Album Review: The Grascals – The Grascals & Friends

Juli Thanki | January 11th, 2011

The Grascals - The Grascals & FriendsOne of the best elements of a Grascals album is their choice in covers, which have included their own versions of songs made famous by Jennings, Jones, and Haggard–just to name a few. The sextet’s blend of bluegrass and classic country makes them one of the most entertaining, most consistent bands in roots music.

The Grascals & Friends is the first release on the band’s own BluGrascal label. Available at Cracker Barrels everywhere, the album is exactly what its title implies: a CD full of collaborations between the band and a few of their uber-talented musical pals like Tom T. Hall, Dolly Parton, Dierks Bentley, The Oak Ridge Boys, and, uh, Steven Seagal.

Another first: this is the Grascals’ first charity album, with a portion of the proceeds going to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. One of the album’s two originals, “I Am Strong,” (written by Grascal Jamie Johnson, wife Susanne Mumpower-Johnson, and Jenee Fleenor), was inspired by a visit to the hospital. It’s a gentle, moving ballad reminiscent of Rascal Flatts’ “Skin (Sarabeth),” and were it released to country radio, it’d probably be a hit. However, album’s bonus track, a recording of “I Am Strong” that features the album’s guest artists all singing a line or two, treads a little too close to “We Are the World.” The first version, with just The Grascals, Parton, and Ansley McLaurin (a young St. Jude’s patient who, in her delivery of the lyrics, epitomizes the song’s message) is by far the better one.

The other original on The Grascals and Friends is “Cracker Barrel Swing.” Composed by Danny Roberts (mandolin) and Terry Smith (bass), the jazzy track gives the Grascals a chance to show off their expert picking skills on one of their best instrumentals in recent memory.

The covers—or, as they’re described on the album cover, the “country classics with a bluegrass spin”—are, for the most part, pretty sharp. Guest and song choice mesh wonderfully throughout the record, with Brad Paisley, backed by twangy Telecasters, nailing “Tiger by the Tail,” and Joe Nichols turning in a tender vocal performance on “Mr. Bojangles.” Dolly Parton, who The Grascals backed during her Hello, I’m Dolly tour, appears on three of the album’s 12 tracks, turning in the album’s strongest performance with Terry Eldredge on “The Pain of Lovin’ You,” which she originally wrote and recorded with Porter Wagoner for 1971’s Two of a Kind.

For the most part, The Grascals remain faithful to each song’s original sound, punching them up with tasty banjo and mandolin licks. Though their interpretations of these classics generally work, their Hank Williams, Jr. medley could easily have been left off the album, as it contains what is possibly the least-rowdy version of “All My Rowdy Friends Are Comin’ Over Tonight” ever recorded. Luckily, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” featuring Charlie Daniels, includes enough raucousness for both songs.

The Grascals and Friends is a fun collection to listen to, and one that supports a good cause. You can’t ask for much more than that.

3.5 Stars

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oew56nR3UuI

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  1. [...] band the Grascals and a troupe of guest stars including Brad Paisley and Dolly Parton. …Album Review: The Grascals – <em>The Grascals & Friends</em>The 9513this week with dollySeymour HeraldCracker Barrel has a Tiger by the Tail with New Grascals [...]
  1. Stewman
    January 11, 2011 at 9:47 am

    These cover choices are just so tired at this point. These songs have all been heard a million times at this point, so what’s the point?

  2. M.C.
    January 11, 2011 at 12:32 pm

    Stewman–Have you heard the album or are you just reviewing the song choices? Because several of them are unlike any other versions I’ve heard.

    You know, in jazz and blues as well as bluegrass–all traditional American musical styles–it’s fully accepted for artists to redo classic material in their own way. But for some reason it’s sometimes frowned upon when country, rock or pop artists do it–as if the song can’t be reheard in a different way, no matter how many times it’s already been recorded.

    I understand why, for much the same reason people find it suspect whea singers don’t write most of their own material. But, really, it seems that each recording deserves to be judged on its own merits, whatever the sourcr or inspiration. I also think the classic songbook needs to be revisited regularly.

    At the very least, it seems new recordings deserve to be heard before being condemned as irrelevant.

  3. Barry Mazor
    January 11, 2011 at 12:39 pm

    I’m with M.C. on “covers”

    In fact, I’d have that loaded word dropped entirely if I could. It had a meaning once. It meant a rapidly thrown together alternative recording of a song just out on record, or just about to come out, produced to cut into and piggyback on the sales of the other label’s release. (That in the 1950s a lot of them were bland pop covers of tangy R&BN or country originals only gave the word a worse name.)

    What these are here are the Grascals’ versions of some good, even classic songs. And why not!

    It’s true that in the indy rock world there’s extra “cred” (if you happen to give a damn about that sort of “cred’) for coming up with an unexpected or even ironic choice of a song to, uh, “cover.” But this, you probably have noticed, is not the world of indy rock. And so be it.

  4. Stewman
    January 11, 2011 at 12:52 pm

    I didnt say irrelevant, i said tired. Does the world ever need another version of “DWDTG”???? That’s all im asking. You can throw a few other songs on this album in there as well.

  5. Leeann Ward
    January 11, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    I’m always open to another good covers album. If they visit the good classics, I’ll at least know that the songs will be good, even if I don’t end up liking the execution. That’s much better than an album of bad originals.

  6. Jon
    January 11, 2011 at 5:19 pm

    @Stewman The world “needs” a good version of a song that’s already been done just exactly as much as a good version of a new one. Because, you know, there’s that whole performance aspect of music that, it seems, you just don’t “get.”

  7. Rick
    January 11, 2011 at 7:35 pm

    I think they should have asked Ricky Skaggs to join them for a cover of “Long List Of Heartaches”! I’ve always wondered what that song would sound like with a top notch bluegrass vocalist at the helm.

    Hey, when is Kristin Scott Benson going to start her own bluegrass band? I do think she will grow weary of all that whoopin’ and hollerin’ at some point. Well, I hope so anyway.

  8. stewman
    January 11, 2011 at 9:39 pm

    @Jon. I remember Del McCoury thanking Steve Earle for injecting Bluegrass with new material when they did The Mountain. I would disagree with that statement. New Music when it hits a nerve is more impactful than a bunch of covers.

  9. Music Marketing
    January 11, 2011 at 10:51 pm

    I love this song. This would be a definite hit if it were played on the radio. God Bless all the people that are in the hospitals around the world. They really need a song like this to make it through.

  10. Jon
    January 12, 2011 at 10:11 am

    I remember Del McCoury thanking Steve Earle for injecting Bluegrass with new material when they did The Mountain. I would disagree with that statement. New Music when it hits a nerve is more impactful than a bunch of covers.

    With all due respect, Stewman, what you remember might not be quite what Del said. And do you know the number of songs from the Mountain that Del does on his shows? It hovers right around zero (0). And do you know the number of “covers” that Del does on his shows? It can vary quite a bit – much of his shows are typically made up of requests – but probably averages out around 15%. And that’s from a guy who’s been writing songs and recording previously-unrecorded ones by bandmembers and other songwriters for 40 years or so. As much as he appreciates new songs, Del appreciates old ones, too.

    But that’s neither here nor there, really; you just happened to invoke someone whose music and musical thinking I know pretty well. The real point is that your comment doesn’t rebut mine, which was:

    “The world ‘needs’ a good version of a song that’s already been done just exactly as much as a good version of a new one”

    “Exactly as much” is a phrase that points in both directions. I didn’t say the world doesn’t need new songs, I just see no reason – either personally or in the context of country, and especially bluegrass, history – to give them greater priority. And if you don’t see it the same way, it’s because you’re too busy formulating the issue in loaded terms, like:

    “New Music when it hits a nerve is more impactful than a bunch of covers.”

    Well, d’oh. How about new music when it doesn’t hit a nerve? How about a set of artfully chosen, compellingly performed classics?

    This project is essentially a concept album, accurately described in the title (including the subtitle, which is “country classics with a bluegrass spin.” If they were all new songs, they wouldn’t be country classics, would they? Just exactly where’s the problem? FYI, there’s a long, long history of country and bluegrass artists doing just exactly this kind of thing – collections of old favorites, tributes to predecessors, and so on. In fact, when the hillbilly genre was first emerging, the emphasis in describing the songs being recorded was on their familiarity. Maybe you just don’t “get” country music, or at least one important and fundamental piece of it.

    In any event, if new songs are what really float your boat, I suggest you pick up the Grascals’ previous records, where you’ll find plenty of them.

    @Rick Terry Eldredge IS a top notch bluegrass vocalist.

  11. Stewman
    January 12, 2011 at 10:54 am

    @Jon. He doesnt perform The Mountain songs because he and Steve had a big falling out shortly after that. So that would make sense. And to my first point, its not a covers album that bothers me, I agree with many of your points about cover songs, its just to me the selected covers on this record are very played out at this point, no matter how you look at it.

  12. Jon
    January 12, 2011 at 11:22 am

    @Stewman Where does your “because” come from? Because I will guess that unless your alias is concealing the name of one of no more than about 10 people, I know a little more about how Del chooses which songs to do on his shows, not to mention his attitudes about Steve Earle, than you.

    As for the rest, how I look at it is that I form my opinions about musical performances after hearing them, not before. I still enjoy a good performance of “Sally Goodwin,” even though it is far more “played out” than anything on this record (and, in fact, the Grascals have recorded a very nice version of it). And your belief that songs can be “played out” suggests that you don’t agree with the fundamental point about cover songs. At all.

  13. luckyoldsun
    January 12, 2011 at 11:28 am

    Del McCoury publicly objected to Steve Earle’s cursing on stage. Earle suggested that Del’s complaint about cursing was really a pretext for something else–something probably having to do with do-re-mi.

    Supposedly, Del said, “There’s no place in bluegrass for vulgarity.”

    On Steve’s next album, in the chatter between songs, he says “Just remember folks, there’s no place in vulgarity for bluegrass.” I always get a chuckle from that salute to Del.

  14. Ray
    January 17, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    I happen to think the Grascals’ mix of bluegrass and country classics fits their show and style very well. Since I am from southern Indiana, near Jamie Johnson’s home and first saw him with the Wildwood Valley Boys I’m a bit prejudice I suppose. I caught them in Florida a couple of weeks ago – Jamie, Terry and the entire crew did a marvelous show for an almost 100% audience of retired and transplanted midwesterners that was warmly received.

  15. Jon G.
    January 24, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    As far as covers go, I am drawn more to new material simply for the reason that said material is supposedly entirely new and thus allows for a wholly new experience. At the same time, however, a well-done “cover” can be just as exciting. For some relatively recent examples, Phil Vassar’s version of his own “Little Red Rodeo,” made famous by Collin Raye, blows the hit version out of the water, and Emerson Drive did a respectable cover of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” on ‘Countrified.’ And Collin Raye and Jamey Johnson have both done brilliant covers of Allen Reynold’s “Dreaming My Dreams With You,” which is of course best-known as the title track to Waylon’s ‘Dreaming My Dreams.’ I also really enjoyed ‘Dwight Sings Buck’ and Wynonna ‘Sing Chapter 1.’ An older covers album that I find incredible is Johnny Paycheck’s ‘Mr. Hag Told My Story.’ (I know we’re talking about country, but ‘Soul’ by Seal was also a very cool covers record. In regards to Stewman, I personally cannot own enough good versions of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” and Seal’s take is certainly a good one.)

    As far as this album goes, though I’ve heard admittedly little from them, the Grascals have made a positive impression on me, so I might pick this up. Jim Malec also gave it an exceptionally good review on AmericanNoise.

  16. stormy
    January 24, 2011 at 12:48 pm

    My favorite Dreaming My Dreams is the Cranberries cover.

  17. Leeann Ward
    January 24, 2011 at 1:19 pm

    The Cranberries cover? Who are they covering? Same title, different song.

  18. stormy
    January 24, 2011 at 1:31 pm

    Some new lyrics but same basic structure and same chorus.

  19. Leeann Ward
    January 24, 2011 at 2:03 pm

    Stormy,
    I can’t help but feel incredulous, because they’re completely different songs, including the chorus which is certainly is not the same. Even if the songs were somewhat similar (which I maintain they’re really not), the Cranberries song could not be called a “cover”, maybe a rip off (which I don’t think it is, since it’s not the same), but not a cover.

  20. Jon
    January 24, 2011 at 2:04 pm

    If by “same,” you mean “different.”

  21. Leeann Ward
    January 24, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    I feel like I’m in the Twighlight Zone.

  22. Jon
    January 24, 2011 at 2:12 pm

    And to be precise, the review Malec wrote was “favorable, as opposed to “good.”. A good review would have treated “I Am Strong” with something other than cheap cynicism.

  23. stormy
    January 24, 2011 at 2:14 pm

    Fine, the Cranberries sang a completely different song that uses the same hooks and sounds the same, that they themselves call and homage to Waylon.

  24. stormy
    January 24, 2011 at 2:15 pm

    Unless–are you thinking of Dreams?

  25. Jon
    January 24, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    Not Twilight Zone, Bizarro world.

  26. Leeann Ward
    January 24, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    Maybe it’s an homage to Waylon (I haven’t read any Cranberries press), but an homage is not the same as a cover, which is what you called it. They’re two different songs. They don’t even credit Allen Reynolds as a co-writer on the song, which they shouldn’t, since they’re different songs.

    And, no, I’m thinking of “Dreaming My Dreams.”

  27. Leeann Ward
    January 24, 2011 at 2:24 pm

    *Sorry, Twilight Zone.:)

  28. Jon
    January 24, 2011 at 2:57 pm

    And since the Allen Reynolds song is actually called “Dreaming My Dreams Wirh You,” they don’t actually have the same titles, either. Unless y “same” you mean “different.”

    Alison Krauss did a beautiful version of the Reynolds song on Forget About It.

  29. Leeann Ward
    January 24, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    Jon,
    I’ve seen it labelled both ways, but mostly “Dreaming My Dreams with You”, as you say. Love the Alison Krauss version.

  30. Jon
    January 24, 2011 at 3:56 pm

    That’s the title under which it was registered with BMI.

    Crystal Gayle’s version was scrumptious, too, and I believe Reynolds produced it.

  31. ccdixon
    January 24, 2011 at 4:06 pm

    @Jon G. – Have you heard Allison Moorer’s version of “A Change Is Gonna Come” on the Dear New Orleans album? Just gorgeous.

  32. Jon
    January 24, 2011 at 4:09 pm

    Getting back to the Grascals and this album, here’s a recent live performance of “Louisiana Saturday Night”:

    http://video.foxnews.com/v/4507228/after-the-show-show-the-grascals/

  33. Leeann Ward
    January 24, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    I don’t know Crystal Gayle’s version. I’ll have to check it out. I also love Patty Loveless’ version.

  34. Matt B
    January 24, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    I’m all for cover albums and think the hatred of ‘covers’ or ‘remakes’ of classic songs is a decidedly American thing as popular pop/rock acts in the UK and the rest of Europe do it all the time.

  35. Jon
    January 24, 2011 at 5:22 pm

    I don’t know about whether it’s an American thing, but it’s certainly not a country thing.

  36. Jon G.
    January 31, 2011 at 2:13 pm

    So…sorry for starting a crazy tangent.

    I appreciated Malec’s point of view on “I Am Strong.”

    I have heard Moorer’s version of “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Not bad, but it’s not my favorite. Aloe Blacc also had an interesting take on it called “Long Time Coming” on his debut ‘Shine Through.’

  37. Jon
    January 31, 2011 at 7:14 pm

    Really, Jon G.? You appreciate the idea that “I Am Strong” is “far too topical to offer any real musical or literary value?”. You agree with Jim’s apparent belief that only mild topicality or no topicality whatsoever are prerequisites for real musical or literary value? Because I think that’s a pretty indefensible view.

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