Black Music Matters Festival

The Grascals keep on walkin'Print article

By Jeffrey B. Remz, July 2008

The way Jamie Johnson of The Grascals views it, the adage "if ain't broke, don't fix it" applies to the bluegrass sextet's new "Keep on Walkin'" CD. Who could blame him either? The group has enjoyed two well-received albums, a hit single with "Me and John and Paul" and won the prestigious entertainer of the year award two years running from the International Bluegrass Music Association. Not bad for a group of mainly veteran musicians who came together only four years ago for the long haul playing bluegrass and country.

Johnson, who shares lead singing chores with Terry Eldredge, says with the new CD, the group "took the same approach and wrote a few songs. We get songs from the great songwriters in Nashville and around the country and also the traditional music from the Osborne Brothers, Flatts & Scruggs and Jimmy Martin and stuff like that. It turned out a lot more traditional, and that's a good thing. We're still The Grascals. We'd love to be tied to traditional bluegrass (and country) because that's the music we love. We feel like we still put our spin on it in each and every song. We came into our own more. That's the key to the album."

While Johnson says songs may have been more traditional sounding, that was not the intent. "Honestly, we were not," he says via cell phone while on the tour bus en route to a show in North Carolina. "It just kind of happened. We love traditional Flatt & Scruggs and put the Osbornes on it...We all know their music more than anybody else's and love it, and it's kind of got that country feel."

"The band has just gelled more,' says Johnson, adding, "We didn't want some perfect sounding studio album that we couldn't pull off live...We wanted to feel that you were taking the journey with The Grascals at a live show."

Me and John and Paul

"It's not the new style of country music we're going for by any means. We're looking for the old style," Johnson says.

While some aspects remain the same, several did not. The Grascals have a different line-up this time around and even since the disc was recorded. Aaron McDaris joins the line-up on banjo replacing David Talbot. Jimmy Mattingly played all the fiddle parts on the new CD, but he, too, has left the group. Jeremy Abshire replaced Mattingly. Terry Smith remains on bass and vocals, while Danny Roberts plays mandolin.

Johnson says McDaris brings a different sound to The Grascals. "McDaris is more of a traditional bluegrass style picker, and we love that. It's very clear and very dominant. He's just an incredible bluegrass picker. He on the other hand has learned more the country stuff. 'Today I Started Loving You Again' has one of the best breaks on the album. It's about five notes that he hits." Johnson also praises McDaris for the "incredible country break" he plays on "The Only Daddy That Will Walk the Line."

When the recording of Flatt & Scruggs' "Rollin' In My Sweet Baby's Arms" was done, they took it to Earl Scruggs' house and played it for him. "It put a smile on his face," says Johnson of McDaris' playing.

Abshire joins the group after being with Dale Anne Bradley. "We had quite a few people try out, and we're working so much, quite a bit, and they've already got some jobs playing fiddle," says Eldredge of the contenders for the job. "Luckily we found this Jeremy Abshire." Eldredge says Bradley wasn't that active, paving the way for Abshire to leave.

The Grascals have three singers - Johnson, Eldredge and Smith. How do they decide who sings lead? "I've got to find my own, the ones that suit my voice the best," says Johnson. "'Long List of Heartaches' (the title track of the second CD) - I wrote that song, but I wanted to Terry to sing it...It's just whoever's voice fits the song."

"It doesn't matter. It's a band. Terry Smith's singing on this album ("Can't You Hear That Whistle Blow")."

On "Long List of Heartaches," The Grascals employed folks like George Jones, Dierks Bentley, The Jordanaires and Steve Wariner to help. "We put people on the album who we loved. Everybody is a George Jones fan. That's the reason," says Johnson.

This time around, the only big name player is Vince Gill, who lends vocals on "Sad Wind Sighs." "We cut back on the guests because we ran out of friends," says Johnson jokingly.

"We wanted this album to be about us. We had so many songs to get to do. We really didn't want to use it having someone else come in. This is our third album, and we want to make it more about us."

Gill did not come into the picture until it came time to record the very last song. "We were backstage at the Ryman Auditorium on a Grand Ole Opry night," Johnson recalls. "Vince came in and was talking with myself and Terry (Eldredge). He's always a big fan of Terry Eldredge's...Terry just asked him 'hey, would you come in and sing a song with us?' He said 'absolutely.' He should never have said that because I called him the very next day."

Covers include "Choices" made famous by George Jones, "The Only Daddy That Will Walk the Line," a Waylon Jennings classic, and the traditional "Farther Along."

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