The Grascals Dream of Joining the Opry As They Approach Their 100th Appearance
The Grascals are royalty on the bluegrass scene, having won SPBGMA’s Bluegrass Band of the Year award in 2010, the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Emerging Artist of the Year award in 2005 and earning its Entertainer of the Year honor in both 2006 and 2007.
Danny Roberts began playing guitar to back up his fiddling friend Jimmy Mattingly–a founding member of the Grascals–when the two were growing up on adjacent farms in Leitchfield, KY. Roberts would take up the mandolin soon after and in 1982, co-founded a bluegrass band called the New Tradition. After the group broke up in 2000, he went to work for Gibson Musical Instruments, eventually rising to the position of plant manager at the company’s Original Acoustic Instruments luthiery. He kept busy as a musician working with friends such as Sam Bush, Chris Thile, Bobby Osborne, Marty Raybon, Larry Cordle and Melonie Cannon. He joined The Grascals in 2004 and would go on to be honored with the 2006 and 2008 SPBGMA Award for Mandolin Performer of the Year.
The Grascals have recently left Rounder Records, the only label the band has known, and taken control of their musical direction and distribution. Their first independent project is with the powerhouse eatery Cracker Barrel called The Grascals & Friends – Country Classics with a Bluegrass Spin. The band created an album filled with classic country covers and a guest star list that would make any Grand Ole Opry show proud.
Roberts carved a little time for The 9513 to talk about the band’s newest project and what lies ahead for The Grascals. And speaking of Grand Ole Opry, the band has hopes to join the ranks of members some day.
After a few years away as the plant manager at the Gibson luthiery, how are your wood crafting skills these days?
(Laughter) Well, hopefully they’re about the same. I had to get away from that part a bit. The Grascals got so busy that I had to leave my role of plant manager and now I’m helping in repairs. I do a lot of repair quotes. So I don’t get a lot of hands-on repair things nowadays. Now people send things to me and I just tell them what the problem is. I tell them what it is going to take to fix it. That is where I am more or less at these days. I spent four or five years there as the plant manager which was a job that I loved. It is just fun being around the instruments that you love so much. It’s just an honor. I think we created some of the finest mandolins that Gibson has ever produced while I was there. It is just really fun being a part of that.
You have a brand-new CD out this month. Tell me first about the importance of the Cracker Barrel partnership.
Number one, the Cracker Barrel has been one of my favorite places to eat. Now to be part of the music, it’s great. Cracker Barrel has gotten huge with their music sales. With the way downloads are these days there’s not a lot of outlets we can go out and purchase physical CDs–everything is done online. Cracker Barrel has changed that model back by forcing people to go to their stores to pick up CDs. Their success has been phenomenal. For us to be able to get a CD in there is such a great thing. We are really excited about it. And the thing that is extra exciting about it is what we’re doing with the song “I Am Strong.” Jamie Johnson, who plays in our band, and his wife wrote the song. We went down to St. Jude (Children’s Research Hospital). We always go down there at least once a year to present a check to them. We play a Musicians Against Childhood Cancer Festival in Columbus, Ohio each year and they present a check. We take it down there every year.
And when we were there last year, Jamie saw this big board in a hallway on the way to the lunchroom. There were all these handwritten notes in the theme of “I Am.” There was “I Am Weak,” “I Am Sick,” “I Am Tired,” and “I Am Homesick.” The theme of it was “I Am Strong.” Jamie saw it and thought it would make a great song. So he started to work on the song and when he finished it and played it for the Cracker Barrel people, they fell in love with it. So we went to St. Jude and recorded a video for it–Dolly is in the video with us. And Cracker Barrel agreed to pay a portion of each CD sold to St. Jude. Not only is it a great opportunity for The Grascals to be in Cracker Barrel, but hopefully it’s going to be a great opportunity to save some of these kid’s lives with the money we generate for St. Jude.
It’s an honorable thing you guys are doing. I happen to have a very dear friend who has had her son back there twice now for treatment. They do incredible work for the kids.
It’s a phenomenal place. We’ve been down there four times now and seeing what they’re doing for those kids is amazing. Bless their hearts, those kids are so sick. But they treat them so well. Whether it’s letting them ride tricycles down the halls, keeping everything so colorful, everything they do with the Target House and for families–it’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen. I dreaded it the first time going down there, but after I went, it was so awesome what they were doing for the kids. You just never know if it’s going to be you needing a place like that.
The Nashville community supports that hospital so amazingly well–of which you guys are a major part of the fabric of that community. While my friend was there, Amy Grant came in and did a private concert for about a dozen patients and their families. It’s really incredible how supportive the whole Nashville musicians are for those kids.
As a musician, if you’re able to use your talents or fame–whatever you want to call it–to help somebody, why not do it? To be able to help other people is what you just have to do if you can.
Let’s switch gears back towards the album again. This album has more cover songs on it and has more guest stars than ever before. What was the method behind the song selections and who you chose to come in and guest on vocals?
First off, Cracker Barrel likes to do stuff that is familiar to the public. They want it familiar to their demographic–country people coming in off the road. So we wanted to pick songs that we felt would be familiar. Songs like Buck Owens’ “Tiger by the Tail” and “Folsom Prison Blues” are examples. Songs like “Devil Went Down To Georgia.” So we came up with a group of songs that we thought would be great to do and then we started talking about artists. We started talking to friends like Brad Paisley. When we talked to him about songs, he loved “Tiger By The Tail” and wanted to come in and do and play guitar on that one. We said, “You’re more than welcome to.” (Laughter)
And then Charlie agreed to do “Devil Went Down To Georgia” on it with us. And he just did such an amazing job with it. He almost put another little twist on it than what he’s done on his recordings. We sang with him and we did the music which was very cool. And when we were talking about “The Year That Clayton Delaney Died,” we all thought it would be so cool to have Tom T (Hall) on that. He came out of retirement and came into the studio and just hammered it. He had a great time with us and it’s just an honor to have these people on here.
Of course, we wanted to do something with Dolly. She’s meant so much to this band. We’ve all been out on the road and being her band is what gave this band its start anyways. We thought it would be really neat to do one of the old songs that she had written. We selected one of the songs she did with Porter [Wagoner] called “Pain Of Lovin’ You” and it was just a cool moment in the studio with them singing face to face and me singing harmony watching it go down. This record was just such a labor of love from the beginning. It’s a very tough thing getting all these star’s schedules lined up. It’s amazing to try to that. We’re thankful that it all worked out.
“Mr. Bojangles” is probably my favorite on the album. I’m really happy with a lot of them. And Joe Nichols was going to help with that. We had heard an old cut that JD Crowe had done of that with Keith Whitley singing. We heard it and said, “We have got to cut that and have Joe sing on it with us.” When we sent Joe the rough copy, he was excited about it. He was touring and we were right down to the wire to turn this thing in so Cracker Barrel could get it out. And Joe got an abscessed tooth when he got back into Nashville and couldn’t sing. He had to go home to Texas. And we sat in the studio wondering what to do. So I told Terry it was quite a bit lower than he would usually sing but let’s hear you sing it. Just sing it. And he started singing it and we starting singing harmony with him. This harmony thing sounded good. So we went in and cut it as three-part harmony and were really excited about it. And then Joe called us on the very last day we had before we had to turn it in. He said that he had a studio there in Texas and that he’d sing it. And when we got it back, it blew us away. He’s one of the greatest singers today to me. He’s in the style of Merle Haggard and stuff and I love his voice. It turned out great and that track is really special. And we did something with the Oak Ridge Boys. We’ve gotten to become great friends with them and that was another highlight for us. They’re just great guys.
Everyone that was on the record was just so cordial and so accommodating to work it out with us. Darryl Worley and his wife came into the studio and were just the nicest people. She was just nice as she could be. We had a great time with him. And everyone agreeing to sing on the “I Am Strong” song was incredible. We had people on there that weren’t on other parts of the record. Steven Seagal. He got to be friends of the band a couple years ago. He called us out of the blue–on Jamie’s cell phone actually.
“Hey, this is Steven Seagal.”
Jamie thought, “Yeah, sure it is…”
“No, no, no, really it is.”
He had been listening to Sirius radio and heard one of our songs and fell in love with it. He asked if we’d fly out to L.A. and play at his birthday party. It was three years ago and had a great time. He has a studio there at his house and wanted us to record with him. So we were there in his studio all night long doing a dozen cuts on this CD of his. And then he called us last year and we went down to Louisiana for another birthday party. He’s a great friend of the band and he’s been a great supporter. When he heard the song, he loved it. He actually wrote two more verses and did a little video for us and he sang a line on the song. Terri Clark sang one of the lines of the song as well. It’s just so neat to have these friends and great musicians sing with us on this song for St. Jude.
Now you guys left Rounder right before this album for Cracker Barrel. What was the reasoning for that move?
Well, I think were wanting to some different things on our own. We have a lot of ideas. We’ve got a lot of different opportunities. Rounder was great to us, but you still have to abide to what they want. We just really wanted to take control of everything. The whole face of the industry is changing so much. The way CD’s are being sold is changing. The biggest portion of what you sell these days are downloads that you sell off the internet. And then the second biggest is your live shows. It’s getting to the point where a record label is a banker that puts up the money for the CD upfront and then you have to buy it back from them. They do have distribution, but nowadays, but that’s not as big of a deal these days. The biggest portion of our sales are at our shows and downloads. We had some ideas that we wanted to work out on our own and fortunately, this thing worked out with the Cracker Barrel on the first CD. We’ve got several things coming down the line and it was really just about having full control I guess.
You just had your 99th appearance on the Grand Ole Opry–any hopes at being inducted as a member someday?
All kinds of hopes and thoughts. That’s probably one of our biggest dreams. They all know it. From the get-go, we’ve talked to them about it. We all grew up listening to the Opry. Terry Smith grew up playing on the Opry. He got started there playing with Wilma Lee Cooper and people like that. Terry Eldredge started playing with Lonzo and Oscar before he got out of high school on the Opry. And then they both worked with the Osborne Brothers something like 25 years between them. So they’re like family members to the Opry anyways. I remember the first time I played the Opry. I was something like 17 years old playing guitar when Jimmy Mattingly won the Grand Master Fiddler contest. We got to go play the Opry. It’s just one of those things that means so much to each one of us. I know we have a date lined up in February for our 100th appearance. We’re excited about that. We just hope and pray that someday it will happen. We’re kind of hoping and think it might. They haven’t told us no when we’ve asked. They just keep telling us to keep playing and keep doing it and it may come.
From The Grascals perspective, define bluegrass for me.
For me, bluegrass is an American music style. Of course, Bill Monroe invented it. And there’s different styles that people play and put under bluegrass. It’s an acoustic music that touches people’s hearts. For me, I’m not real big on saying that something isn’t traditional enough or that something is too contemporary or those kinds of things. I like it all. When we put the band together, we just did songs that we like. We didn’t think that a certain song wouldn’t fit a bluegrass genre. If we liked a song, we did it. On our first album, we did “Viva La Vegas.” We liked that song and worked it up and it’s still been one of our biggest songs. We’ve always mixed in different kinds and types of songs. Bluegrass was the original country music. I just feel it all intertwines together. We’ll play in the country music festivals and what we do goes over great. People love what we do. I think for me, bluegrass is just an acoustic country.
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