march 2011

Grasstowne: Moving fluidly and convincingly across the bluegrass spectrum, exploring matters of faith, of the heart, and of history with bracing conviction.

Kickin’ It Up A Notch

By David McGee

grasstowneKICKIN’ UP DUST
Rural Rhythm

Grasstowne’s 2010 sophomore album, The Other Side of Towne, was so strong as to move yours truly to speculate in these pages as to how the quintet would have its hands full trying to top it. Turns out there was another direction to go other than down, and it was up—Kickin’ Up Dust finds the band dealing some more powerful traditional bluegrass on a host of songs arguably even stronger than those on the previous outing. But this isn’t the same Grasstowne we heard on the group’s first two albums. Founding member and resonator man supreme Phil Leadbetter has left the fold, leaving the remaining founders, Alan Bibey and Steve Gulley, to be joined by Justin Jenkins, whose powerful banjo work with Blue Moon Rising had marked him as one of the top young pickers of the day before he joined Grasstowne; 20-year-old Kameron Keller on bass (replacing Travis Greer); and the young but well-traveled Adam Haynes playing quite a mean fiddle in his Grasstowne debut. Gulley and Bibey are the foundation and the source from whence all good things Grasstowne flows, both in their deeply moving original songs (some written solo, some in collaboration with each other) and in their thoughtful, involved vocals.

As they did last time out, the band kicks off its album not with a cheery barnburner, but rather with a moody story-song centered on a complicated family history symbolized by a forlorn “Blue Rocking Chair.” Penned by Chris Stuart-Janet Beazley, its narrative centers on six generations of a family whose “livin’ and dyin’” went on while the chair remained a silent witness to it all. Bibey does a tremendous job with a chilling vocal, Haynes adds a haunted voice on fiddle and Jenkins’s unceasing banjo rolls evoke the relentless passage of time haunting Bibey’s narrator, whose repeated refrain, “All my children are gone,” is one of the album’s unforgettable moments. The fellows immediately brighten the mood with a jubilant, mandolin- and fiddle-fired, Bibey-penned instrumental, “Up In the Wheelhouse,” which sets up a bouncy bluegrass breakup tune by the beloved Loren Rogers, “I Don’t Worry About You Anymore,” recounting a man coming to grips with the truth about his unfaithful gal and calmly moving on without her. Similar resigned acceptance of the inevitable end of a coupling informs Bibey’s accusatory attack in telling it as it is in he and Gulley’s “Somewhere Between Givin’ In and Givin’ Up,” a midtempo workout fueled by Jenkins’s voluble banjo and Bibey’s own spiky mandolin solos, with the close-harmonized, soaring chorus magnifying the singer’s distraught state.

Grasstowne performs ‘Kickin’ Up Dust,’ the title track from their new album, at the Rivertown Bluegrass Society Benefit for Children’s Health in Conway, SC, March 19, 2011

Faith of course figures into the Grasstowne agenda, and the fellows approach the subject from different angles on multiple fronts. Bibey and Gulley collaborated on an uptempo testimony addressing commitment and the power of faith, “Anchor In the Storm,” with Haynes’s soaring fiddle serving as the instrumental expression of the unswerving conviction the songwriters sing of in their striking, harmonized choruses. The beautiful, close harmonized reading of Ronnie Bowman’s “The Old Time Way” summons the spirit of beloved backwoods hymns in its swaying rhythm and rustic melody, with Gulley’s plaintive tenor harmony to Bibey’s lead elevating the song to a higher emotional plane. Still another approach surfaces on “Our Father,” one of the Golden Gate Quartet’s vintage gems from the 1930s. In the spirit of the GGQ, Grasstowne performs it a cappella in four-part gospel harmony, with rhythmically propulsive choruses and a soaring lead out front, in a quick two minutes of prayerful appeal.

Add in another Gulley-Bibey gem in “Vicksburg,” a doom-laden ballad set during the Civil War’s horrific Battle of Vicksburg, with Hayne’s ominous fiddling and Jenkins’s mournful banjo speaking to the desperate scene unfolding in the lyrics, and you sense the great possibilities ahead for Grasstowne. In being able to move fluidly and convincingly across the bluegrass spectrum, exploring matters of faith, of the heart, and of history with bracing conviction and a winning balance of serious and feel-good moments, these fellows are moving into the front rank of the current scene. They’ve got the whole package together.

Grasstowne’s Kickin’ Up Dust is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024