“When you’re a new group,” says Jamie Johnson, “it only goes so far with [talent buyers] thinking you’re a pretty good band. When you can add awards to it — or even being nominated for them — then the gravy’s on top of that. When you can put ‘Grammy-nominated’ in front of your name, it helps a whole lot.”
Johnson is a guitarist, vocalist and spokesman for the hot new bluegrass group, the Grascals. Lately, he’s given a lot of thought to the benefits the band reaps from having its first CD — The Grascals — nominated for a best bluegrass album Grammy. “For one thing,” he says, “it’s obviously a big honor.” The Grascals are competing for the award against albums by Cherryholmes, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Blue Highway and the Del McCoury Band.
The six-man ensemble flew to Los Angeles to attend Wednesday night’s (Feb. 8) Grammy broadcast on CBS-TV from the Staples Center. The musicians were also looking forward to Tuesday’s (Feb. 7) gala preshow party. “We’ll just be relaxing for once,” says Johnson, “mingling with the crowd and hopefully bumping shoulders with people like Paul McCartney.” (McCartney is scheduled to perform on the show.)
The Grascals are also basking in its wins at the annual SPBGMA Bluegrass Music Awards show Sunday (Feb. 5) in Nashville. There the band won the album, song and instrumental group of the year awards, and member Danny Roberts took the best mandolin performer trophy. (SPBGMA is an acronym for Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America.) In October, the International Bluegrass Music Association voted the Grascals its emerging artists of the year prize and named the band’s recording of Harley Allen’s “Me and John and Paul” song of the year.
While in Los Angeles, the Grascals will also pay a visit to the Academy of Country Music offices, where they will sing a song or two and pitch for an appearance on the ACM’s May 23 awards show.
Although the band is a relatively new configuration of talents, the members are veteran musicians whose paths have crossed and converged for the past 15 years. Besides Johnson and Roberts, the group consists of lead singer and rhythm guitarist Terry Eldredge, banjoist David Talbot, fiddler Jimmy Mattingly and bassist and vocalist Terry Smith.
Individually, the members have played in bands for Garth Brooks, the Osborne Brothers, Larry Cordle & Lonesome Standard Time, Steve Wariner, Rascal Flatts, Wilma Lee Cooper, the Boys From Indiana, Gail Davies, the New Tradition, Jimmy Martin, the legendary Sidemen (of Station Inn fame) and, most recently, Dolly Parton.
Unlike so many acts that arise almost organically, the Grascals were formed deliberately, Johnson says. “Jimmy approached me [and asked], ‘Hey, would you like to look at maybe getting a group together?’ Like Terry always says, we were all unemployed at the same time. So we thought why not give it a shot and see what happens. So we recorded a demo and were signed with Rounder [Records] in a few months. Then Dolly came along and swept us all off our feet not long after that.”
The band appeared for the first time as the Grascals, Johnson says, in August 2004 at “a little bluegrass festival” in Milan, Ind. “We went to Rounder,” he explains, “because Alison Krauss was on [that label], and we’d seen the success she’s had. We wanted to stick to our traditional roots in bluegrass and country music, but we also wanted to make sure the avenue was there in case we wanted to do something maybe a little more commercial for a different audience.”
Mattingly had played in one of Parton’s many backup bands, but she hooked up with the Grascals formally soon after she discovered they were both recording in the same studio. “Dolly was getting ready to go out on tour and was looking for a new band that had an acoustic, bluegrass kind of sound,” Johnson relates.
The studio engineer tipped Parton to the fact that “Jimmy’s band — the Grascals” was currently recording there. Parton asked to hear a sampling of the band’s music and loved what she heard.
“The next day,” Johnson continues, “she called Jimmy. He went over and had a meeting with her, and the next thing you know we’re on the payroll of Dolly Parton. And, wow, what a huge honor. It’s such a change in your life. One day I don’t know Dolly Parton, and the next day I’m in her band and I know her very well. She took us in with open arms and treated us just like family. Thank God for Dolly.”
The Grascals began touring with the superstar in October 2004. She, in turn, agreed to sing on the band’s debut album and can be heard on the “Viva Las Vegas” track.
Recently, the Grascals debuted its first music video, “Me and John and Paul.” Besides having a heavy touring schedule of its own — which includes appearances at MerleFest in North Carolina and the Country Gold Festival in Japan — the band is close to making a deal to open a tour by a major country act, Johnson says. The Grascals are also gathering songs for their second album.
For the past year, Karen Byrd, Garth Brooks’ former publicist, has managed the band.
Johnson recalls vividly how he got the news of the band’s Grammy nomination: “We were on tour with Dolly in Jacksonville, Fla. We were in our hotel rooms early in the morning, and normally, after playing a long show, you want to sleep until about noon if you can. The phone rang at about 7 a.m., and I saw it was our manager. I thought, ‘Lord, what does she want?’ I answered, and with that news I went from being upset with her to being as happy as I could be. I was ready to kiss her if I could have reached her.”