The Grascals

Grascals-leadThe Grascals
By Daniel Mullins 

Bluegrass is a musical genre that is both rooted in tradition and filled with innovation. This anomaly has been evident going back to Bill Monroe, who wanted to create music that was steeped in the “ancient tones” that he absorbed as a boy in the hills of Kentucky, but also yearned to invent a sound that was completely new and original. The dichotomy of learning from the past and looking to the future is one key to the success of bluegrass music around the globe. This unique quality of our music not only allows bluegrass to grow, but gives bluegrass a unique distinction of being able to bridge the generational divide through music.

Few bands have exemplified this balance of past and present, tradition and innovation, fresh and seasoned, over the past few years like The Grascals. For the majority of the twenty-first century, The Grascals have developed a reputation of presenting high-energy bluegrass music filled with emotional depth and universal appeal. They have always managed to keep an ear to the past and an eye on the future, but their ability to be a bridge between baby boomers and millennials has been much more literal over the past few years.

“The shoes I’m wearing are older than John,” jokes mandolin player and Grascals cofounder, Danny Roberts, in reference to the band’s most recent addition, John Bryan. The Grascals’ new lead vocalist and guitar player was a whopping 13 years old when The Grascals first began performing. “I saw them at festivals and stuff when I was a kid,” remembers John. “My friends and I, that’s what we’d always listen to.”

Following the departure of founding member Jamie Johnson a few years ago, The Grascals found themselves in need of a new vocalist and guitar player. Per the recommendation of a friend of the band, they gave John Bryan a call. “When they called it was April 1st. I got a phone call, and it went to voicemail. I got it and they said, ‘This is The Grascals, and we want to know if you’d be interested in coming out with us.’” John assumed it was someone pulling an April Fools’ joke and was just going to ignore it. Thankfully, a friend said he better call them back, just in case. “It wasn’t a prank, and then it set in—it was actually a for real offer.”

To say that John has been a perfect fit with The Grascals may be an understatement. Shortly after John accepted the position, founding member Terry Eldredge was quick to tell him, “If you leave, you better be dead.” An ironic statement, considering that one of Eldredge’s goals when helping to found The Grascals was: “I want this to be a band that I die from.”

It is that passion from Eldredge and the rest of The Grascals that has helped sustain their success for nearly a decade and a half. “There’s bands that go and cut an album and go out and tour for a year or two years, and that’s it,” says Eldredge. “When we founded the band, I was like, ‘If that’s what this is, I don’t want to do this.’”

Terry Eldredge, Danny Roberts, and Terry Smith have been with the band since day one, and their goals and objectives have not changed. “When I got with these two, they couldn’t care less what anyone else was doing,” says Danny. “They wanted to do the music that they liked, and do like El says, ‘from his heart.’” That was exactly what Danny wanted to hear. “We were all right at forty years old and, we aren’t going to be starting too many more bands at this age. This is the time, that if we’re going to do this thing, then let’s do it. This isn’t a party band. We wanted one for real.”

A shelf full of awards and a slew of hit records prove that The Grascals are for real, but what’s more important to the band is being true to themselves. “We’re doing this because it’s what we like—not to conform to something,”  Terry Smith adds.

This “all for one, one for all” attitude has been a constant since the band’s inception. “We’re all a band; there’s no bosses here,” says Danny. “If you noticed, we hired younger people to help keep us older folks in line,” he laughs. In addition to John Bryan, The Grascals founders share the stage with Adam Haynes (fiddle) and Kristin Scott Benson (banjo), two of the best at their craft.

The camaraderie of The Grascals both on and off stage is among the most close-knit in bluegrass. They almost have their own language with their affectionate nicknames for one another—El, Smitty, Sister, etc. “I’ve played in a lot of bands,” Danny says. “I’ve never seen, honestly, six people get along better.” This has created a fun and exciting atmosphere, that has permeated everything The Grascals have done for the past couple of years. “It’s fun to travel. It’s fun to play. It’s fun to hang out. Everything—everything is great and fresh right now,” he adds.

The youthfulness of the band’s newest member has been a breath of fresh air for the group of veteran musicians, but not in the ways many would expect. “I think it’s rubbed off socially, but I don’t think it has musically,” says multi-award winning banjo player, Kristin Scott Benson. “His influences haven’t pulled us to a more modern approach, but socially, he can help us with our phones,” she says with a laugh.

While John Bryan may be bringing the rest of the band in to the twenty-first century with his knowledge of Snapchat, Instagram, and Emojis, he may be rewinding the clock a bit for them with his musical influences. “A lot of the stuff he loves is mountain music,” notes Kristin. “He loves Ralph Stanley and the stuff that you wouldn’t even call first-generation bluegrass. It comes even before that.”

This shouldn’t come as a complete surprise, as John is closely related to one of the giants of mountain music, Doc Watson. “I love that old stuff,” John says. “I love Clarence Ashley and Roscoe Holcomb.” He even plays clawhammer banjo, and it made a special appearance on the new Grascals’ album, Before Breakfast. “We’ve never done anything that has an old-time feel,” says Danny. “It’s something totally different for us.” John’s clawhammer stylings help kick off the song “Delia” on Before Breakfast, and is just one of the many surprises on the band’s latest album.

Before Breakfast follows the band’s hit record And Then There’s This, their first with both John Bryan and Adam Haynes. It was one of the biggest hit bluegrass albums of 2016 and ’17, and included the mega-hit “I Know Better.” The album served as a great showcase of this new era of one of the industry’s most popular bluegrass bands.

However, the band’s latest release Before Breakfast takes things a step further. The most recent album debuted at #2 on Billboard’s bluegrass charts and has already generated its first #1 hit single, “Sleeping With The Reaper.” It has been said that variety is the spice of life, and The Grascals’ embodiment of the old maxim shines through on this album.

Make no mistake though, The Grascals are a bluegrass band, and their bluegrass influences remain front and center. Before Breakfast is fiddler Adam Haynes’ second album with the band. Having previously worked with Melvin Goins, James King, Grasstowne, and Dailey & Vincent, his bluegrass pedigree runs deep, particularly for someone of his age. “He’s a veteran. He was working just as hard as all of us long before joining The Grascals,” says Kristin. Like John Bryan, Adam’s tastes are much more old-school than his boyish grin would indicate. “Kenny Baker to Curly Ray Cline, Bobby Hicks, Chubby Wise—all those guys,” says Adam. “If it’s good and raw, I like it.”

As one of the top bluegrass fiddlers on the circuit today, Adam plays with his own unique style. He’s what Danny calls “a real bluegrass fiddle player,” and he’s not wrong. “The way he plays a fiddle, it’s got a little sparkle to it,” says Danny. “That’s what you hear in his playing: you hear all his influences, but he’s just him. That’s what’s cool!”

Regardless of the direction a piece of material may be heading, Adam’s fiddle playing echoes both his and the band’s identity. From the spooky vibes of “Sleeping With The Reaper” to the country sounds of “Demons” to the mountain melodies of “Clear Corn Liquor” or the straight-ahead bluegrass of “Lost And Lonesome,” Adam brings both an open mind and an authentic bluegrass flair to everything he plays.

Just as John and Adam’s backgrounds have influenced the band’s current album, Danny Roberts’ pre-Grascals experience adds a nice touch to the new album as well. One of the most influential mandolinists in bluegrass over the past twenty years, Danny’s love for gospel music has him excited for the three sacred songs included on Before Breakfast. “We’ve never done much, and it’s such a difference to me, because in my old band (New Tradition), we were probably 75% gospel.” One of the original gospel songs, “I’ve Been Redeemed,” has already become a Top Ten hit on Southern Gospel radio. Along with the Kelsi Harrigill-penned “There Is You” and the old Flatt & Scruggs number “He Took Your Place,” they fit right alongside the various mixture included on the band’s latest album. “Between the gospel stuff and then the mountain things and the more progressive things, this record definitely has some different turns,” says Danny.

The Grascals have never been afraid to push the envelope, but they are always quick to draw from the deep well of bluegrass history that’s been laid down before them. Since their inception, they have served as a bridge connecting today’s audiences with the bluegrass sounds of the past, while also introducing traditional bluegrass audiences to the modern sounds of today. Before Breakfast continues both ends of their bridge-building work, by both digging into the past and reaching into the future.

Their blueprint is similar to that of their most widely known influence—the Osborne Brothers. Bobby and Sonny’s ability to position bluegrass music in a contemporary setting was one of the many lessons that Terry Eldredge and Terry Smith learned while working alongside the Hall Of Famers. They brought these and other lessons with them when they helped form The Grascals in 2003. “With the Osborne Brothers, they wrote the book,” Smith says. “We just check it out of the library every once and a while.”

The way Smith and Eldredge soaked up everything they could from Bobby and Sonny is replicating itself in their relationship with the newest Grascal. “You don’t get up and do the songs and arrange the harmony like that without knowing what you’re doing,” John says of Eldredge and Smith. Having come of age under the tutelage of the Osborne Brothers, the two Terrys learned harmony singing from the masters and are now passing that on to the next generation.

“With Bob and Sonny, it was real easy to sing with them because they knew it, and all you had to do was find it. You’d hear the other part already,” says Eldredge.

“It’s just a different type of harmony. It’s real, and it just grabs you,” adds John. “I’d always done a lot of duet stuff, but when I got with them and started doing a lot of the three-part harmony, and Smitty telling me where to go—places I might not have gone before.” The mentoring relationship that the two Terrys have had with John has not gone unnoticed. “I’d say the biggest influences I’ve had would probably have to be them two, because it’s made a lot of difference. It’s rounded me out.”

Danny continues, “There’s not many people out there that have done what Eldredge and Smith have. These guys have worked with Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Wilma Lee Cooper, and Bobby and Sonny—all of these legends of our music, and then have their own band and working with the younger folks, too. There’s not a lot out there like these two—in many ways!”

Ironically, it was while Terry and Terry were working with the Osborne Brothers that Grascals banjoist Kristin Scott Benson was soaking up every note that Sonny Osborne was playing. “We play the Myrtle Beach Festival, and I would go to that festival every year and see the two Terrys playing with the Osborne Brothers,” Kristin recalls. “It’s neat to go there to play as a member in a band with these guys. I saw them every show I ever went to where I saw the Osborne Brothers.”

The admiration is mutual, especially considering that Kristin’s primary influence was Terry and Terry’s former boss. “She’s got a Sonny influence,” says Smith. “But, she’s got her own way of doing it.” Eldredge adds, “She fits different styles of songs.”

There’s a reason Kristin is one of the most celebrated banjo players of the generation. The “pretty good for a girl” caveat doesn’t apply to her. Just ask Danny Roberts: “There is not a more perfect musician on the planet than Kristin Benson. That woman plays perfectly.”

Much like the Osborne Brothers, whose work on country package shows with artists such as Merle Haggard placed bluegrass in front of many new ears, The Grascals’ resume of playing arenas with the likes of Dolly Parton and Hank Williams, Jr., has allowed bluegrass to be heard by many new fans. “With Dolly, it was cool because there’d be thousands of people out there, and I don’t know how many times we heard people saying, ‘We don’t like bluegrass, but we like y’all! We really like this. We didn’t know it was like this,’” laughs Eldredge. “Unfortunately, a lot of people look at bluegrass like their uncle and neighbor that sits on their back porch and sings out of tune,” adds Danny.

Thankfully, The Grascals have escaped the stereotype, by playing alongside some of the biggest names in country music both on tour and through regular appearances on the historic Grand Ole Opry. Their ability to bring a “cool” factor to the stage with their laid-back attitude and understated charisma has allowed them to feel at home in front of any audience. Part of this may be that their approach to bluegrass, and music in general for that matter, has always been so unique.

“When we started the band, we said, ‘We’re not going to try to do anything because this is what a bluegrass band should do,’” Danny recalls. “We all did music that we liked. We’ve always done that.” This perspective has resulted in two International Bluegrass Music Association Entertainer Of The Year awards, three Grammy nominations, and countless other accolades, but The Grascals are not ones to rest on their laurels.

Their persistent drive to create original, heartfelt music that satisfies their needs and not the fickle trends of the day has never allowed them to grow stale or stagnant. This attitude has never been more prevalent than on Before Breakfast. This freedom has allowed The Grascals to remain both authentic and label-less. The originality of their sound and attitude gives them the ability to take chances and go with their gut, while still being true to themselves. Even with all of the musical diversity on Before Breakfast and changes in the band over the past few years, it’s still The Grascals.

“It sounds like The Grascals no matter what we do,” says Danny. “Even if it may be a little more mountain or maybe a little more progressive or whatever. It’s still riding around what we’ve always done. It’s like nobody changed anything.”

One Response to “The Grascals”

  1. Richard Harris says:

    Grascals = Best in Bluegrass.
    “Before Breakfast” is on of the best bluegrass cd’s ever!
    “Demons” is the best bluegrass song of all time!

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