Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Grasstowne at Claiborne High School

Head west from Morristown, climb across the Clinch Mountains and down into the Cumberland Valley. Go through Tazewell and then take a few twists and turns past Gulley Curve, cross a small creek, turn up a driveway and you’re at the Gulley homestead. Lowell, Lisa, Irene, and I have been invited to come for dinner and spend the afternoon at the Gulley homestead for a few hours before going back to Claiborne County High School for tonight’s Grasstowne concert. It has rained all night, pushing a planned outdoor event inside.

As we enter through the laundry room and past the computer, we’re greeted by Linda Gulley, Steve’s mom, a small dark haired woman who greets each of us with enthusiasm and grace. We take off our shoes and push into the kitchen which is already crowded with six or seven people eating at a table piled with food – sweet potatoes, mashed potato salad, deviled eggs, macaroni salad, beans, and ham. On the counter there’s a layered cake, four tiers of cake with pineapple filling between each layer and topped with whipped cream.

We head into the living room, spotlessly clean and carefully decorated, fluffy pillows filling a sofa and two love seats, a large rear projection TV taking up one corner. Steve’s sister Kristy is sitting there and her husband Rex comes in soon. Irene has been worried that we’re intruding anyway, and being indoors does nothing for her discomfort. Linda and Steve’s enthusiasm for our visit, their warmth and welcome ease the moment as we adjust ourselves into seats or onto space on the floor. Alan Bibey is sitting in a corner in his socks. Uncle Poke, his elderly face glowing with character despite the fact he doesn’t hear too well, sits in one corner with Greg Pirtle, a band friend from Michigan.

Dishes get washed and the first shift leaves the table, making room for the second shift. We sit down and dig into the feast. Linda bustles about, making sure everyone is comfortable and has plenty to eat. Characteristically, Irene moves over to the sink and starts watching dishes. The table is surrounded by men, with the exception of Alisa; the conversation lively and friendly.

Steve is standing by my shoulder and a conversation about music, his values, and his choice to return to his Tennessee roots and create this new band ensues. Steve Gulley is about five foot seven, blocky with dark curly hair, a round, friendly open face, and eyes that reach out with friendliness and intelligence. He was born within a few miles of his present home, his grandfather built the Missionary Baptist Church around the curve and the family ran a small general store nearby. His father was and is a professional musician and Steve has been performing since he was five years old. He speaks with passion about his love for the life and culture of the area. Some books published in the sixties and seventies are hauled out of one of the bedrooms. Called Tennessee Hill Folk, by Joe Clark, a local photographer/writer, they catalog, in striking black and white pictures, the hard life lived by people in Appalachia up to a generation or so ago. In order to be able to stay close to the life and culture he loves, Steve Gulley left one of the most successful and popular bands in bluegrass music. Together with Alan Bibey and old friend Phil Leadbetter, who also each left critically and popularly successful bands to form Grasstowne. Steve’s deep love for the culture he grew up in has led him to seek a more traditional route to performing bluegrass music while still remaining open to change and innovation.

At 4:30 we head over to Claiborne High School, and, after a couple of loops around the school find an open door to the auditorium. This school, probably built shortly after the war, is used by Gibson Productions to present bluegrass programs several times a year. Grasstowne is guaranteed to bring in a good crowd, partly because Steve Gulley is a home town boy and partly because this is a knowledgeably crowd which expects a fine performance. Lowell and Lisa have planned to film a video introduction for the Grasstowne web site in which Steve introduces all the players and then the band plays Alan Bibey’s composition Grasstowne City Limits. The video is shot in one take and everyone begins to get ready for the concert.

Jadon Gibson, the promoter, bustles around as the crowd begins to assemble, a younger crowd than we have seen recently in Florida. The old auditorium begins to hum with excitement. A very good local group called “Cumberland Gap Connection” opens the evening. Each of their musicians does a good job, singing and instrumentation is quite solid. The auditorium’s old wooden seats have filled with music fans, mostly wearing jeans and comfortable clothing, coming for music as complex and unpretentious as they are. The crowd knows and likes this band, and woops and hollers for good solos, especially the young mandolin player, whose clear playing and fruity sounding mandolin show promise of things to come. In bluegrass, taking the step up from being a local or regional band working weekends, to being a touring band of full-time musicians is huge. Giving up a day job and deciding to hit the road means giving up all security. For a person with family, health care and a weekly pay check means too much to take such a step lightly. Here in the corner where East Tennessee, Kentucky, and Virginia meet, bluegrass is so much a part of the culture that a significant portion of people at the event either play the music or are active participants in on-line communities and other ways of feeling involved. The crowd appreciates a good band, whether it’s nationally known or not. Nevertheless, this crowd is eagerly awaiting seeing Grasstowne for the first time, particularly since most of its members come from within fifty or sixty miles. Nearly everyone in the audience knows the history of the members of this band and knows the risks its members have assumed in creating a new band to express their ideas of how bluegrass should sound in the twenty-first century.

Steve Gulley, while having been a member of some top bands, has never before made a solo album. Last night, at Down Home, the album made its sales debut. Earlier in the week he had begun the publicity campaign with a live appearance in the XM Radio studio with Kyle Cantrell. They had discussed his history and played each of the fourteen cuts on the album. Kyle, a skilled interviewer, has given Steve the opportunity to talk about his roots in East Tennessee and in both country and bluegrass music. He also invites Phil Leadbetter, who has come to the studio, to comment on Steve, his music, and Grasstowne. The interview can only help boost sales of this album and the upcoming Grasstowne album also.

Grasstowne kicked off its first set with its current single “Dixie Flyer.” Since their first CD will appear in a month or so, there isn’t any recorded material for their performances to reflect. Dixie Flyer has been circulated to radio stations and is played regularly on XM. Their set continues with a variety of songs appearing on the upcoming album as well as songs from Steve Gulley’s new solo album, which is available in the lobby. Nationally, the sale of CDs has plummeted in the past few years as fans have been quick to embrace new means of distribution. The wildly popular i-Pod as well as the ease of electronic reproduction has made sharing favorite songs increasingly easy. Neither performers nor record companies have yet figured out how to distribute their music and provide a reliable income stream. Meanwhile, new and little known performers have used web sites to emerge from obscurity without the vast distribution power of the major labels. Many bands rely on the sales of their CDs during a break to help finance their tour, therefore they emphasize singing their own music and selling it during intermissions.

A major band needs to establish a sound recognizable to knowledgeable listeners from the first chords. Allison Kraus and Union Station, Mountain Heart, Dry Branch Fire Squad, and Rhonda Vincent and the Rage all share this quality as do some other bands, but surely not all. Grasstowne, as a new band, is on its way to that sort of distinctiveness, but has not quite achieved it yet. Steve Gulley’s fine, flexible voice stands out from many other lead singers. His range is broad, allowing the humorous impressions he does of other singers, as well as his emotion laden tenor leads. Alan Bibey is known as a musician’s musician. His elegant mandolin playing isn’t flashy or bombastic like Sam Bush or Adam Steffey, for instance. Lovers of fine mandolin playing, however, instantly recognize his clean fingerings, lightening speed, and intricate triplets and cross picking. Phil Leadbetter also has received recognition from his peers as IBMA Dobro player of the year award. He doesn’t waste a note with his brilliant solos or wonderful backup playing. As the core of Grasstowne, these three well-established players set the tone. Their excellence is highlighted by the brilliant banjo play of young Jason Davis. Jason’s solos on both instrumentals and vocal pieces are characterized by speed and accuracy. His backup play is fast improving as he fills in behind and between vocal passages. Jamey Booher is one of the best young bass players around. He is always rock solid in providing the beat and his fingerings are more intricate and subtle than the average bass player’s. All told, there isn’t a weak spot in this group. As audiences become increasingly familiar with them, the moment is not far away when a listener to the radio will murmur “Grasstowne” before there is ever a dj announcement of who is playing.

During the break the audience crowds into the cramped auditorium lobby where they mingle with each other and the group. The players are all sweating from their exertions and tired after two days of performance. When they hit the stage for their second set, however, no hint of their weariness is evident. As the second set closes and they are called back for an encore, they are elated by their response. As we hang around for a few minutes to help where we can, Phil is jabbering away, still exhilarated by the evening. Steve’s wife, Debbie, has managed to break away from her own performance at Renfro Valley with Steve’s dad, Don. Each will be going there separate ways for a day or so before they hit the road once again. Grasstowne’s growth has been remarkable and they have managed to score a lot of dates early in what promises to become a great and long run.

Thanks to Lisa Burdett for the picture in the Gulley Kitchen.