscape, it’s Eldredge’s plaintive vocal, his stark acoustic guitar strumming and the group’s pristine, soaring harmonies that deepen the emotions in play throughout—and give the sentiments a contemporary resonance, when more and more news reports are revealing the problems being encountered by veterans of the Gulf, Iraqui and Afghanistan wars. A Grascals album may not be the place one expects to hear anti-war sentiment, but when Eldgridge whispers, “I hope they don’t make people like my grandpa anymore,” it’s clear he’s not talking about a bad man but rather about the life altering consequences of war.

“I was thinking, I hope people understand that when I sing, ‘I hope they don’t make people like my grandpa anymore,’ that it’s totally like, I hope they don’t make men like my grandpa anymore, or like them poor dudes over there right now,” Eldredge explains.

Because you just don’t want people to go through that again, coming home so scarred they never enjoy their lives anymore.

“Exactly right! It’s just a whole complete thing against war. Like it says, ‘a lifetime of nightmares of hell.’”

Although the band did not set out consciously to assemble anything approaching a concept album, Eldredge admits that when everyone listened to the playback in sequence, there was a collective realization that “it was kind of a history telling album.” What better way to end it, then, than with the beloved gospel song, “Farther Along,” with its telling line, “We’ll understand it all by and by” sung in impeccable, soul shaking three-part harmony?

“What we want on our albums is great songs,” Eldredge states, “and we try to perform them to our best ability.”

Memo to the Grascals: Job done.


Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
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