Sunday, April 15, 2007

Grasstowne at Down Home

We drive down Main Street in Johnson City Tennessee. An old brick building with a pair of plain glass doors and a small, unremarkable marquee announces two upcoming shows, and, at the bottom, Grasstowne. There is no one in line. We turn left and drive half a block, turn the corner again, and pull into the nearly empty gravel parking lot. A small sign says Down Home parking. Lowell Jewell drives because “I drive better than I ride.” Beside him in the front seat is Alisa Burdett, his friend whose photographs have been appearing on the Grasstowne web site as well at her own. Irene and I, who met Lowell and Alisa by arrangement at our motel in Morristown, ride in the back seat. We stroll around to the front, try the door, which is locked, check our watches (5:50 P.M.) and feel a little chagrined about our worry over not getting here early enough to claim a good seat. Three young people, who turn out to be members of a bluegrass band, join us waiting. At a little after 6:00 a woman unlocks the door, we pay our admission and walk in.

We stroll into a plain, room about fifty feet long and thirty feet deep with a small stage along the wall along the length of the room, a lot of small, round wooden tables, each with four chairs nearly bumping the ones from the next tables. There is a slightly raised platform along the rear of the room with five booths along the rear wall and long shelf lined with additional seats. A small bar takes up the rear corner of the room. There isn’t a bad seat in the house. Since its founding in 1976, this out of the way room, centrally located in the heart of bluegrass country has been home to hundreds of bands and has hosted the royalty of bluegrass music. Down home’s menu offers a variety of snacks and light platters of Mexican food, sells beer and soft drinks, and makes it clear that once the music starts service stops and the real purpose of this site, listening to great music, comes first. Their web site says it all, “The primary emphasis is on quality music, and the performance atmosphere promotes listening rather than socializing. There is plenty of time for friendly conversation before the show and between sets. With an excellent sound system hung from the ceiling, the club is a favorite of performers as well as listeners.”

Grasstowne was formed around the first of the year when three musicians, two of whom had been friends since childhood, left established bands to form a group which they hoped would allow them each to express their own particular musical tastes and needs. They took a substantial risk. Grasstowne’s formation has created a lot of buzz among bluegrass fans, in the genre’s two glossy magazines, and in the on-line community. Steve Gulley, formerly lead singer and rhythm guitarist came from the mega-band Mountain Heart. Phil Leadbetter, 2005 International Bluegrass Music Association Dobro player of the year, left his band Wildfire, and Alan Bibey. 2007 Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America mandolin player of the year, left his band Blueridge. After some discussion they took the name Grasstowne (with an e) to suggest their roots in traditional bluegrass music along with a special distinction that the added “e” adds. Jason Davis, a young but widely experienced and very able banjo player joined them, as well Lee Sawyer, an even younger bass player. Sawyer has recently been replaced by Jamie Booher, an equally young and experienced bassist. Tonight will be the band’s first performance with Jamie, who has only had a few days to practice with them, so there is a little nervousness. In the three months since their foundation, Grasstowne has managed to create their own sound, complete a soon to be released CD, and built up enough bookings to assure that they will be able to stay together as a band. Their first single “Dixie Flyer” has been widely played on satellite and FM bluegrass radio, and they have been interviewed on XM radio by host Kyle Cantrell.

Slowly the band members arrive as the room begins to fill. Jason and Jamie arrive first. Phil, Steve, and Alan soon come in and stop to chat with Lowell, who has designed first rate web sites for the band, Phil, and Steve. He will soon be adding one for Alan. A long haul trucker by trade, Lowell has been in and around bluegrass music for years, publishing an e-zine and building his skills as a web designer. Alisa, a nurse in her day job, is a fine photographer and offers pictures of bluegrass musicians on her web site Pickin’ Shots.

Irene and I had seen Grasstowne’s first festival performance at Palatka, FL in early February. They gave a solid performance, even though they had only been together for a few weeks and earned a standing ovation. Now, two months later, the band has jelled into a tight, full bodied sounding group with a varied selection of songs. The players obviously take great joy in each others’ company and in the music they are making. Each player was featured several times. Steve’s singing is a strong tenor voice that is equally at home as lead or in harmony. He has earned his several nominations as SPBGMA singer of the year. Hid prominence in Grasstowne will only increase the likelihood that he’ll win awards, despite the number of high quality lead singers there are. Phil Leadbetter is a true virtuoso on the Dobro. In the history of IBMA there have only been three people named as Dobro Player of the Year and Phil clearly deserves to be in that company. His pleasant voice contributes reliable harmonies. Alan Bibey has long been recognized as one of the premier stylists among mandolin players. Elegant is not a term often used in the same sentence as “bluegrass musician,” but it absolutely fits Alan. His crisp clear fingerings, especially his signature triplets are the best in the business. Jason Davis, while only twenty years old, has played with several big name bands and was selected as one of the players on “Cuppa Joe,” a CD featuring musicians on Huber banjos. At age twenty, Jamie Booher has also played with major musicians for years and will appear at Merlefest this year with Sierra Hull.

Hearing Grasstowne in Down Home is more like attending an intimate gathering of friends who wish to share in the success of a band that promises to be a big hit than attending an appearance in a local pub. The room is filled with friends, relatives, and fellow musicians who know the players and the music. Their response is knowledgeable and appreciative. As the second set winds down, Steve does several of his eerily on target impressions and the crowd yelps with pleasure and recognition. After finishing their second set with a lightening fast instrumental featuring Jason Davis, the group receives a standing ovation. Steve and Alan return to the stage to play “Patchin’ it Up,” a gospel song Steve wrote several years ago and has re-recorded, and the evening is over.

The debut of Jamie Booher with Grasstowne has been a great success. As we return to Morristown, we reflect on their sound, their increasingly interesting and complex set list, and the pleasure we all experienced in seeing them in their own home territory. Their performance reflects the comfort they feel with each other and their joy at making the kind of music that best represents each of them. This band will surely be a success in both recording and live performance. We’re happy to have been present at the beginning.