Charging Into the Future
Emerging from Tragedy, Dan Paisley and the Southern Grass Hang Fire On The Room Over Mine
By David McGee
Dan Paisley performing at least year’s IBMA convention. After a period of doubt about continuing following his father’s death, he and his brother Michael decided to reactivate Southern Grass. “We both come to realize that it won’t be the same, but let’s enjoy the change. That’s what dad would say. And life is good, so let’s keep going.”Photo: Kim Davis & Mike Stangeland (www.kimandmikestangeland.com)
If anyone’s wondering what exactly the phrase “hard driving music” means, please listen closely to Dan Paisley and the Southern Grass’s new long player, The Room Over Mine. And brace yourself, because the band comes charging hard out of the gate with “Don’t Throw Momma’s Flowers Away” and barely lets up before closing out a dozen songs later with Stan Keach’s gospel number, “Drowning Sailor,” which is an occasion for the brother team of TJ (fiddle) and Bob Lundy (banjo) to take the high flying number to higher ground in trading breathtaking breakneck solo turns along the way. Now, there are some beautiful ballad moments during the journey—Dan puts a deep blue into the aching bluegrass of “The Convict and The Rose” and brings an aggrieved, classic howl to a lilting version of the Harland Howard-penned breakup gem, “Another Bridge to Burn,” heretofore identified with Little Jimmy Dickens—but this album is most often a pure adrenaline-fueled charge back into the light for a band with a storied history.
The original Southern Grass was formed and headed by Dan and his bass playing brother Michael’s legendary father, Bob Paisley, in tandem with another bluegrass giant, the flash of Galax, Virginia, guitarist/banjo man extraordinaire Ted Lundy, who had originally teamed with Bob in the Southern Mountain Boys in 1960. By 1975 Dan, and Lundy’s sons TJ and Bob—who themselves had been playing together as the Bluegrass Buddies—joined the Southern Grass. Four years later Bob formed the Southern Grass with Dan on guitar and sharing lead vocals and Dan’s younger brother Michael on bass; with the tragic passing of Ted Lundy in 1980, the Lundy brothers consigned the Southern Mountain Boys to the past and joined their friends the Paisleys in the Southern Grass. The band lineup was completed with the addition of mandolin virtuoso Don Eldreth, whose father, Don Sr., is one of bluegrass’s most revered mandolin players.
Everything changed, though, on November 29, 2004, when Bob, then 74 years old, died of cancer. Dan retreated to his home in Landenberg, PA, where he was born in 1959, and began some serious soul searching, uncertain as to whether he would ever play music again in the absence of his father, who was also his professional mentor and partner for nearly 30 years. There was, all of a sudden, a lot of stuff to deal with.
“Well, I had personal issues going with the family. Going through a divorce and all that,” the soft-spoken Dan reveals. “Had a young son—he’s eight now—and didn’t know if I’d be able to devote as much time to music with the responsibilities with him. Wanted to play, but had all these insecurities—would people still want me to play? Would they still like it without dad there? Lot of difficult times, and I knew it would never be the same. Always being a partner with dad, it was easy to have things going like they were and now it was going to be a big change in my life.”
Michael too had his doubts. He and Dan discussed the future without their father and, according to Dan, “We both come to realize that it won’t be the same, but let’s enjoy the change. That’s what dad would say, and life is good so let’s keep going.”
The Lundy brothers also provided support and encouragement to press on. The Paisleys and Lundys have been friends pretty much their whole lives and don’t have a problem being frank with one other. Reflecting on the loss of their father years earlier, TJ told the Paisley brothers, “You gotta go on. No matter what life presents you, you keep moving forward.
“That’s pretty much the way we faced all of it,” Dan adds.
(from left) Southern Grass’s TJ Lundy, Donnie Eldreth, Michael Paisley, Dan Paisley and Bob Lundy. Of the new album’s high intensity drive, Dan says, ‘That’s pretty much the way you get it on stage, and that’s what we wanted to capture. Just tried to keep it as live as we could.’
Having decided to regroup his musical family, Dan and the fellows first recorded an independent CD at Dan’s home studio, The Tradition Continues, and released it on the Paisleys’ Brandywine label in 2005. Southern Grass fans weren’t disappointed by its robust energy and Dan’s gripping vocals, and were treated to a special bonus in the form of a previously unreleased live cut, “I’ll Break Out,” with Bob Paisley delivering a heartfelt, bluesy lead vocal that leaves no doubt in its richness and nuance as to where Dan gets his vocal chops. Rounder’s Ken Irwin came calling while Dan was completing the CD, a deal was struck, and thus began a two-year process of finding songs that Paisley felt made a statement about the new Southern Grass.
“We wanted to do some different type of songs but we wanted to keep the music the same,” Dan explains. “Ken would send me songs and we’d go back and forth. It took a while. But once we started we never rushed; we just stayed at it until we got a song the way we felt it was right, went back and re-did it a time or so if we didn’t like the first take. So we took our time with it.”
The interesting collection of tunes speaks both to the band’s past and to its future. Two of the tunes hearken back to the repertoires of both the original Southern Grass and the Southern Mountain Boys, one being a heart-tugging account of a lonely man pondering his fate in “The Room Over Mine,” the other a delightful, sprightly banjo-and-fiddle-driven instrumental workout, “Backstep Sally Anne.” Interestingly, four of the songs come from the mainstream country realm, the abovementioned “Another Bridge to Burn” among them. The other country covers include a tear-stained heartbreaker from Marty Robbins, “At the End of a Lonely Day”; a stunning treatment of the Porter Wagoner weeper, “I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name,” featuring Dan and Donnie Eldreth teaming up on the choruses in exquisite, keening harmony. One of the hottest cuts on this or any other bluegrass album this year is a furious breakup tune identified with Gene Watson, “Raising Cane in Texas,” which inspires Dan to a rousing, shouting vocal and features instrumental soloing so fleet and precise it seems to defy the laws of nature. (“I kept hearing that song and thinking, Can you imagine someone like Jimmy Martin singing that thing?” Dan says. “Him being an ol’ obnoxious thing bouncing around on stage with that. It kept coming in to my head because of the words, you know. So that’s the way we sort of approached it.” Indeed.)
As for going out on a high note, the Stan Keach-penned “Drowning Sailor” more than does the job in putting an exclamation mark on an album that does not mourn the passing of Bob Paisley but rather celebrates his life and legacy. The tribute is emphasized in the flying fingers and unerring, rapid-fire bowing of the Lundy brothers, whom Dan praises as having “what I call a ‘Galax’ sort of drive about ‘em. They get right into a song, and that Galax, Virginia, area has been noted for that hard-core, driving bluegrass.”
Mention to Dan that the album’s ferocious playing and intense vocals are its most striking features, and he agrees. “That’s pretty much the way you get it on stage, and that’s what we wanted to capture. We didn’t overdub too much, just tried to keep it as live as we could.” In a typical Dan Paisley postscript that underscores his dry humor, he adds: “And on the shows I’m not the greatest talker, so we just keep poundin’ ‘em out. Keep ‘em sort of bewildered—‘What was that? I’m not sure if I like that one or not.’ Move on before they have too much time to think about it!”
Bob Paisley: “Dad was just what you seen onstage,” Dan says. “That smile that he always had, that happy personality. He was like that, truly a person that what you saw was what you got. He loved people, always saw the good in people. It was easy to be around a person like that.”
Still, it’s difficult to think about Southern Grass without remembering Bob Paisley and his commitment to bluegrass as exemplified now in his sons’ work ethic and positive attitude. Asked what kind of man his dad was, Dan doesn’t have to think even a split second before answering, “Dad was just what you seen onstage. That smile that he always had, that happy personality. He was like that, truly a person that what you saw was what you got. He loved people, always saw the good in people. It was easy to be around a person like that. As far as playing with him, it was great, because he had a real way of telling you what he wanted without preaching to you or being demanding. He could show you stuff without you really realizing he was teaching you something. That’s what everybody in the band has said for years, that he had these wonderful skills as a person to be able to enjoy what you were doing and show you what to do without being too bossy or anything like that.”
While he and the band are out on the circuit through the summer, Paisley says he’ll continue “hunting around for songs” for the next CD. “I buy these obscure CDs or records, always trying to find something different.” He also revealed that he and bluegrass vocal legend James King are in the planning stages for a duets album to begin this fall, which ought to be some kind of event. “He’s a heck of a singer, just got that mountain soul about him,” Dan notes. “We’ve all been friends since was were teenagers, and James came up here and lived for a while in the area. We’ve all played music off and on together for years.”
And how is Dan Paisley feeling about the state of bluegrass today? Couldn’t be more upbeat.
“Right now it’s great. You take a band like Dailey & Vincent that comes out and gets people excited. I think we’re in a good time for the music. It’s leaning a little more to the progressive side, but that’s change, you know. You can’t fight it, and it’s good for the music, because the music has to keep evolving. The younger people get in through the more progressive stuff, but once they get hooked they find their way all the way through it. Even me. I buy some stuff and people say, ‘Why are you listening to that?’ And I say, ‘Well, they’re good!’ I enjoy it.”
The Tradition Continues and other Southern Grass CDs featuring Bob Paisley are available at www.southerngrass.net