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The Grascals, a Grammy-nominated bluegrass group from Nashville, are, from left, bango player Aaron McDaris, mandolinist Danny Roberts, vocalist/guitarist Terry Eldredge, bassist Terry Smith, vocalist/guitarist Jamie Johnson and fiddler Jimmy Mattingly.
Courtesy photo
The Grascals, a Grammy-nominated bluegrass group from Nashville, are, from left, bango player Aaron McDaris, mandolinist Danny Roberts, vocalist/guitarist Terry Eldredge, bassist Terry Smith, vocalist/guitarist Jamie Johnson and fiddler Jimmy Mattingly.

Bluegrass is greener for The Grascals
Talented group of veteran sidemen bring entertainer-of-the-year-worthy performance to Princess stage

By Andrea Brunty
abrunty@decaturdaily.com · 340-2448

You can expect high energy and a whole lot of toe-tapping fun at a bluegrass concert with The Grascals.

You’ll also see a lot of laughing and goofing around, too, said vocalist/guitarist Jamie Johnson, when the six guys perform at the Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts in Decatur on Oct. 18.

“We enjoy our job and I think it shows on stage,” Johnson said.

And thank goodness, he said, because the group received entertainer of the year for the second year in a row at the International Bluegrass Music Awards in Nashville on Oct. 4.

“No complaints from here,” he said. “It feels very good.

“It’s just a humbling experience, you know? ... Competition is fierce, and there are so many great artists. Anyone in our category could have won and we wouldn’t have been surprised.”

Though The Grascals formed in 2003, they aren’t newcomers to the business.

As with most veteran bluegrass and country musicians, the connections between the members are extensive as they crossed paths while establishing themselves as talented sidemen.

Three Grascals members — fiddler Jimmy Mattingly, bassist Terry Smith and guitarist Terry Eldredge — all served time with legendary bluegrass duo The Osborne Brothers, who the band considers its biggest influence. In fact, Sonny Osborne recently presented the group with their IBMAaward. The Grascals continue to apply harmonies learned from the Osbornes, while mixing their own brand of traditional bluegrass with traditional country.

Mattingly, perhaps the most recognizable of the group, was a member of Garth Brooks’ band and appeared in a Dr Pepper commercial with the country superstar. Smith and Eldredge later reunited with Mattingly to perform with Dolly Parton’s band.

Mandolin player Danny Roberts and Mattingly are childhood friends from Kentucky. Banjo player Aaron McDaris, who joined The Grascals in 2006, played in New Tradition with Roberts, who co-founded the group more than 20 years ago.

“The key is we’re all friends. ... It wasn’t just an accident that we got together. ... We hand-picked our favorite musicians and our favorite singers,” he said. “Everyone had the same goal and the same vision to make things work.”

Most of the members connect in some way to The Sidemen, the popular house band Smith and Eldredge started at The Station Inn in Nashville.

“The Station is where we first cut our teeth as a band,” Johnson said. “We were playing for 100 people a night.”

Fate

The transition from supporting players to forming their own group was a bit of fate, Johnson said.

In 2004, Parton listened to the band and loved them. Their former boss offered the group an opportunity to tour with her, and soon they were playing for 15,000 people a night.

“The time with Dolly was priceless ... just to look at her perform and watch her work the crowd, being the legend that she is,” he said.

Being able to learn from a dedicated performer like Parton gave the band firsthand experience on how to rehearse and behave in the spotlight.

“We owe a lot of our entertainer of the year (awards) to her,” Johnson said.

Many big stars would refuse to put in the effort to go to every sound check and wake up at 4 a.m. for a radio interview, Johnson said, but not Dolly. She gets on stage and performs every song like it’s the first time she sang it, he said.

As surreal as the experience was, he said, the group decided to advance on their own after 11/2 years of opening for Parton.

“It was hard to leave a steady job, but it was time to start hitting the bluegrass scene,” Johnson said.

The hard work paid off with IBMA accolades in 2005 — Emerging Artist of the Year and Song of the Year for “Me and John and Paul.”

The Grascals’ self-titled 2005 debut and the chart-topping “Long List of Heartaches,” released in 2006, were both nominated for a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album.

Parton calls her former sidemen, “one of the best bluegrass bands I’ve ever heard.” The guys returned her admiration by asking her to contribute vocals on the bluegrass version of “Viva Las Vegas.”

“Long List of Heartaches,” features guest performances by George Jones, Dierks Bentley, Steve Wariner and the Jordanaires and includes songs like “Did You Forget God Today” and “Will You Be Loving Another Man.”

Business partners

Though The Grascals found success as accomplished musicians, being a sideman is not an easy job, Johnson said.

“It’s a hard business to be in financially. ... We know we got bills to pay and bluegrass is not the highest-paid music industry out there. You apply your business skills, but (at the same time) you’ve got to have the drive to get somewhere.

“You’ve got to start out loving the music and loving what you’re doing.”

Building that business partnership as equals is what has kept The Grascals flourishing.

“You’ve got to have yourself a great team — another priceless thing we learned from Dolly and Garth Brooks,” he said. “We’ve watched these people work hard and dig and dig and dig (to get where they are).

What’s next?

The group is on tour about 130 days a year and working to record their new album, to be released in February. Music videos are also important in the business for record sales and notoriety, Johnson said, and they plan to shoot one soon.

“We kick ourselves in the rear for not having that (sooner),” he said.

And a big upcoming tour is in the future with someone The Grascals have worked with in the past.

But Johnson said he couldn’t reveal who it would be.

In bluegrass and in life, “it’ll all come back full circle,” Johnson said.

“But it’s not Dolly,” he said, laughing.

If you go

What: The Grascals, bluegrass concert

When: Oct. 18, 7:30 p.m.

Where: Princess Theatre Center for the Performing Arts

Tickets: Tickets are $20-$28, available at the Princess box office, 340-1778, or through its Web site, www.princesstheatre.org.

On the Net

  • myspace.com/thegrascals

  • www.grascals.com

    Name that band

    Grascals members Jamie Johnson, Terry Eldredge, Terry Smith and David Talbot (an original member of The Grascals before he moved on) were part of a recording called “Bluegrass: The Little Grasscals, Nashville’s Superpickers.”

    The Grascals name evolved from the CD title (dropping the “Little” and extra “s”), though the two projects are not related. The Little Grasscals is connected with the old “Little Rascals” comedy troupe.

    Eldredge and Johnson came up with the name as a joke.

    “We though it was funny and we’re playing around, and then they liked it (and chose it for the CD),” he said.

    When they formed their own band, Johnson said, “We thought, ‘Dang, that’s just a cool name. Let’s keep it.’ ”

    Getting started

    In the early ’90s, Jamie Johnson was in college pursuing an engineering degree. His older brother, a huge bluegrass fan, exposed him to the genre.

    “He loved the music, but it wasn’t my first choice of music at the time,” he said.

    Then his brother died in an accident, and Johnson found himself listening to his brother’s Osborne Brothers records. “I took something then that was a tragic situation in my life, and made the most positive thing out of it,” he said.

    Then all his college buddies started telling him he sounded like the duo.

    “I got the bug ... got the bluegrass bug,” he said, laughing. “I just started realizing ‘Man, this is good stuff.’ ”

    In 1998, he moved from Indiana to Nashville, to “be the next big star,” he said, jokingly.

    Terry Eldredge, also from Indiana and now Grascals’ lead singer, guided him into the bluegrass scene.

    “Next thing you know we were putting the band together.,” he said.

    And now that headlining goal is a reality for Johnson as a singer and guitarist with the Grammy-nominated group The Grascals.

    “Every path led me back to bluegrass. ... It’s just been an amazing ride,” he said.

    “I took something then that was a tragic situation in my life, and made the most positive thing out of it.

    Jamie’s story

    In the early ’90s, Jamie Johnson was in college pursuing an engineering degree. His older brother, a huge bluegrass fan, exposed him to the genre.

    “He loved the music, but it wasn’t my first choice of music at the time,” he said.

    Then his brother died in an accident, and Johnson found himself listening to his brother’s Osborne Brothers records.

    “I took something then that was a tragic situation in my life, and made the most positive thing out of it,” he said.

    All his college buddies started telling him he sounded like the duo.

    “I got the bug ... got the bluegrass bug,” he said, laughing. “I just started realizing ‘Man, this is good stuff.’ ”

    In 1998, he moved from Indiana to Nashville, to “be the next big star,” he said, jokingly.

    Terry Eldredge, also from Indiana and now The Grascals’ lead singer, guided him into the bluegrass scene.

    “Next thing you know we were putting the band together,” he said.

    And now that headlining goal is a reality for Johnson as a singer and guitarist with the Grammy-nominated group The Grascals.

    “Every path led me back to bluegrass. ... It’s just been an amazing ride,” he said.

    Name that band

    Grascals members Jamie Johnson, Terry Eldredge, Terry Smith and David Talbot (an original member of The Grascals before he moved on) were part of a 2002 recording called “Bluegrass: The Little Grasscals, Nashville’s Superpickers.”

    The Grascals name evolved from the CD title (dropping the “Little” and extra “s”), though the two projects are not related. The name is connected with the old “Little Rascals” comedy troupe.

    Eldredge and Johnson came up it as a joke.

    “We thought it was funny and we’re playing around, and then they liked it (and chose it for the CD),” he said.

    When they formed their own band, Johnson said, “We thought, ‘Dang, that’s just a cool name. Let’s keep it.’

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