The Grascals work hard. That’s the only logical conclusion we can make when we seek to explain the success and continued upward trajectory of one of bluegrass music’s most in-demand modern acts.
The Grascals consist of Jamie Johnson, vocals; Terry Eldredge, vocals and guitar; Terry Smith, vocals and bass; Danny Roberts, vocals and mandolin; Jeremy Abshire, fiddle and Kristin Scott Benson on banjo and guitar. Since 2004, this fruitful union of prodigious individual talents has conspired together to produce an exciting new bluegrass sound that somehow manages to be greater than the sum of its parts.
Whether appearing at one of the many bluegrass festivals, touring in Europe, performing on national television shows or recording new music, The Grascals have refused to let the blue grass grow under their feet. They’ve played The Grand Ole Opry, NPR’s Mountain Stage, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson and even performed the National Anthem at the 2010 Titans vs. Steelers football game.
This graft has, unsurprisingly, garnered the band much acclaim. The SPBGMA voted them Bluegrass Band of the Year in 2010 and Instrumental Group of the Year in 2011 and the IBMA awarded them the Entertainers of the Year title for 2006 and 2007. In addition an assortment of individual musicianship awards were handed out for several members of the group.
Their career so far has seen them collaborate with some of the most notable names in bluegrass and country music. Their last CD – The Grascals And Friends: Country Classics With a Bluegrass Spin, saw them record with Dolly Parton, Brad Paisley, Charlie Daniels and Tom T. Hall among others. Their current offering, Dance Til Your Stockings Are Hot and Ravelin’, is an EP of songs from and inspired by The Andy Griffith Show. A celebration timed to coincide with the show’s 50th anniversary.
All things considered, we can count ourselves lucky that singing bass-man, Terry Smith could take a few moments to share with us his thoughts on all things “Grascally.”
I: The members of The Grascals all boast pretty impressive individual resumes. What is it about this collection of musicians that has allowed you to form such a cohesive unit?
T: It’s just about chemistry I guess. The joke is that we all got together originally because we all became unemployed at the same time. There’s some truth to that though. We all got done with what we were doing. It’s all about timing. We got together and were cutting a CD and Dolly Parton had heard about us and asked to hear maybe three or four songs from that record. She was putting together a tour at that time. She heard our CD and two or three weeks later we were on payroll. That opened the door for us and we’ve never looked back since. We owe her a lot.
I: Your last CD, The Grascals And Friends featured collaborations with some of the most highly regarded artists in the business. How did that project come about? Did you expect to get such a good response from the musicians you asked to participate?
T: When the opportunity came up, we were just discussing what kind of album we’d like to do. We’d always, on all our records, done at least one song with another artist and it always came out great. So it seemed like a natural thing. We thought instead of doing it as the artist and their back-up band we’d try and make it more like a duet. You never know how something like that’s going to turn out. You think you’ve got a good concept. When we got done we really felt like we’d hit a home run with that one. We’re proud of it. With every artist the song sounded like it was made for them. They did such a great job. One of the most proud moments of my life was finishing that album.
I: It seems as though The Grascals have worked hard for the successes you’ve enjoyed. With a busy schedule of tours, recording and personal appearances, how do you keep it fun? Is it hard to keep things fresh?
T: We enjoy it. We enjoy each other and making music. You have to work at keeping things fresh sometimes. We have different audiences every time. You can tell a joke and if people didn’t laugh at it the first time, it makes it fresh for you! Some of us are middle-aged guys but we’re still having a blast.
I: Your latest release is a seven song EP of music from The Andy Griffith Show. That’s a pretty unique idea for a project. Why did you choose that show? Whose idea was it?
T: One of our old sponsors, Mayberry’s Finest actually came to us. They were thinking of doing a project in honor of the 50th anniversary of The Andy Griffith Show; they actually cleared it with Andy himself and he requested us to do it, which is a great honor. Everyone in the band loves the show. Terry Eldredge jokes that “even the communists like Andy Griffith!” Myself and Terry Eldredge are the Andy Griffith experts; we can quote all the dialog from the show. We’re such fans that when the opportunity came, we jumped at it.
I: The one original song on there is called “Boy, Giraffes Are Selfish.” Who wrote that song?
T: Me, Terry, Danny and Jamie. Actually Danny came with a lot of the ideas. He had a lot of random lines written down. When they came to us, they told us they’d like for us to a song about the episode “Dogs, Dogs, Dogs.” Instead of writing just about the episode though, we looked at Danny’s random lines and I saw “Boy, Giraffes Are Selfish” and thought that was a good hook line right there. If you know the show, then you’ll totally get it. They loved it at Mayberry’s Finest.
I: What are The Grascals working on right now?
T: Well right now we’ve got an extremely busy summer and early fall coming up. Of course we listen to songs and we’re always thinking about our next album. Mainly we’re just gearing up for touring in the summer.
I: I know there are several band members including yourself that write songs. Is there any original music in the works?
T: We’re always writing. Jamie writes; Danny writes; I write. There’s always the potential there. We usually go for whatever the best thing is for us to do. We listen to the material we have and if it’s there fine and if not it’s OK. It’s an ongoing thing.
I: You’re a bass player. Was that your first instrument? What drew you to the bass?
T: Well I started out playing mandolin. I started in a family band when I was five years old. In jam sessions and sometimes at shows, I would play the bass and in the beginning it was an attention getter because I started slapping on the bass. I would stand on a chair and everybody would go “oh look at the little kid slapping on the bass.” As time went on, I grew to have a love for it. As I understood it better, it seemed like a natural fit.
I: Who are your musical influences?
T: Well, a lot of the traditional guys. Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe, The Osbourne Brothers, Jimmy Martin and The Stanley Brothers. We love the traditional music. George Jones on the country side. Merle Haggard as well. I love the Beatles; they were a major influence on me. I remember The Ed Sullivan Show. I was four years old and I was one of the kids that started combing my hair forward.
I: The Grascals have collected a pile of awards and accolades over the past several years from both the IBMA and the SPBGMA. What’s the secret of a successful bluegrass band?
T: As far as the awards go, that’s something you can never plan for. It’s a great honor to be chosen by the fans and our peers. I don’t know if there’s a formula. It sounds cliché, but you have to just be yourself. At our live shows we go and try to have a genuinely good time. I think part of our success is because we do have a good time and the audience can see that. We try to have a good time with them, not exclude them. We try and invite them in and when we start playing off them and they get that and play off us, then everybody has a good time. That’s what it’s all about, entertainment. If people want art, they can go to a museum. We just try to entertain the folks and if there’s a secret to our success then that’s it.
I: When you look back at The Grascals story so far, is there a collaboration or performance that stands out? What’s been a personal highlight?
T: Every time we play the Opry. It’s such a special stage. The Ryman is pretty much where bluegrass was invented. I first played there with Jimmy Martin in 1978 and I still get butterflies now. I’m pretty much an Opry brat. I was raised there but it’s still a big deal.