Listening to a Grascals album is as emotionally cleansing as getting drunk with your therapist. There's always that bracing balance between abandon and introspection and the feeling afterward that something transformative has happened.
Certainly that's the case with the band's fourth collection, The Famous Lefty Flynn's. As in projects past, Lefty is an alluring amalgam of pop, country, gospel and straight-on bluegrass.
The Grascals current configuration includes four founding members, Jamie Johnson, Danny Roberts, Terry Smith and Terry Eldredge, and two more recent additions, the brilliant fiddler Jeremy Abshire and the award-winning banjoist Kristin Scott Benson.
Like the Osborne Brothers, their beloved musical godfathers, the Grascals stand apart from other bluegrass groups in their willingness -- nay, eagerness -- to take chances. Their lead single (and music video) from Lefty is a propulsive workup of the 1966 Monkees pop hit, "Last Train to Clarksville." Then there's the polar opposite, a heart shattering version of Steve Earle's "My Old Friend the Blues."
"Every album has had the same mixture of tunes," admits Johnson, who serves as the group's spokesman. "But it's got to be right for us. On this new album, we actually recorded Eric Clapton's 'Lay Down Sally.' But the magic wasn't there. It didn't come off the way we wanted. So we decided to leave it off the album.
"The title cut -- 'The Famous Lefty Flynn's' -- I pitched to the band before we recorded our first album [in 2005]. I wrote that song probably seven or eight years ago. The song 'My Baby's Waitin' on the Other Side,' that I wrote with Terry Smith and Danny Roberts, we wrote in 2004 on the Dolly [Parton] tour. It's all about timing, I guess. We just try to make a mixture for anybody who likes acoustic music."
Since all six Grascals have a hand in producing their albums, one might expect a lot of dissension about which songs to record. Not so, says Johnson. "We've been very blessed in that we all pretty much have the same ideas. We run it past everybody, and it's always a majority vote."
Johnson co-wrote "The Famous Lefty Flynn's," which tells the story of an ill-fated bank robber whose diminutive stature stands in contrast with his giant reputation. There's a kernel of truth in the story, Johnson explains.
"I grew up in southern Indiana, the youngest of four kids. A couple of my older brothers hung out uptown quite a bit. There was a guy there whose last name was Flint. But as a kid, I thought his name was Flynn. My brothers talked about how mean he was. If he got in a bar fight, he won every time. Some of the guys I knew growing up were like 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds -- and this guy was beating them up. I thought, 'Why he must be huge!'
"When I came of age, I was sitting in a tavern and [this guy] sat down beside me and said, 'You're Lee Johnson's little brother. You're the singer.' I said, 'Yes, I am.' He said his name, Kenny Flint. He was my size, maybe 5'7" -- 5'8" if he was lucky -- 150 or '60 pounds. I said, 'You're the guy beating all these people up, right?' He said, 'Yeah, it's me.' He always amazed me.
"I was making a song up one day. I'm left-handed. The guy I co-wrote the song with -- Morry Trent -- is also left-handed. So we named [the guy in the song] Lefty and just did our best to copy a Tom T. Hall-type song or one of those good old [Merle] Haggard tunes."
Two songs on the album -- "Son of a Sawmill Man" and "Up This Hill and Down" are from deep in the Osborne Brothers catalog.
"We're huge Bobby and Sonny [Osborne] fans," says Johnson. "Terry Smith and Terry Eldridge collectively worked 25 years with those guys on the road. We love traditional bluegrass, and those guys always put that perfect edge that we love on it. Once they've done it, you're not going to match them. ... We want their music to live forever."
Johnson points out that Benson plays Sonny Osborne's banjo on all the songs in the album.
Since she's the first woman to become a member of the Grascals, the question naturally arises if the band had any qualms about admitting a woman into what had long been an all-male club.
"Absolutely not," says Johnson. "Kristin is a gem of a person. She's got great family values. She's not a big partier. She and her husband [IIIrd Tyme Out mandolinist Wayne Benson] are church-going people. They've got a little baby boy. So they understand family.
"There's not a lot of girl bands out there that are bluegrass. So she's been around guy bands her whole life. She can sit in there with us, cutting up and having the biggest time. It's an easygoing group. We had zero problems converting her over. She's got more fans than we've got. She's really helped the popularity of the band."
The Grascals met Hank Williams Jr. when he asked them to sing a song with him on his 2009 album, 127 Rose Avenue. That encounter ripened into a mutual admiration society that culminated with Williams bringing them aboard this year as an opening act on his Rowdy Friends tour.
"It's wonderful," says Johnson of the tour, "not only for the Grascals but for bluegrass in general, for him to let us take that stage in front of a country crowd and do our stuff. It opens up people's imagination and lets them see some good-quality acoustic music that they may have never heard."
On The Famous Lefty Flynn's, Williams returns the favor by singing with the Grascals on "I'm Blue, I'm Lonesome," a song his father and Bill Monroe wrote together backstage at the Grand Ole Opry.
Since winning the International Bluegrass Music Association's entertainer of the year award in 2006 and 2007, the Grascals have become the guest bluegrassers of choice for a lot of country artists. They got their start touring and recording with Parton, and after that, they recorded with such eminences as George Jones, Vince Gill, Dierks Bentley, Steve Wariner and the Jordanaires.
Within the past year, Johnson notes, they've also been in the studio with Joe Diffie, Tanya Tucker, Charlie Daniels and -- wonder of wonders -- Cledus T. Judd.
The Grascals were moved to record "My Old Friend the Blues" after hearing Joe Nichols rendition of it on his 2005 album, III. "He had me in tears, he was so good," says Johnson, who calls Nichols "the best singer to come along since Keith Whitley."
As Johnson sees it, Eldredge is in the same rarefied league.
"He's a songwriter's best friend. You can feel he's really living the lines he's telling you. If you listen closely to the beginning of the second verse of 'My Old Friend the Blues,' [where] it says, 'Another lonely night, a nameless town,' you can hear Terry crying. He re-sang it several times, but we said, 'You can't replace that. That's better than if you tune some fancy vocal and lose that whole feeling.'
"There were tears rolling down his face he was feeling so lonely. It's that way. We're on the road all the time, away from our loved ones. He was feeling that hotel room where you're sitting there by yourself and wishing you could go home."