It All Comes Out Bluegrass For The Grass Cats

By Michael Brantley

You’ve most likely had one of those “huh?!” moments listening to bluegrass radio. You know, when you’re going down the road and you hear a song that rings a bell, but you thought it was from a TV show, but don’t remember it having a banjo. Or, the one you thought was by a jazz artist…or the one by rocker Eric Clapton. Rest assured you aren’t suffering some type of musical confusion syndrome—instead, you’ve just sampled a cut by the Grass Cats, a band from the Triangle area of North Carolina that’s made a name for itself playing unique covers and original tunes.

Bluegrass Unlimited - April 2011 - The Grass Cats

The Grass Cats

“Our music is varied,” said Russell Johnson, mandolinist, vocalist, songwriter, and frontman from Four Oaks, N.C. “We’ve developed a unique fan base. We have N.C. State University students, as well as people in their thirties, forties, and up. We feel that we can appeal to people who are not into traditional bluegrass when we do songs like ‘I Shot The Sheriff,’ ‘Take It On The Run,’ ‘Amie’; we like to do the classics and covers, and make it all bluegrass and offer a little something for everybody.”

In addition to Johnson, the group is composed of Tim Woodall on bass, Steven Martin on guitar, Chris Hill on fiddle, and the newest member, Rick Lafleur on banjo. The most recent Grass Cats album, A Good Way To Get The Blues, came out late last summer, but still has legs. The title track, written by Johnson, gave the band their second number one song on the Bluegrass Unlimited chart, following their 2003 breakthrough with “Bluegrass Man.” In addition to a couple of covers, band favorites on the album are the original songs “Saturday Night Company” and “All Of Tennessee.”

“‘Saturday Night Company’ was written by Barney Rogers, a nostalgia song, not something we normally do, but is well-crafted,” said Johnson. “I remember exactly where I was when I wrote ‘All Of Tennessee.’ I was driving to IBMA and I was struck by the three big cities you go through—Knoxville, Nashville, and Memphis. It’s a long drive and I made detours to go by all these Civil War battlefields. I like genealogy and family history, and I’m interested in Civil War history.”

The Grass Cats played their first show in November 1997 as a side project for Woodall, Johnson (who was with the group New Vintage) and Hill (who was playing with regional favorite Al Batten and the Bluegrass Reunion [BU, 2009]). The trio remains together, with only a handful of changes over such a long stretch of time.

“We were all playing with different groups, and I was a student at N.C. State when Russell called me,” Hill said. “We got together and played on a Sunday. I figured we’d play some ‘pig-pickings’ [a staple of North Carolina fine-dining traditions]. Then we started booking more shows. Russell has traveled and he’s been in the business for twenty years and understands it. He’s helped us all figure it out over the years and succeed on both fronts.”

Johnson first got interested in bluegrass when his college-student brother would come home with his roommate and play bluegrass. He got his first guitar for Christmas at age ten. One of his early bands, New Vintage, had several successful albums for Pinecastle Records in the 1990s, three of which charted into the top ten on BU’s survey. He’s also teamed with Rogers on a side project, Rogers & Johnson, and they’ve released a CD, When The Bands Played, featuring original acoustic music inspired by the Civil War. Johnson was nominated for the SPBGMA Songwriter Of The Year in 2004. He produces the band’s albums on their self-published label, New Time Records. Bandmembers say he’s the Grass Cats driving force.

“A lot of people know Russell, especially the DJs, and it helps with recognition,” Hill said. “He does a good job with the behind-the-scenes promotion, the mailers, the phone calls to stations offering us up for interviews, keeping up the mailing list and sending out reminders about our albums.” Woodall added with a laugh, “Russell likes to say he made all the mistakes you could early in his career and that has helped us avoid some of those same mistakes. But if we don’t do our job, since we do all the marketing and are responsible for the recording, we have no one to blame but ourselves.”

Woodall, from Cary, N.C., has quite a bit of insight into what radio stations are looking for. He’s been cohosting the popular and longrunning Pinecone Bluegrass Show on WQDR (94.7-FM) in Raleigh for over twenty years. He’s also an example of how the band has stayed together for so long. Despite handling the banjo duties since the group’s inception, and having played the instrument for over thirty years, he put his personal interest to the side when the opportunity arose to add LaFleur in 2010.

“The new configuration feels and sounds really tight and a large part of that is because Rick is a great banjo player,” Woodall said. “Moving from banjo to bass (with the departure of their bass player) was the quickest way to get us back up to speed. I’d always liked the bass, because I like so many other types of music, but I’d never played it in a bluegrass setting. The hardest thing was getting used to singing while playing bass and keeping time. I’m still working on that.”

Woodall attributes the band’s success and longevity to a couple of factors. “We enjoy what we do, or we wouldn’t have been doing it this long,” he said. “We get along well, and there’s not a lot of drama. Musically, we’re more focused on harmonies. We’re not a bunch of hot pickers. We don’t neglect the picking, but we concentrate on harmony and work really hard on the original tunes to get that right.” Johnson added that sharing duties over the years has served them well. “There’s an equitable distribution of labor,” he said. “Tim handles the accounting. Chris pulls the trailer and manages the website. I do the producing and the marketing and gather the material. We all book shows.”

The bandmembers believe they are the only group to have two number-one songs on a self-published label, and they’d make an interesting study for an MBA thesis, considering their limited number of appearances in traditional bluegrass settings. They play roughly 6065 dates a year, ranging from festivals—“We’ve played for every fruit and vegetable festival in North Carolina,” Johnson said—to auditorium shows to city celebrations to a few bluegrass festivals. But that limited exposure doesn’t mean they aren’t getting to the “right” places, and that’s where their choice of cover tunes comes in handy.

“We play such a wide variety of venues,” Woodall said. “We play weddings and clubs, about anything you can think of. There’s always a wide variety of ages there, and we try to entertain them all. A lot of times, when we start a cover, you’ll see a blank look, because it’s not what they were expecting. Then they recognize the song. ‘Rocky Top,’ ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown,’ they’ve all been done a lot and, unless your cover is better than the original, it’s not going to get much airplay when it gets to a radio station. So many songs have been done to death, it’s a lot of fun to crank up new stuff. So, I’m not sure how you’d classify us, because we’re not really progressive either. It’s hard to describe. But Russell has a good ear for picking out non-bluegrass songs for us to do.”

In addition to the songs from the most recent recording, other popular covers have been “Right Next Door” by blues artist Robert Cray, Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road,” Kenny Rogers’ “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town,” “I’ve Got Stripes” by Johnny Cash, John Denver’s “Take Me Home Country Roads,” and Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight,” among a host of others.

“Musically, it’s challenging,” Lafleur said. “We don’t play a lot of straight-up bluegrass covers. It’s music from other genres. We’re trying to showcase an eclectic musical repoirtoire, really, and it’s satisfying when you pull something like that off.” But make no mistake, the Grass Cats are not a cover band, as they take much pride in their original material and the chart action its received. In addition to their two number one songs, the song “Pill Or Potion” reached number two in 2007 (the album made it to number five) and “Your Only Friend” climbed to number six back in 2004.

“We spend a lot of time on the recording process, everything from gathering the material to getting the CDs pressed to getting them into the hands of the DJs. But when you get down to it, it all goes back to the song. You’ve got to have a good song, and you’ve got to get the performance down,” Johnson said. “There is a lot of good music out there that’s not doing well, because it’s not marketed. We always like to feel that all the songs on a CD are different and interesting, and that the whole thing is pleasing to listen to.”

In addition to the songwriting of Johnson, Martin who joined the group in 2005 penned three songs on A Good Way To Get The Blues. While with the Churchmen, the group garnered two Dove Award nominations.

“I view songwriting a little differently,” Martin, a Burlington, N.C., native, said. “I get together all the material I have, a variety of fast and slow; and in gospel, it would always be truths of The Bible. I had a song on this last album with a ‘blues situation,’ and Russell had the same thing. So, I’d take what I had and write another song—I get an idea and then write about a real life situation.”

Martin’s grandfather John Briggs was a major influence on his music and started taking Martin to festivals when the guitarist was four years old. Briggs was good friends with bluegrass legend Jim Eanes, who would come often for visits. “He’d come and stay with us and sing songs he’d written, and his voice was just incredible,” Martin said. “Seeing bluegrass on the stage, it just mesmerized me as a kid.”

Hill, from the eastern North Carolina town of Kinston, is part of what makes the Grass Cats sound distinctly different—the varied backgrounds of the performers. Hill, the fiddler, represents a generation of pickers who didn’t get weaned on Flatt & Scruggs, but instead got a taste of the following generations of bluegrass. “When I was a kid, my dad listened to Ricky Skaggs, and I liked Lonesome River Band and IIIrd Tyme Out. I guess I lean more towards the ‘younger’ sound,” he said. He was hooked on the sound from an early age. “I had two great-uncles who played the fiddle, and I wanted one from the time I was six. My folks waited until I was seven just make sure I really wanted to do it. I did a little classical at first, but that wasn’t what I liked. My dad started taking me to jams and I learned by ear.”

Lafleur, a native of Ontario, Canada, and now a resident of Durham, N.C., brought yet another component to the band—a hard-driving banjo player and songwriter, who happens to hold a Ph.D. in physical chemistry. “I bring a pretty broad range of musical ideas to the group, but the key for me is still traditional banjo playing, but with an ear for blending with other types of music,” Lafleur said. “I was exposed at an early age to the sounds of Flatt & Scruggs, the Osbornes, and J.D. Crowe and was struck by that kind of playing. I wanted to play the banjo all the time.”

Lafleur has been around and cut a solo project in 2005. His songwriting got a boost when a single he cowrote with Alice Zincone and Rhonda Vincent, “Last Time Loving You,” was a hit on Vincent’s Destination Life album. “It gave Alice and me a great opportunity to meet other people and was sort of our big break,” LaFleur said.

The Grass Cats were busy gathering material and rehearsing in October and November to begin recording their next album and to try to capitalize on the success of A Good Way To Get The Blues while the CD was still getting plenty of airplay. “It’s hard to say exactly what it is, but our fans buy whatever we make,” Johnson said. “They seem to like this album as good as anything we’ve done. We’ve got a different grouping and an exciting new Grass Cats sound now.

Michael Brantley is a frequent contributor to BU. He is also a photographer and wannabe picker from eastern North Carolina.

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