[6 August 2008]
Upon hearing the Grascals for the first time, you’d swear that they’ve been a band for decades, or at least been crammed into a time traveling DeLorean and brought to the 21st century from early 1950s Appalachia. The truth is that the Grascals have only been together for five years; however, they’ve been some pretty jam-packed years, touring as Dolly Parton’s backing band in 2004 and recording with folks like George Jones, Steve Wariner, and legendary mandolin player Bobby Osborne.
Although the Grascals have both feet firmly planted in the bluegrass tradition, they also owe a debt to classic country music, as evidenced by their covers of George Jones, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard songs. It’s a testament to the Grascals’ musicianship that they can make songs like “Today I Started Loving You Again” and “Choices” sound like they’ve been bluegrass songs all along—and in the case of “Choices”, make it sound as good as (if not better than) the Possum’s original. At first it’s a little jarring to hear “Only Daddy That’ll Walk the Line”, a song entirely associated with Jennings’ rich baritone, sung in a nasal tenor, but by the second or third listen, the Grascals’ version begins to grow on you. By the fourth listen, you’ll be singing along.
In addition to their country covers, the Grascals also tackle bluegrass standards, most notably the Flatt and Scruggs version of the traditional song “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms”, on which new addition to the band Aaron McDaris gets to show off his fancy banjo pickin’ skills. The final song of the album is the classic bluegrass gospel song “Farther Along”. It’s been recorded by approximately every bluegrass artist ever, and while the Grascals’ take on it isn’t especially innovative, their four-part harmony makes this song a joy to listen to. And for those who have never seen the band live, realize that those voices on the record are untouched by ProTools. In person, the harmonies are just as sweet.
Keep on Walkin’ also has a couple Grascal-penned originals as well as tracks from some of songwriting’s big guns. Vince Gill, a bluegrasser himself before the Nashville establishment sunk their claws in him, guests on “Sad Wind Sighs”, an Aubrey Holt song so upbeat you forget it’s about a dead girl. “Remembering” is quite possibly the “He Stopped Loving Her Today” of 2008, but this time, instead of a man having to die in order to forget a lover, the song’s lens is focused on a D-Day veteran who can only find peace in death 40 years later. It’s a poignant reminder of the human component of warfare, and sadly, this song may ring true for more than a few listeners out there today.
With the release of this album, the Grascals have hit their stride, proving they don’t need a cadre of big-name guest stars on their records in order to release good music. Keep on Walkin’ is proof positive that the Grascals are one of the best bands –- regardless of genre—out there. Although the golden age of bluegrass music is generally considered to have ended 50 years ago, the Grascals are doing a damn good job of bringing it back.