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The Grascals connect with a little help

By John Lupto, January 2005

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"The name kind of evolved from that...they were just gonna call it The Nashville Superpickers. A lot of the guys that were singing on that didn't play on it - we're not superpickers, we're not even pickin' on it, so (Isbey) said 'If you come up with something cool, then let me know. If not, that's what we'll call it.'"

"Terry (Eldredge) and I were sitting at my house, with my wife, we were having dinner one night, and we said, 'Let's think of something cool for this thing' because we weren't really crazy about the other title. Terry's a huge Andy Griffith fan, Mayberry and the Andy Griffith show, and we were trying to think of things that would go with that, and I thought of the Little Rascals and I thought, 'Hey, how about the Little Grasscals?' Terry liked the idea, and we took it to Patrick...and he liked it too. We went with two s's on that one, and the main reason this one kind of broke off, obviously, we're not 'little' guys, so we made it 'The Grascals' and did it the one 's' to try not to confuse folks, though we realize it's gonna happen. But it had absolutely no spin-off of that record."

The 13 tracks reflect the Grascals' respect for and devotion to a variety of bluegrass and country themes and - that word, again - connections.

Among the more familiar titles are "Sweet By And By," "Lonely Street," the Travis Tritt hit "Where Corn Don't Grow" and a pair of tunes by a father, Red Allen ("Teardrops In My Eyes") and his son, Harley ("Me and John and Paul"). That particular circumstance just sort of happened, though, says Johnson.

"There was no intention at making a connection. Harley just wrote a great song, we just like his songs. All of his songs are just incredible."

"Likewise, his dad is just a bluegrass legend. I think it's obvious on the record that we're huge Osborne Brothers fans. (Red) played with the Osbornes for years, and out of a great combination, it was just one of our favorite traditional songs."

"When we started sitting down and listening to songs, we wanted to find the ones that weren't over-recorded and had to be really tasteful about picking out Osborne Brothers songs because you're not going to match them, and we realized that...So that's where the Red Allen song actually came from. We're huge fans of Red's, but obviously, he was in the Osborne Brothers at the time, and it's just a great song from the great stuff they did. We wanted to make sure we put a spin on a great traditional bluegrass (song)."

"Me and John and Paul," a ballad of childhood friendship and support enduring throughout the years, was a song that fit naturally with what the band was all about.

"The cool thing is, Harley wrote pretty much a country song with bluegrass instruments, and we love that song as well."

All six Grascals come from more or less similar cultural and musical backgrounds. For Johnson, home was Milan, Ind., the home stomping grounds of the Boys From Indiana, the legendary band headed by mandolin player Aubrey Holt for many years before he retired and folded the band in the mid-1990s.

A stint early in his career with the band provided a big boost in Johnson's fortunes.

"My brother, Brad, was a huge bluegrass fan, and the only reason I got into bluegrass. I was a bluegrass fan, but nowhere near what he was. He passed away at 20 years old, and I was 18. When my brother passed away in (an) accident, I got all his records that would remind me of him, and most of the records were the Osborne Brothers records, and the other set of records was the Boys From Indiana."

"He was friends with Jerry Holt, the bass player, (Aubrey's) son. They were best friends, and that's how I got connected with them. I listened to all their songs and didn't realize, under their music, I loved it. However my life developed, people would hear me in college and say, 'you sound just like them guys.' For some reason, I went from engineering to a bluegrass singer. I took the plunge and went for it, and it led me down here."

The close proximity to an artist of Holt's stature left a lasting impression.

"That's where I started a lot of my songwriting. I'd be on the bus with him, and he'd be writing a song in the back of the bus. Obviously, the first ones I wrote would be pretty generic, but watching him do that and then perform them onstage and getting the big standing ovation and people clapping for him off something that came out of his head inspired me a lot to write music."

As Dolly finishes up her touring schedule, the Grascals can't wait to get out on the road on their own.

"We're looking forward to getting out and doing the bluegrass festivals, gettin' to be with all the folks because basically, everybody pretty much knows a lot of the guys in our group, from playing with The Sidemen and different bands. The great thing about this is, now we're our own artists, we are the actual group as the artists...we're all part of the ownership of the band, introducing ourselves as leaders and not sidemen, and hopefully that'll go over well."

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