Black Music Matters Festival

Are Dixie Bee Liners "Ripe" for success?

By Ken Burke, April 2008

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"I was playing bluegrass gigs about every two weeks with a revolving lineup of musicians, alternately called Buddy Woodward & the Grassy Knoll Boys or The String Club For Men. I started bringing Brandi up for a couple songs. Next time, a couple more. We kind of threw her in the deep end. She basically learned her craft on the job, but she handled it like a pro."

By 2003, they were writing songs together and planning their self-titled CD debut, which was recorded in Woodward's home studio, affectionately dubbed Spatula Ranch. Despite the addition of new equipment, recording in a New York City apartment had its drawbacks. "We lived on the third floor, right above a bus stop," he recalls. "That meant that about every 11 minutes we had to stop recording, otherwise whatever we were doing would be completely ruined cause we'd hear the bus's brakes."

Although finding a steady line-up of top-shelf bluegrass pickers proved difficult, Woodward didn't consider moving down South until 2005, when the Barter State Theatre of Virginia offered him a role in their production of "Man of Constant Sorrow." After two successful runs with the play and a national tour, he and Hart decided to move to Abingdon, Va. to be closer to the theatre and better pickers.

"When we got down here to Virginia, we had a week to put a new group together and play this headlining gig over in Abingdon. So, we made some phone calls and pretty much wound up with the band that we have now, with a couple of exceptions."

The current line-up includes British-born banjoist Sam Morrow, fiddler Rachel Rene Johnson, bassist Jeremy Darrow and guitarist Jonanthan Maness, who Woodward found on MySpace.

Both Woodward and Hart wanted a band experience where all the musicians could feel free to contribute arrangements, pitch song ideas and share in the proceeds equally. "That's why we're called the Dixie Bee Liners not so and so and the Dixie Bee Liners." He continues: "If somebody has an idea for one of the songs we're working on, we'll add their name to the songwriter credits. We'll encourage them to write songs with us, we'll encourage them to bring their own stuff in there, and we'll lobby for that to get on the record just as much as we would our own material."

With a solid creative situation in place, the Dixie Bee Liners began to shop for a label Wayne Bledsoe - a Knoxville writer and disc-jockey - suggested Pinecastle, who needed convincing. Woodward recalls how the deal was sealed. "In October 2006, when I was on tour with the Stanley Brothers play, we had a one day layover in Columbus, N.C. where (Pinecastle's) offices are. So, we were at the launderette, and I'm just about to put my skivvies in the washing machine and one of the guys says, 'Hey Buddy, look across the street.' I look, and it says Pinecastle Records. So, the star of the play did my laundry for me while I went across the street and gave them the hard sell. Not too long after that, we signed a deal."

Working on "Ripe" with veteran producer Bill VornDick proved an invigorating experience "Having an outside producer took a lot of the pressure off of my shoulders," says Woodward. Further, their willingness to collaborate and research yielded results. The band had trouble licking the frisky "Bugs in the Basement" until banjoist Morrow rearranged the piece before they went in the studio.

Blue Highway's Tim Stafford was brought in to help flesh out the ode to Civil War General "Grumble Jones." A Kentucky Explorer article provoked Woodward to challenge Hart to write what eventually became the poignant "Dixie Grey to Black." And, lest you figure that Woodward and crew have gone completely traditional, the opening to one of "Ripe's" highlights, a gospel drenched rendition of their own "Lord, Lay Down My Ball & Chain," was inspired by Sonny & Cher's "The Beat Goes On."

Woodward currently pays the bills with another acting gig - this time he plays a musician in the Carter Family Show - while his band mates clear their calendars for a national tour. Asked about his long-term goals for the Dixie Bee Liners, the singer-actor waxed whimsically, "Well, I'd like to tell everybody, that we've always had this dream that we would have a house on the beach and all live together like The Monkees. We'd have dune buggies. We'd have like a little breakfast nook where we'd have our instruments set up and we could practice. We could have butt races up and down the sand dunes, run around and do crazy things. And, if everybody buys one or more copies of 'Ripe,' we can make that dream a reality. (Sings. 'Here we come. Walkin' down the street...'"