It’s a scenario that shouldn’t have played out nearly so quickly.
Sure, the members of the contemporary bluegrass band The Grascals were well known in Nashville. Several had clocked time as instrumentalists for such country big leaguers as Garth Brooks and Dolly Parton. Guitarist and vocalist Terry Eldredge also was popular through informal concert jams at Music City’s famed bluegrass haunt The Station Inn.
But once The Grascals became a working band with a country-savvy debut album, everything snowballed.
Here is what happened in very short order: Even before the release of The Grascals’ self-titled debut album in 2005, Parton invited the band as her opening and backup group for a tour of predominantly bluegrass-oriented music. “The Grascals” and its 2006 follow-up recording, “Long List of Heartaches,” earned Grammy nominations. Then came the kicker. In 2006 and 2007, the band was named entertainer of the year by the International Bluegrass Music Association. The latter, a hefty honor for any new act, is widely viewed in bluegrass circles as a bigger deal than a Grammy nod.
“For a new band just starting off, it would take about 10 years to get where we’re at now,” Eldredge said. “We’ve done it in about 4 ½. We’ve had a lot of help along the way. But we’ve worked hard at it, too.”
Unquestionably, the Parton connection helped (Eldredge also toured with the singer during the ‘90s). So did the lineup of all-stars who augmented the Grascals’ grass sound on “Long List of Heartaches,” including country legend George Jones, veteran country singer/guitarist Steve Wariner and contemporary country hit maker Dierks Bentley.
But what carries The Grascals today is a sound that brushes its music back to something more traditional in design - even if that tradition is rooted heavily in country music. Maybe that’s why the biggest guest on the band’s third and newest album, “Keep on Walkin’,” is a celebrity who knows a thing or two about bluegrass. Helping out on the “Walkin’” song “Sad Wind Sighs” is Vince Gill, the country star who played string music decades ago with the Louisville-based Bluegrass Alliance.
“Yeah, Vince has been a bluegrasser for a long time,” Eldredge said. “We were talking to Vince backstage at the Grand Ole Opry one night when we were both guests. So I just asked him if he would be interested in singing on a song with us for our new album. He said, ‘Sure. Just call me and we’ll set it up.’ So the very next morning, Jamie (Johnson, co-guitarist and vocalist for The Grascals) called. He didn’t even let a day go by.”
Eldredge said the recording process on “Keep On Walkin’” wasn’t any different from the game plans for the band’s first two albums, even though banjoist Aaron McDaris joined before the sessions began and fiddler Jimmy Mattingly left after the record’s completion (he was replaced by Jeremy Abshire). One of the primary goals remained in finding material suited to the three-part harmonies of Eldredge, Johnson and bassist Terry Smith. Their vocal blend has become a trademark of The Grascals’ traditional-meets-contemporary sound.
“That’s the part of the process that’s always a challenge,” Eldredge said. “Of course we want great musicians. But we really need the stuff that shows off the harmonies. That’s what made Sonny and Bobby so famous. They focused strongly on their singing.”
OK, now we’re talking. Sonny and Bobby, of course, are The Osborne Brothers, who led one of bluegrass music’s most progressively minded ensembles for decades. They also, at one time, employed Eldredge and Smith.
“We totally go for the Osborne Brothers sound,” Eldredge said. “They were really one of the first bluegrass bands to bring in electric instruments. They also put numerous country songs in their repertoire. We kind of base our sound off of them. They are still our main influence.”
That helps explains why country tradition figures as prominently on “Keep on Walkin’” as bluegrass. Among its songs are the relatively recent (1999) George Jones hit “Choices” and the Merle Haggard-penned “Today I Started Loving You Again,” plus a pair of often-covered country chestnuts, “The Only Daddy That Will Walk the Line” and “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.”
“We’re all fans of the old country sound,” Eldredge said. “Most all of the guys in the band grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry. We would sit around on Saturday nights and listen to it on the radio.
“But it’s also a lot of fun to mess with these songs and find out what really works for our sound. Of course, the original country music really was pretty much string music to begin with.”
The next contestant to get in on The Grascals’ new-generation bluegrass music? Get this: Hank Williams Jr. The day after our interview with Eldredge, the band was slated to record a bluegrass track with the usually hard Southern rocking country luminary for his next album.
“Actually, he cut it once already with the main studio musicians here in Nashville. I guess it wasn’t bluegrass enough for him,” Eldredge said. “He told our publicist, ‘What I need is a true, traditional bluegrass band to play this thing.’ So he was told, ‘You need The Grascals.’”