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Grasstowne takes road headin' home

By John Lupton, October 2007

Recounting the story from his home in his native Knoxville, Tenn., Grasstowne's Phil Leadbetter acknowledges that from the moment he answered the phone shortly before Thanksgiving 2006 to the early August release of the band's debut CD, "The Road Headin' Home," it has been an intense, but rewarding experience.

The voice at the other end of the line that day was longtime friend Steve Gulley, whom he had met on the same night more than 30 years ago that Leadbetter got the chance to play with his idol, the late Josh Graves.

"I started playing about '74, playing Dobro." says Leadbetter, now 45. "When I first got one, I had no idea what it was. My brother played banjo at the time, and he got to talking about a Dobro, and I had no idea what it was. He brought me a Flatt and Scruggs record, and I heard Josh Graves, and I really liked the sound - about three months later from the time I started playing, I actually got to meet Josh Graves, and he invited me up on stage to play with him. I got to play a tune called 'Shuckin' The Corn' with him - that was the first tune I ever heard him play on a record. That actually hooked me."

Gulley, it turned out, was in one of the other bands on the lineup that night.

"Steve was playing bass, and I was about 12 years old at the time...From about that point, I was just amazed at what a great singer he is. Steve and I are six months apart in age. Over the years, we got to be buddies. We played in different bands and around town."

As the years passed, the friendship endured, though their professional careers never seemed to intersect in the same band at the same time.

"I went to Nashville and worked with Vern Gosdin and Grandpa Jones and kind of got tired of the Nashville thing, (so I) moved back to Knoxville and got hired by J. D. Crowe. One of my first shows out (with Crowe) was at the Festival of the Bluegrass in Lexington (Ky.), and I ran into Steve again, and he had just went on with Doyle Lawson. So, my first big bluegrass gig was Crowe, and his was Doyle, so it was another chance we didn't get to play together."

At roughly the same time, they both opted to strike out on their own, though again in different ways. After leaving Crowe, Leadbetter stepped out as co-founder and a driving force in Wildfire, a band with enough of a following to not only maintain an active touring schedule, but to rack up three successful CD releases on Pinecastle Records as well, while Gulley and fellow Lawson alum Barry Abernathy founded Mountain Heart, with Gulley as lead singer and guitarist.

"Time went by, he put together Mountain Heart, I put together Wildfire. The opportunity didn't happen then, but in the last of November (2006) Steve called me one morning and said he wanted to do something different and was just ready for a change. He'd been with Mountain Heart eight years, and I'd ' been talking about a change also, and he asked if I was interested in trying to put something together. I told him he couldn't have called at a better time. We hooked up about an hour later, I drove up to Steve's house, and we threw some names around."

The first name that popped up was that of another well-traveled bluegrass veteran.

"I worked with a band around 1980 called New Dawn, and we had a mandolin player named Gary Brown (who) used to talk about his cousin being a great mandolin player, and that was Alan Bibey."

Gulley expressed doubt that Bibey (who was also an original member of IIIrd Tyme Out) would be willing to give up his long-running tenure with Blue Ridge, but as Leadbetter continues, "I'd just talked to Alan probably two or three weeks earlier, and I kind of detected that he might be wanting to do something else. So, we called him, and he agreed. The three of us got together and threw around some different names of people we really liked, and Jason Davis, who plays banjo, was one of those."

Rounding out the nascent band was bassist Lee Sawyer, though Leadbetter notes that the band's burgeoning travel schedule and commitments forced Sawyer to drop out shortly after the album was recorded, to be replaced by Jamie Booher.

With the basic pieces of the puzzle in place and facing the challenge of getting a band up-and-running from scratch, they turned to a tool that Bill Monroe never had the opportunity to utilize.

"We had the band together prior to Dec. 1st, but (that day) we made an announcement, and just with the speed and technology of the Internet and all, we really got this thing out real quick. We kind of set us a deadline, I told all the guys, 'Let's make us a plan that we're gonna be in the studio, we'll have us a record deal and everything before the first couple of weeks of January. And we did. We signed with Pinecastle Records. They were real happy...We really got working on this thing, started getting a lot of material that had been vetoed when I was in Wildfire and some that had been vetoed when Steve was with Mountain Heart. We pulled together, and we really liked these tunes...and we told (Pinecastle boss) Tom Riggs we'd have him a record before March 1, and we did."

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