The Grascals, those purveyors of traditional bluegrass music who aren't afraid to put a bluegrass spin on a pop tune or two, were a hit right out of the gate. By the time the band was formed in 2004, each member had achieved veteran status in other groups. Less than a year later, they were honored with the Emerging Artist of the Year award by the International Bluegrass Music Association. Last year the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America named them Bluegrass Band of the Year.
The Grascals, those purveyors of traditional bluegrass music who aren't afraid to put a bluegrass spin on a pop tune or two, were a hit right out of the gate.
By the time the band was formed in 2004, each member had achieved veteran status in other groups. Less than a year later, they were honored with the Emerging Artist of the Year award by the International Bluegrass Music Association. Last year the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America named them Bluegrass Band of the Year.
Their brand-new album, "Country Classics with a Bluegrass Spin," just hit No. 1 on the Billboard Bluegrass Chart. The six-member Nashville-based band is currently on tour.
"It's been a roller-coaster ride, getting to the top of that mountain," says guitarist, high-tenor singer and founding member Jamie Johnson. "It happened so fast. We've been extremely blessed in our career, and the fans have been incredible."
Johnson didn't make his way through the bluegrass world via any typical route. Growing up in Indiana, he regularly went to bluegrass festivals with his family. But he was, and still is, a Michael Jackson fan. In high school, he listened to all kinds of music.
"When we were in the football locker room, we'd yell out some songs, whether it was Bon Jovi at the time or whatever. And I was the one guy that could hit all the notes," he recalls of realizing that he was a pretty good singer. "So at least I kind of knew I was better than the other guys."
But in college, he was focusing more on bluegrass, including records by the Osborne Brothers.
"When I started singing some of their songs, my roommates -- who didn't know much about bluegrass -- told me it was good, that I sounded just like the people I was singing along with. But then I started singing with every song on the radio, and I got a big head when the compliments kept coming."
Yet Johnson wasn't yet thinking of a musical career. He got his degree in electronic engineering.
"I went out and did that for about two years," he recalls, "but I realized I was an awful engineer. So I joined up with Tony Holt and the Wildwood Valley Boys. I started playing mandolin -- that was before I played guitar -- and I sang all the high stuff and I quit my engineering job for a bluegrass band. There was really only one way to go if I was gonna find happiness in life for myself."
Johnson met fellow Grascals founding member Terry Eldredge -- a former member of the Osborne Brothers -- at a bluegrass festival in Indiana, they got to be friends, and they eventually became bandmates.
Though the Grascals are well known for their own original material, they've never been afraid to incorporate covers of other songs in their repertoire. It wouldn't surprise any bluegrass fans to hear them put their stamp on genre standards like "Rollin' in My Sweet Baby's Arms" or "I'm Blue, I'm Lonesome." But even non-bluegrass folks will get a kick out of what they do to "Viva Las Vegas" or their usual set opener, the fast-paced "Last Train to Clarksville."
"It's gotta fit us," says Johnson of their choice of cover songs. "If we're gonna cut it, we want to give justice to what the songwriter and the original artist intended. With 'Last Train to Clarksville,' we felt like we meant it as a compliment, not an insult."
Johnson admits to being surprised when the band toured Europe last year, and people in the audience knew all of the words to their songs.
"They're totally dedicated to what they call cowboy music," he says. "We played 'Indiana,' which is a song I wrote about my home town, and they sang along to it. I could hardly keep from tearing up. They knew it inside and out.
"We're definitely going back," he added, with a laugh, "and taking more product this time."
MetroWest (Mass.) Daily News