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The Grascals connect with a little help

By John Lupto, January 2005

Two nights before Christmas, a freak December storm across the Midwest has kept Grascals singer and guitarist Jamie Johnson bound to his Nashville-area home, disrupting not only his holiday travel plans back to his native Indiana, but also canceling an opportunity to sing with one of his idols, bluegrass legend Bobby Osborne.

Still, he muses, there have been few other black clouds in 2004 for Johnson, 32, and his band mates - fiddler Jimmy Mattingly, lead singer Terry Eldredge, banjo player David Talbot, mandolinist Danny Roberts and bassist Terry Smith.

Two months prior to the official February release date of their self-titled Rounder debut, their rollicking cover version from that album of Elvis Presley's "Viva Las Vegas," featuring a guest vocal by Dolly Parton, clocked into Billboard's country singles sales chart at an impressive number three.

Heady territory, and pretty much uncharted waters for bluegrassers, and Johnson admits the reaction has been surprising.

"That was actually David Talbot's idea...he's a big Elvis fan, he had originally taken the idea to another band, and they didn't want to do it. So he threw the idea up to us and our first instinct - we didn't think it would jibe, but as soon as he played it for us, and we listened to it a few times, then he took out the banjo and gave us an idea of the tempo he wanted to go...and we just got a kick out of it right off the bat and thought it would be great. It's turning out better than we thought it would."

"The tracks were done, and then we decided we (would approach) Dolly with it. We told her we had recorded it, and she said 'Wow, that's a great idea, I wish I would have thought of that', so then that makes the idea pop in our heads, 'how cool would it be to have Dolly sing with Terry (Eldredge) on that?', so she came in."

Dolly's support in the band's success, of course, extends far beyond doing a guest vocal here or there. For the last few months, The Grascals have been the regular opener in her touring show, and Johnson enthuses about the doors that have opened for them.

"She treats us like family," he says. "Of course, she's just right out there, and of course the advantage for The Grascals is the fact that we get to open up every single show we go out and do with her, in front of usually a crowd of 5,000-7,000 a night, minimum. And you're in front of a lot of folks who would not normally be listening to bluegrass music, so that's opened up a whole new audience for us...we've captured quite a few fans from playing in front of probably a quarter-million people over the last three months."

It's not, of course, as if they're a bunch of young unknowns becoming "overnight successes."

As with most veteran bluegrass and country musicians, a full rundown of the history and connections between these six guys is long. Suffice it to say that if Garth Brooks, the Osborne Brothers, Jimmy Martin and countless studio sessions with the Music Row elite ring any bells in your consciousness, chances are you've experienced the music of one or more of them.

Curiously, Johnson says, the band's genesis lies in a chance meeting between the two of them - he and Mattingly - who had not previously known each other.

As a longtime member of Brooks' band, Mattingly had wide national recognition, due in large part to his appearance with Brooks in the Dr. Pepper TV commercial that was aired extensively. They met, Johnson recalls, at Nashville's famous bluegrass tavern, the Station Inn, where Johnson was a regular with the renowned house band, the Sidemen.

"I knew Jimmy had some connections with the Osborne Brothers a few years back and also that he had been a member of Dolly Parton's band a few years back...he came down and heard me. I knew exactly who he was because he had played for Garth and had been on TV and is probably one of the most decorated fiddle players of all time. I thought it would be intimidating, but it wasn't intimidating at all. He's a super nice guy."

They hit it off immediately, but the idea of forming a band was still somewhere off in the future.

"After a few months, he called back to me and asked me what I'd think about getting a band together. The first guy we picked was Terry Eldredge, and then the next guy we talked to was David Talbot, and then from there it went to the obvious choices for bass player and mandolin player, with Terry Smith on bass and Danny Roberts on mandolin."

"The cool connection there is that Terry Smith played with Terry Eldredge for 12 years with the Osborne Brothers and started The Sidemen with him years ago, and then another cool connection is that Danny Roberts and Jimmy Mattingly are childhood buddies. They're from the same hometown (Leitchfield, Ky.)."

Two years earlier, Johnson, Eldredge, Smith and Talbot had been part of an "all-star" recording on the French label, Naxos World, produced by Patrick Isbey and released under the title "Bluegrass: The Little Grasscals, Nashville's Superpickers." The name "Grascals" is related, says Johnson, but not quite as directly as might be assumed.

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