Pinmonkey Step Boldly Toward Bluegrass

The four-man band Pinmonkey filmed their debut video, “Barbed Wire and Roses,” in the middle of a cow pasture in Wartrace, Tenn.

“A very fresh working cow pasture,” lead singer Michael Reynolds clarifies.

The band’s Dobro player, Chad Jeffers, says, “It was just really hot and sticky. And just every now and then you’d see one of those runny cow patties and you were just like, Uhhhh. It was pretty nasty.”

“You had to watch your step every minute,” Reynolds adds.

Trying to sidestep discs of smelly manure in a country field? Who can’t relate to that, at least as a metaphor?

In fact, the guys in Pinmonkey — Reynolds, Jeffers, his brother Michael Jeffers and drummer Rick Schell — have already heard the testimonials.

Chad Jeffers remembers a show in Philadelphia: “Someone came through our autograph line and he said, ‘You know, I don’t like country at all. My friend dragged me here, but I love you guys.’ And then someone in the same line came up and said, ‘Thank God, there’s traditional country again.’ It’s like, man, there has to be a common thread somewhere there. I don’t know if it’s just the rootsy sound that people can relate to or if it’s the harmonies. We really don’t know.”

Although “Barbed Wire and Roses” didn’t crack the Top 10, the band’s debut album sold more than 9,000 copies in its first week. That’s not much for mainstream country, but it’s a huge number for bluegrass — and that’s the middle ground where Pinmonkey treads.

“I grew up around a lot of bluegrass in Virginia,” says Reynolds, a native of Natural Bridge. “My dad’s whole family played bluegrass and the Jeffers brothers are also from East Tennessee and there was a lot of bluegrass around where they grew up. So for most of us in the band, it’s a natural part of who we are and what we do. My dad’s whole side of the family was bluegrass pickers. It’s just something I heard all my life.”

Growing up in Kingsport, Tenn., the Jeffers brothers worked in a family band and watched their father make an unsuccessful stab at country stardom. Michael moved to Murfreesboro, not far from Nashville, for college in 1991 and joined a popular local roots band, the Habaneros.

Chad enrolled at Nashville’s Belmont University in 1994. After graduation, he landed in the mailroom at Reba McEntire ’s Starstruck Entertainment and later toured with the Wilkinsons , a family act known for the 1998 hit, “26 Cents.”

Schell and his wife relocated to Nashville in 1993. Within months, Steve Earle hired him to play on his I Feel Alright album, which led to tours or studio time with Joy Lynn White , Buddy Miller , Elizabeth Cook and other alt-country stars.

Schell moved from Homer, N.Y., but it’s coincidental that the good-natured band takes its name from the The Simpsons episode where Homer worked as the guy in the bowling alley who set up the pins — also known as a pinmonkey.

With initial aspirations to be a solo artist, Reynolds moved to Nashville right out of high school and worked at McDonald’s. He struck up a friendship with Chad in 1995, and they occasionally played acoustic dates together. In time, Reynolds landed a decent day job as an office manager for an entertainment attorney. Whenever all four musicians were in town, Reynolds booked a show at the Sutler, a small Nashville club.

Reynolds says, “We’d just get on the phone and call up all of our friends and go, ‘Come on down, have a beer. We’re gonna play.’ So our crowds were kinda small when we started, but we weren’t really concerned about that. We were just there having fun, and slowly but surely the crowds kept growing and eventually people from the entertainment industry started showing up and taking note.”

RCA Records chief Joe Galante signed the band based on their live show and an independent album titled Speak No Evil. Only one song, “Augusta,” is reprised on the RCA album, with Ricky Skaggs on mandolin. However, Dolly Parton ’s “Falling Out of Love With Me” (also on Pinmonkey) has been a staple of the band’s live show from the early days.

Parton even recorded harmony vocals on the track while the band was on tour in Des Moines, Iowa. They phoned Galante from the road to see how the session was going.

“When we called in, she was actually in the booth singing at that moment, and Joe told us, ‘She’s in there working her ass off for you guys.’ He said she really loved the song and went in and just gave it 110 percent,” Reynolds says. “We always say that was a bigger compliment than her agreeing to do the song in the first place — the fact that she just came in and gave it her all.”

Other highlights of the largely upbeat album include a remake of Cyndi Lauper’s “I Drove All Night,” Sugar Ray’s pop smash “Fly” and Mavis Staples’ gospel number, “Stay With Us.” Reynolds also wrote two songs, “Jar of Clay” and “The Longest Road.” Reynolds says the diversity speaks to all ages.

“We’ve got like 12- and 13-year-old kids coming through our autograph line going, ‘We love you guys’ and ‘Y’all don’t sound like anybody else.’ Then at the same time, we have 60-year-olds coming through the line going ‘You guys are taking me back to the ‘70s. Whether we are opening for Willie Nelson or opening for Alan Jackson or out doing a club date, every time we get in front of an audience, we capture them. There’s something there that everybody can latch on to.”