By Juli Thanki

Russell Moore has just taken home the IBMA Male Vocalist Of The Year Award for the second consecutive year. It’s the fifth time the limber-voiced tenor has received the award, the most anyone’s ever won it (you might have heard of the guy who’s in second place, with four awards: Del McCoury). Moore’s band, IIIrd Tyme Out, has an extensive trophy collection as well, winning Vocal Group Of The Year honors seven times in the band’s twenty year history. That makes the quintet bluegrass music’s version of the New York Yankees, right?

“That would be a wonderful statement if I pulled for the Yankees,” laughs Moore, calling from the road somewhere between his Georgia home and Nashville. Even with all the awards they’ve received over the past two decades, he and his band of perennial contenders still side with the underdogs who are thrilled with each unexpected victory. “[Winning] is more exciting now because we’ve been doing this for a while. It makes us feel like we’ve still got something to offer,” he explains. It’s the kind of success he never dreamed of, not as a boy learning to play guitar from a Mel Bay record and booklet, or as one of Doyle Lawson’s sidemen itching to strike out on his own. He’s always been one to keep his head out of the clouds, both figuratively and literally: even now, as one of bluegrass’s most in-demand live acts, IIIrd Tyme Out rarely flies to a gig and has, by choice, never played overseas.

Born in 1963 in Texas, Russell Moore and his parents were introduced to bluegrass music through their cousins. The Moores started out attending the occasional show near their East Texas home, but they quickly fell down the bluegrass rabbit hole, traveling to festivals in Oklahoma and Louisiana whenever possible. His mother would order record albums from the County Sales catalog, but it was Russell who played them over and over, absorbing every nuance. By age 11, he was teaching himself to play guitar and beginning to entertain thoughts of a career in bluegrass, thanks in large part to Bobby Osborne’s singing on the Osborne Brothers’ 1973 album, Voices In Bluegrass. “His voice really moved me. Their arrangements and selection of songs also played a part in that, but it was primarily Bobby’s voice that made me think, ‘I’d love to be able to do this for a living.’”

As a young man, Moore played in a number of regional bands, including the Bluegrass Ramblers Of Texas, before co-founding Southern Connection, a group which was based in Arlington, Tex. After a few years, he made the jump to bluegrass music’s big leagues when he joined Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver in 1985. He’d spend the next six years with Lawson, honing his skills as a guitarist, singer, and songwriter. “Dreaming Of You,” the first song he ever wrote, was recorded by Lawson for the 1990 album My Heart Is Yours. He doesn’t write much these days, largely choosing to record songs penned by some of the industry’s best songwriters, but “Dreaming Of You” and a few other songs including “Prayer For Peace,” co-written with Bill Castle and Dee Gaskin, proves that Moore has an aptitude for the art should he ever decide to put pencil to paper more frequently.

In 1991, Moore, joined by two of his Quicksilver bandmates (fiddler Mike Hartgrove and bass player Ray Deaton), caused a bit of a stir in the bluegrass world when they all handed in their notices to Doyle Lawson. “I can’t say that Doyle was happy about it,” chuckles Moore when remembering that day. “But I think he understood that a lot of musicians have a need to spread their wings and do things on their own, as he did when he left Charlie Waller and the Country Gentlemen.” He is careful to emphasize that the trio’s gossip-inducing collective exit wasn’t done out of maliciousness, but as a way for the men to have the opportunity to tread new creative ground. “We wanted to do songs that weren’t necessarily something that we could have done in someone else’s band, so forming our own group gave us the freedom of going in a different direction musically.”

After spending a few weeks tossing around and rejecting different names for the new group, Moore realized that this would be their third outing as a full-time professional bluegrass musician. When someone offhandedly remarked, “You know, they say the third time’s a charm,” the men ran with it, changing the spelling for novelty value and designing a logo that is now visible on album covers, t-shirts and, yes, the occasional tattoo. IIIrd Tyme Out then added mandolin player Alan Bibey to the lineup, and when he suggested they bring in Terry Baucom, who was between gigs at the time, to be the group’s banjo player, the first lineup was set.

No matter how experienced the individual musicians may be, a new band always has to prove itself. IIIrd Tyme Out would do so with their self-titled debut, released on Rebel Records in 1991. Taking the opportunity to “experiment and explore” musically, the group recorded a four-part harmony song called “Erase The Miles.”

“It wasn’t anything particularly new in music. In country music, the Statler Brothers and Oak Ridge Boys are known for doing non-gospel quartet singing, but I don’t think it was common in bluegrass at the time,” says Moore. Fans immediately responded to the new sound; now it’s one of IIIrd Tyme Out’s most-requested songs. At the band’s twentieth anniversary show last summer at Bluegrass Underground (the Cumberland Caverns in Tennessee), it received the biggest crowd reaction of the day. “We have trouble getting out of town without being tarred and feathered if we don’t play it,” Moore jokes.

Even with word-of-mouth and a successful album working in their favor, the early days as a touring group weren’t so easy for IIIrd Tyme Out. “Just because we were well-known as individuals didn’t keep us from some of the things that new bands, who start fresh, encounter,” Moore explains. Mandolin player Wayne Benson agrees, remembering that his first gig with the band, a New Year’s Eve event, was disastrous from the start, with the concert booker asking the band as they lugged their own sound system onstage, “Hey, where’s your drummer?” “We knew we were in for it then!” Benson exclaims. Luckily, shows like that were the exception rather than the rule, and IIIrd Tyme Out soon proved themselves to be one of the most professional, talented live acts in bluegrass.

As the leader of his own band, Moore put to use the lessons he picked up from his time with Doyle Lawson. “There were a lot of things that I didn’t know I was learning at the time. The way he paid attention to detail was something I took from him, as was the way he’d arrange songs: sometimes you can do too much when less is more. His talent as a businessman also was evident to me.” Those lessons came in handy when Moore, along with Steve Dilling, did the band’s booking. (They’ve since turned most of those responsibilities over to Moonstruck Management).

After Terry Baucom’s and subsequent banjo player Barry Abernathy’s exits, Steve Dilling became the band’s banjo player in July 1993. After a brief run with the Lonesome River Band, Dilling had left the bluegrass industry for a job selling insurance in order to make ends meet for his growing family. But five months later, he got the call from Moore, and gladly took the opportunity to leave the office behind for a full-time job in bluegrass. However, back then he never expected it to be a permanent career change. “If you asked me twenty years ago if I’d have lasted this long, I would’ve told you no, because I had other ideas that I wanted to do,” recalls Steve. “But it’s just a great job. It’s a great working atmosphere. I love our music, I love traveling and I love our fans.”

After three years and two albums, Alan Bibey left the group. He was briefly replaced by Lou Reid, but when Reid formed his own band, Wayne Benson called Ray Deaton to put his name into contention for the open mandolin player/harmony vocalist spot. After a quick audition onboard the IIIrd Tyme Out tour bus, which at the time was stopped in a North Carolina shopping mall parking lot so that Moore and Deaton could fix a busted generator, Benson had the job.

In addition to being a fine harmony singer and mandolin player, Benson’s got a sharp ear for composing. He’s the one who composed IIIrd Tyme Out fan favorite, “John And Mary.” Like some of the best songs, it came about almost by accident he says. “I was going through a phase of writing songs with alternate tunings. I tuned my mandola to this open tuning and started experimenting; that tune was written as an instrumental. That night on the bus, Russell and I were up late and I plugged in the cassette player and played my tape for him. As soon as he heard it, Russell had the idea for the chorus. I had no idea that anyone would ever hear it and think to write lyrics. Later, Donnie Carver, our sound guy, helped finish the lyrics.” Now, it’s one of the band’s signature songs, but at the time, Benson says, “It caught people off guard, maybe because it had a half-time feel. It was different, but people loved it.”

It’s this willingness to experiment that’s kept the band sounding fresh for the past two decades. Benson attributes much of the band’s success in their various musical endeavors to Moore’s versatile voice: “A vocalist like Russell can go in any direction we want, from blues to ballads to swing to straight bluegrass to more modal-sounding contemporary bluegrass. We can do so much stuff around his voice, and I don’t know any performer who can deliver consistently the way he does.”

Moore’s personality is also integral to keeping IIIrd Tyme Out running smoothly. He’s the anti-diva onstage, aboard the bus, and in the practice space. “It’s Russell’s band, but it’s our music, and he’s open to that,” Dilling says. “He doesn’t pull rank.” Benson concurs, “Everybody in the band brings material and ideas to the table. It’s such a team effort.” It’s this camaraderie that’s kept Steve Dilling around for two decades, even battling through a Focal Dystonia diagnosis that could have ended his career. And it’s also what made Benson return to the group in 2007 after a three-year stint with the John Cowan Band. Says Benson, “Russell, Steve, Donnie Carver, and I have been here a long time; we’re more like family, and over the years, we’ve spent more time together than we’ve spent with our families.”

For Justen Haynes, his family was the band. The son of two gospel bluegrass musicians, he began playing multiple instruments at an age when most kids are trying to master their shoelaces. Haynes joined the band in 2002 when, after 11 years, Mike Hartgrove  left IIIrd Tyme Out and subsequently took a job with the Lonesome River Band. At age thirty, Justen is the youngest member of IIIrd Tyme Out, but he’s one of the most talented fiddlers on the scene today.

Edgar Loudermilk, another man with bluegrass music in his genes, became the band’s bass player in 2007 after Ray Deaton left to play full-time with the Anita Fisher Band. Loudermilk, who played and sang tenor with Rhonda Vincent & The Rage and Marty Raybon & Full Circle, is a fine songwriter, having written or co-written all of the songs on his 2011 solo album, and it’s his bass playing that anchors IIIrd Tyme Out’s dynamic sound.

Though Moore is the only remaining original member of IIIrd Tyme Out, the current lineup is one of the band’s strongest incarnations. The last two albums, Russell Moore And IIIrd Tyme Out and Prime Tyme, released on Rural Rhythm Records, both cracked the top ten on Billboard’s Bluegrass Albums chart, and, more importantly, there’s a rejuvenated energy that’s driving the quintet these days. “I’m excited about making a number of recordings with the same lineup we’ve got right now,” Wayne Benson said in July. “I’m looking forward to going back in the studio.”

He didn’t have to wait long. In October, less than a year after the release of Prime Tyme, IIIrd Tyme Out began work on their next album, which will be released in January 2013 through Cracker Barrel Country Store. It’ll be their first project for the down-home restaurant chain’s music label, which has been releasing music since 2003 and has continually been a strong supporter of country and bluegrass acts.

“We’ve always been successful with bluegrass, whether it be gospel bluegrass or classic bluegrass, and the bluegrass audience makes up a segment of our guests as well,” says Julie Craig, manager of Cracker Barrel’s exclusive music program. “When we were talking about new opportunities for the upcoming year, we looked at Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, the albums they’ve worked on over the years, and their success, we felt like this was a strong partnership for our brand and for the music program.”

Moore is equally excited about the new deal. “This is a great opportunity to be associated with a company that has a reputation of being down to earth and wholesome,” he enthuses. “And the exposure value is tremendous. At the end of the day, we’re still trying to entertain folks and put smiles on faces, so we want to reach as many people as we possibly can.”

The currently unnamed album is being produced by Barry Bales, and will feature not only IIIrd Tyme Out’s brand of bluegrass, but also bluegrass adaptations of classic country songs (and even a pop song) that have influenced the band members over the years. The band has covered classic songs with some frequency (most recently, Prime Tyme included Hank Garland’s “Sugarfoot Rag” and a smart, grassed-up cover of the Delmore Brothers’ “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar”), so a full album is sure to be a treat. Songs slated to get the IIIrd Tyme Out treatment include the George Jones and Tammy Wynette duet, “Golden Ring,” and the ’50s pop hit, “Only You,” recorded by The Platters. The 12-track record will also include at least one special guest: country star and Grand Ole Opry member Pam Tillis contributed her golden vocals to a new, duet version of “John And Mary.”

The album will be the first bluegrass record on the Cracker Barrel label sold digitally through Amazon and iTunes in addition to the hard copies that will be available for sale at the country store in each of Cracker Barrel’s six hundred-plus restaurants. And for those who like their biscuits with a side of bluegrass, Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out will be making in-store appearances at several Cracker Barrels this winter.

In addition to being a fantastic opportunity for IIIrd Tyme Out to expand their fan base and be ambassadors for bluegrass on a national scale, the Cracker Barrel deal is also a welcome challenge for the band, professionally and musically. Looking ahead, Wayne Benson hopes that the band will “take the music into places we haven’t been before.” Steve Dilling agrees,  “I don’t think we’ve accomplished what we’ve set out to do yet. It’s been a great twenty years, but the sky is the limit.” And even though Russell Moore is one to keep his feet on the ground and his head out of the clouds, he notes, “Every band has hills to climb. Twenty years doesn’t make much difference in that respect. You have to continue to work hard to maintain a place in the business. We’re open to anything and everything that may come.”

Wherever Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out go from here, you can be sure that it’ll be an entertaining journey for both band and listener alike. Even after twenty years, thirteen albums, and a handful of personnel changes, the band is still finding new territory to explore, and loving every step of the way.

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