january 2009

Changing Partners

McDaris Leaves Grascals, Helson Leaves Kentucky Thunder To Join Rhonda's Rage; Benson Joins Grascals; Webb Joins Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper; World Keeps Turning

New Grascal Kristin Scott Benson

The closing weeks of 2008 saw a raft of changes in the bluegrass world, the biggest being the departure of heralded banjo player Aaron McDaris from two-time International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Entertainers Of the Year The Grascals, after only one album. He's joining up with Rhonda Vincent's band, The Rage, which is also adding guitarist Ben Helson, late of Ricky Skaggs's celebrated Kentucky Thunder aggregate. McDaris and Helson are replacing departing Rage members of seven years' standing, Kenny Ingram and Darrell Webb. Ingram's plans have not been announced, but Webb has signed on with another former Rage member and his band, Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper, with which he made his debut at the Grand Ole Opry on December 26. The Grascals, in turn, have recruited reigning IBMA Banjo Player of the Year Kristin Scott Benson to replace McDaris, making her the first female Grascal.

Wife of IIIrd Tyme Out mandolin player Wayne Benson, South Carolina native Kristin is a bluegrass veteran who has appeared with many of the genre's top bands over the years including Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time and the Larry Stephenson Band. She's also a solo recording artist with a new album, Second Season, out on Pinecastle Records. Her IBMA award as Banjo Player of the Year marked the first time a female has captured the honor since Alison Brown in 1981. Her mandolin-playing maternal grandfather, Arval Hogan, was half of the duet known as Whitey and Hogan (with Roy "Whitey" Grant), who were also part of a larger group called the Briarhoppers. Between their duo work and with the Briarhoppers, Whitey and Hogan racked up a 50-year career, with their greatest success coming in the 1940s when they had a daily show on the powerhouse WBT Radio in Charlotte, NC. Benson's father, though never a professional, also played an instrument. Benson took up the banjo in her youth—twice.

Ben Helson, new to The Rage

"I saw the band Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver at a bluegrass festival in Georgia, and the banjo player at the time, Scott Vestal, was a fabulous banjo player," Benson told Derek Halsey, a reporter for the Huntington, West Virginia, Herald-Dispatch in an article published on December 12, 2008. "I got excited about the instrument and bluegrass as a whole when I saw them. I started asking for a banjo when I was about 9. But, unfortunately, my parents bought me one and then within a month or two our house burned down, and it burned in the house. It wasn't a high priority to replace, so I was 13 before I got a banjo and could actually then play."

Of the invite to join the Grascals, she professed to Halsey to feeling "blessed," adding: "These guys have worked very, very hard for the last five years to establish something that is doing very well. I've been in the business long enough to realize how hard it is for a bluegrass band to ever be as successful as the Grascals, and the reason they're successful is because they are extremely talented and they work extremely hard. So, to be invited in after so much of that hard work has been done before me is particularly humbling because I appreciate the opportunity that much more."

Aaron McDaris, new to The Rage

According to her official bio, Benson relocated to Nashville following high school in order to attend Belmont University, where she earned a Bachelor's Degree in Marketing and graduated summa cum laude. During her sophomore year, she joined the Larry Stephenson Band and spent five years with the group, recording three albums. In 2000, she left the Stephenson Band to explore other projects, but returned in 2006.

Benson got the call to join the Grascals following last year's IBMA World of Bluegrass meet, and according to Hensley's account bluegrass legend Sonny Osborne was the conduit for bringing the band and Benson together. She joined the Grascals in time to play several shows in the latter part of '08, including performances for the troops at Fort Campbell in Kentucky, and for President George W. Bush in Washington, D.C.

Darrell Webb, Flamekeeper

Although musical chairs is a common game in bluegrass band circles, the departure of McDaris after only one album is an attention getter, given the strong impression he made on the Grascals' chart topping 2008 album, Keep On Walkin'. In an interview with TheBluegrassSpecial.com in the October 2008 issue, lead singer Terry Eldredge was effusive in praising McDaris's seamless entry into the lineup on record. "He walked in there with full authority, took hold of it and went with it," Eldredge said. "He's been Grascal-fied!"

Email queries to the Grascals' publicist seeking further comment from Eldredge were not answered.

Helson is a recent arrival in the bluegrass world, having made his debut with the Larry Stephenson Band in July 2007, shortly before accepting an invite to join Kentucky Thunder. A gifted guitarist, he took up the instrument at age 13, after surviving a battle with cancer, diagnosed when he was eight years old. In addition to playing in a rock band with friends, he joined his father in a local bluegrass group, for which he played both guitar and mandolin. While studying at Bethel College in McKenzie, TN, he has performed with the school's "Renaissance" program, an eclectic ensemble in which he plays guitar as part of the rhythm section and also in its bluegrass ensemble. The Renaissance's director, Peter Jeffrey, a Dove winning songwriter, helped Helson get started as a professional musician. Still focused on his studies even as he joins the Rage, Helson will graduate from Bethel with a degree in music business in May 2009.

In announcing the addition of McDaris and Helson, Vincent indicated she and the latest Rage have already begun recording an album featuring only herself and her touring band, with no special guests. A busy touring schedule for '09 begins this month and is posted on Vincent's website.

In a mid-November note published at thebluegrassblog.com, Webb spoke effusively of his new musical home with Flamekeeper. "I am really excited about this new gig with Michael," he said. " I have picked and jammed with Mike for years and I never dreamed I'd ever get to be in a band with him. He is one of the most incredible musicians that I've ever had the pleasure of playing music with, a true professional and one of the nicest people I've ever been around."

On her website, Vincent posted a personal message about the changes in The Rage lineup.

"We sadly say goodbye to two of my very dear friends, Kenny Ingram and Darrell Webb," she writes. "I love them and wish them the very best, and will help them in any way I can." About the new lineup specifically she says: "This new approach will incorporate talents never before seen from this group, including Mickey on dobro and Hunter singing solo. As you've seen in years past, we never know what Hunter might do; and that is something that hasn't changed.

As for the new album, she offers: "The new project has capture the camaraderie and magical blend displayed by this particular group of men. Their wide array of talents will be featured, and co-displayed on record and live!" —David McGee

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