The “pickin’ and grinnin’” bit Buck Owens and Roy Clark did on the Hee Haw television show wasn’t meant as a musical advice segment, but it could’ve been a good one. History’s proven that the combination of musicianship and showmanship can take an act further than just pickin’ or grinnin’ alone.
Prioritizing both for the past decade is part of what’s earned the Grascals a fan base extending beyond even casual bluegrass fans. Adding to the sextet’s appeal — both for those who dig bluegrass pioneers like the Osborne Brothers and those who are more familiar with, say, new country-rock duo the Brothers Osborne — is their knack for applying a very direct string band attack to hooks worthy of country, and occasionally ‘60s pop, charts, not to mention their interest in accessible pop culture references.
You can hear all of that on their latest album, When I Get My Pay. Founding mandolinist Danny Roberts gives his take on what’s worked for them.
CMT Edge: Bluegrass lineups are known to be extremely fluid. Did you expect the Grascals would make it to the decade mark period, much less do it with two-thirds of your original members intact?
Roberts: Well, actually, we kinda really did. [Founding fiddler] Jimmy Mattingly, he and I grew up together. He’d played fiddle with everybody. Garth Brooks had just retired, so [Jimmy] was kind of in limbo. And he and Jamie Johnson were the two that got to talking about it one night down at the Station Inn — “We ought to put a band together and have something where it’s ours.”
When we all got together, most of us were right at 40 years old. It’s like, “We’re starting a new band, and this is it. We need to do this with the intent for this band to make it. This isn’t just a fun little thing. This is, ‘Let’s make a real effort at doing something that will last.’”
You got the sort of boost that few new bluegrass bands get right out of the gate — a gig with Dolly Parton.
We happened to be in the studio working on a project, our first songs, in the same place that Dolly was doing some cutting, even the same engineer that Dolly used, Patrick Murphy. And he played some of our stuff for Dolly. She loved it.
Of course, she had a long relationship with Jimmy, and also Terry Eldredge had played and sung with her on and off. So she called Jimmy and said, “I would love to get you guys to come out and play with me, come out and open the show and then be my band for the tour.” And what a perfect start for a new band. It took us from, “The Grascals? Who are they?” To “Oh, that’s Dolly’s band. It was just such a shot in the arm.”
Would you say that Dolly also helped shape how you present yourselves as a band? Did you take anything away in terms of your entertaining sensibilities?
Oh, there’s no question. Watching her, she’s such a professional on and off stage. … I mean the woman don’t sleep three hours a night. She works on songs. She would come to soundcheck with a new song. … About every time we came off the road we’d be in the studio. She’d be cutting, working on thing she had written. She was always working.
Her professionalism onstage and her rapport with the audience, it was a great thing for us to see. We watched that, and when we were opening her shows, we went out there and hit it just as hard as we could.
You had Dolly guest on your first album, and you’ve had high-profile guests on every one since, like Hank Williams Jr., Brad Paisley and now Dierks Bentley. Did you plan to make that a pattern?
It’s not anything that we consciously thought, “We need to do this.” … When we do a CD, it seems like there’s always certain people who are in our band’s life at that time.
We had been opening shows for Hank, so we were tied in with him that way. When we got ready to make this last CD, we didn’t think, “OK, who do we want to get on here?” It just happened that Jamie and his wife Susanne had written the “American Pickers” song, and Jamie had met Mike [Wolfe, the show’s star]. He and Mike are big buddies now.
Jamie and Dierks had gotten a friendship through motorcycles. … Dierks credits Terry Eldredge for him even singing. Standing in the Station Inn, watching Terry Eldredge with the Sidemen made Dierks want to sing. So we’ve had Dierks’ friendship from the beginning of the band.
You brought up the song “American Pickers” a moment ago. You really seem to be on a roll with the TV show song thing, from covering the Monkees to your Andy Griffith Show tribute and this ballad of the American Pickers. Any thoughts on why that sort of thing keeps happening?
Again, I think it’s just timing of what’s going on. Now, the Andy Griffith thing, at that time, we were involved in some stuff over at Mayberry Days in North Carolina, and they came to us. The Monkees thing was just that we liked the song and thought it would be fun to cut and make a bluegrass version of it.
Jamie told Mike [Wolfe], “Y’all need a theme song.” So they wrote it and Mike just loved it. They’re saying it’s gonna be on the show, but the wheels turn really slow on stuff like that. Right now we’re just hoping for it to happen.
On that subject, when you’ve covered songs that the Dillards played on The Andy Griffith Show in the ‘60s, you’ve hearkened back to an era when bluegrass had more of a pop culture presence. Was that something that appealed to you about revisiting this sort of material?
There’s no question. I know it’s been 10 years, but it still feels new in so many ways. It’s like we’re still building our foundation. We keep building and climb up to that next level. And the more people you can cross-pollinate with, whether it be Andy Griffith fans or fans of the American Pickers show or Dolly’s fans or Dierks’ fans, that’s just gonna build you up more.
You regularly stock your albums with both bluegrass and country material, and you almost always use country instrumentation like drums and steel. How is it that you’ve been so successful at having it both ways?
We have the stuff in there, but we really work at keeping it mixed tastefully to where you listen to the record and you say, “That had steel and drums on it, didn’t it?” Not, “Oh man, that drum is taking the top of my head off.”
We all grew up loving traditional country along with the bluegrass music. One of the things we’ve always done with this band is we record music that we like, and we mix it the way we like it.
“Me and John and Paul” [from the Grascals’ self-titled debut album] was the IBMA song of the year and had steel and drums on it. But we never heard anybody say anything.
The new album has straight-ahead bluegrass, traditional country and pop-leaning material, and track after track is tuneful, full of clever lyric hooks and tightly performed. Where do those sensibilities come from?
That was one of the things from the beginning — lyrics of songs — that we were adamant about. We didn’t wanna just cut filler songs. We always try to be sure that every tune has a great lyric and means something to somebody.
Everybody in the band writes. Jamie’s a great writer, one of the best writers in town. But just because we have our songs don’t mean we’re gonna cut ‘em. We listen to lots and lots of songs. I don’t think we’ve done a record without one, two, maybe three Harley Allen songs.
And everything we’ve done generally has something that Jamie has written, but it’s not because he’s written it. It’s because it fits what we’re doing. … We’ve really worked at trying to get good lyrics for what we’re wanting to do.