The Grascals (from left: Danny Roberts, Jamie Johnson, Kristin Scott Benson, Jeremy Abshire, Terry Eldredge, Terry Smith): ‘In our opinion, it’s the best lineup that we’ve had to date. It’s a great bunch of pickers, and the singing’s still the same ol’ singing,’ says Johnson.

Of Continuity And Change
The Grascals lean on familiar touchstones and add some new wrinkles on The Famous Lefty Flynn’s
By David McGee

Do not be deceived. With the release of their fourth album, The Famous Lefty Flynn’s, the Grascals—Jamie Johnson (guitar, vocals), Terry Eldredge (guitar, vocals), Terry Smith (bass, vocals), Danny Roberts (mandolin), Kristin Scott Benson (banjo), Jeremy Abshire (fiddle)—are making exceptional music sound easy. In fact, though, the quintet’s seemingly routine virtuosity as singers and players is, like so many things that seem simple on the outside, the product of rigorous discipline and flat-out hard work.

Tell Jamie Johnson, who is also one of the group’s three principal songwriters, that the band is indeed making its level of excellence seem like business as usual, and he’s quick with a laugh.

“The joy of recording!” he exclaims, before continuing on to describe a clear break from past routine when the group came together to record Lefty Flynn’s. The biggest change came in insisting on the luxury of time: in the past, Johnson says, the first time the band members heard the results of their studio efforts was when the records were released. That was then, this is now.

“We took our time on this one; took more time on it than before, but tried to break it up a little bit instead of going in there and rushing everything, trying to get everything done so quick,” he says. “But we’re completely happy with the first three albums, a hundred percent. We just decided to go in and cut two or three songs at a time, live with them, and if we wanted to change something we could. So this one was a little different approach, and we’re very proud of it and excited for everybody to listen to it.”

Jamie Johnson: ‘A big part of life, being humble with what you have and in the end be satisfied with what you’ve accomplished, in whatever job you work. I think we’re extremely happy.’

Proud they should be. The Famous Lefty Flynn’s is packed with both the Grascals’ signature close, affecting harmonies and memorable lead singing: Johnson rolls out his light, keening tenor to chilling effect on “Satan and Grandma,” the story of the persistence of a particular woman’s faith in the face of all manner of sin, temptation and hard times. Eldredge’s astringent tenor has, arguably, its finest showcase ever on a spare, emotional treatment of Steve Earle’s “My Old Friend the Blues.” Strong lead work and group harmony alike energize Bobby Osborne’s proud testament of a working man, “Son of a Sawmill Man,” a barnburner fueled by Benson’s breakneck banjo soloing throughout. The boundary between country and bluegrass is beautifully blurred in a powerful reading of the Bill Monroe-Hank Williams classic, “I’m Blue I’m Lonesome,” with its down-and-out feeling enhanced on multiple fronts: by the Grascals’ ensemble moan, by guest Lloyd Green’s tasty crying steel guitar, and not least of all by the hearty lead vocal supplied by one of the songwriters’ sons, one Hank Williams Jr., with whom the band is now out on tour.

As for the two newest Grascals, Benson and Abshire, well, Lefty Flynn’s is some kind of bravura showcase, as both play with striking authority in putting their signature on the group’s sound. Benson (who was named the IBMA’s Banjo Player of the Year in 2008 and 2009, and won the same award from SPBGMA in 2009) along with Roberts, also contributes an original instrumental, the steady rollin’ “Blue Rock Slide,” graceful, lyrical and subtle from start to finish, with ample room for individual statements from Benson, Roberts and Abshire, who establish an easygoing mood, enhance it with their lean solos, and then join together at the end (there’s your “slide”) in an onrushing dialogue, one following the other and back around until song’s end. And not least of all, for the band that broke fast out of the gate in 2005 and rose to the upper tier of contemporary bluegrass bands on the strength of its spirited, bluegrass-ified take on the Elvis classic by way of Doc Pomus-Mort Shuman, “Viva Las Vegas” (on which Dolly Parton made a memorable vocal appearance, she being something of a godmother to the Grascals, some of whom formed her Blue-niques touring band), Lefty Flynn’s kicks off with another unlikely bluegrass romp through a ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll favorite, the Monkees’ (by way of Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart) “Last Train to Clarksville,” which kicks off the album on a high note; ending on a thoughtful moment, the Grascals close the proceedings with a tender, yearning, sparsely arranged (leaning heavily on the subdued shadowing of banjo and fiddle) gospel standard, “Give Me Jesus,” the third consecutive Grascals album to end thusly.

Where it started: The Grascals and Dolly Parton perform the newly formed group’s first single, ‘Viva Las Vegas,’ on the Grand Ole Opry, 2005

So there is continuity amidst some change on Lefty Flynn’s. The original songs are typically strong: Johnson and Morry Trent co-wrote the title track, a prison song centered on a colorful character whose felonies and scams caught up with him in ironic fashion; Johnson, Smith and Robert collaborated on a hard-driving bluegrass love song, “My Baby’s Waiting On the Other Side,” which also serves as another splendid showcase for Benson’s fleet banjo picking and Abshire’s furious fiddling. With respect to the covers, familiar names are accounted for: Harley Allen, a favored Grascals songwriter, is represented with one of his co-writes with Scotty Emerick, “Everytime,” a driving tale concerning a gent whose wanderlust even trumps romance (“the only one I’m missin’ is the one I ain’t kissin’”); the Osborne Brothers, revered by the Grascals and once the employer of the three of the band members, are covered twice, on “Son Of a Sawmill Man” and “Up This Hill and Down” (liner notes author Jon Weisberger also notes Osborne-style harmonies infusing one section of “My Baby’s Waiting On the Other Side”). And newcomer Jeremy Montgomery Parsons gets a memorable Grascals cover of his dark-themed bluegrass ballad, “Out Comes the Sun,” a sorrowful tale of a man enmeshed in a destructive love affair and unable to call it quits. About the only name familiar from previous Grascals long players not accounted for this time around is the songwriter Aubrey Holt, who is unrepresented, an absence explained by Johnson as owing to Holt not sending in a new batch of songs for consideration—“but we’ve done several of his tunes, and we’ll do ‘em again. One of my favorite writers is Charlie Steffel, and I co-write with him a lot, but he didn’t make this one either. It has to be the right song, it has to be the right time, and that’s the only way we can justify it.”

One by one, Johnson addresses the storyline emerging from the songs on Lefty Flynn’s:

On the Osbornes’ influence: “They’re our biggest influence in the music business, especially when you hear the vocals coming out. And in all honesty, we realize that once the Osborne Brothers have done it, you can stick a fork in it, because it’s done. But Terry Smith and Terry Eldredge spent twenty-five years with ‘em; I’ve been very close to both Bobby and Sonny for years myself. I guess it’s just what you hear and how you hear the music, and the way they did it is how we hear it. That’s our favorite blend. We can do it other ways, and we do mix it up on different songs. But when you do one of their songs, there’s honestly only one way to do it that’s gonna sound right, and that’s the way they did it—the structure, the way they put a song together. We have our own blend on each one, our own mix of Grascals stuff in there, but the basis of an Osborne Brothers song is what they gave us, and it’s an incredible gift. It’s a tribute to them. Those are some of their favorite songs, and we like to sing them, too.”

Kristin Scott Benson: of his new bandmate, Jamie Johnson says: ‘She can play something progressive, something with a more country feel, or she can do the Scruggs style, or J.D. Crowe, or Sonny Osborne. She’s got them all down.’

The seamless transition of new members Kristin Scott Benson and Jeremy Abshire from stage to studio as Grascals: “They’re professionals in their own right. Kristin’s been doing this for many years before she ever became a Grascal. She started winning awards before she ever joined our group. It was a very smooth transition. She’s just a class act. She knew all that we asked her to know, and then more. She’s very well trained in banjo, where she can play something progressive, something with a more country feel, or she can do the Scruggs style, or J.D. Crowe, or Sonny Osborne. She’s got them all down. One of the reasons we took more time in these sessions was to make sure they were happy with the recordings and that everything flowed easily. It did. We could have done all the songs in two weeks, but it was our choice to do it as we did. Jeremy Abshire, he’s been out doing this for years as well. He had played with Dale Ann Bradley and was doing his thing. It was a natural fit, a natural feeling in the studio. We’re very excited about this album. In our opinion, it’s the best lineup that we’ve had to date. It’s a great bunch of pickers, and the singing’s still the same ol’ singing.”

(Asked if Benson has to remind the five men in the band that she is the lady in the crowd, Johnson emphasizes that the lady can hold her own. “We’re great friends,” he says. “We’ve known her and her husband, Wayne Benson, for years. Kristin’s 99 percent one of the guys. We all have a great time, she knows when to cut up, and trust me, she fits right in there. She’s been doing this for a long time, so it was an easy fit. Never uncomfortable. We’re always giving her a hard time, and she doesn’t have a bit of problem giving us a hard time, either. She’s not scared of us, let’s put it that way.”)

The Grascals perform the Monkees hit ‘Last Train to Clarksville’ on the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon, 2009. The song kicks off the band’s new album, The Famous Lefty Flynn’s.

How the Grascals come by their surprising choice of covers: “Just by listening. We listen to music all the time. ‘Last Train to Clarksville,’ you always try to throw something a little bit different and also familiar to a crowd other than just your own. For instance, right now we’re on the Hank Jr. tour. You kick off with a song like that, and they know it’s on your new CD, it’s something familiar to them, but we put our own touch on it, which makes it easy enough to do at a bluegrass festival. And all bluegrassers watched The Monkees, or the majority of them did, and they’ve heard the song before. Some may not remember where it came from, but then to hear something familiar and it sounds great as a bluegrass tune—and if we’re gonna do it, it’s gotta sound good—it’s to try and get people who aren’t necessarily familiar with bluegrass or the Grascals to give them something familiar from where they came from, too.”

A couple of performances in particular are singled out by Johnson as ranking with his favorite Grascals moments. He is effusive in his praise for Eldredge’s reading of Earle’s “My Old Friend the Blues,” another outstanding Earle love song, although in this case it’s not a person who is the object of the singer’s affections, but a feeling that gives him comfort in trying times. Eldredge and Earle are old friends, dating back to the pre-Grascals years when Earle would show up at Nashville’s Station Inn on Tuesday nights to see Eldredge and his mates pickin’ up a bluegrass storm. But what Eldredge does with the tune goes beyond mere performance into an area of hurt as deeply felt as it is abiding. Johnson knew this when he heard it going down in the studio, heard it in the singing and in Eldredge’s acoustic guitar accompaniment as well.

“That’s a song of truth for Terry, and you can tell it in the vocal,” says Johnson. “When he sings, ‘another lonely night in an aimless town’—go back and listen to that. He’s crying right there. And re-sang it and re-sang it, because he didn’t like his performance, because he had started crying. And we told him, ‘Man, that tells the song, that’s what a singer is supposed to do with this song—feel.’ As a songwriter that was my favorite line that he sang in the whole song. If you go back and listen you’ll hear the passion in his voice. And you know, he kicked it off on his guitar. We were going to get some fancy A-team guitar player to come in there and do that, but you know what? He’s feeling it through his fingers. He’s a Willie Nelson-type picker, and he felt that through his fingers. He wasn’t sure about it, and I told him, ‘You know what? It’s perfect. You felt that like you sang it.’ And we kept it.”

Hank Jr.’s appearance on the record is something of a payback for Jr. asking the Grascals to sing on his bluegrass song, “All The Roads,” released as a single last year. “Obviously,” Johnson says, “if he asks us to do something, we’re not dummies—we’re gonna ask him to do something too. And he returned the favor by coming in on our album.”

Of course the Grascals aim to put their own spin on any cover and so it was with this Monroe-Williams monument. “It’s been done so many times bluegrass-style. So why do that again? When Hank came in and sang his lead, we changed it up. That’s the first Grascals song vocally that I’ve never been a part of, which is just fine with me, whole lot less work, but it also brought Terry out of his lazy shell of singing tenor. He’s been used to me doing all that, but I’ve always loved Terry’s tenor singing, when he sang with Larry Cordle, anybody. He’s got that trademark tenor voice like Skaggs and Bobby Osborne. But his tone’s a little different when he sings tenor, and man, he really scalded that one, singing tenor to Hank; then Terry Smith sang the low part. So we put three voices all the way through it, and we pay tribute to not only Bill Monroe, doing it bluegrass style, we pay tribute to Hank Sr. by putting Lloyd Green on steel to kick off the song. Just try to do it as tasteful as we could and do the combination of a country music legend and the father of our bluegrass music—and to put an icon in the middle who’s related to the song.”

The Grascals, ‘Give Me Jesus,’ the final cut on The Famous Lefty Flynn’s. In concert at the 2008 Strawberry Park Bluegrass Festival, Preston, CT. Video by Stephen Ide, posted at YouTube. Kristin Scott Benson was not yet a member of the band.

And as Johnson sees it, the gospel signoff, “Give Me Jesus,” is more than a beloved spiritual; it’s the band’s expression of gratitude for blessings bestowed by a higher power.

“We feel extremely blessed. We’re just getting started. To go to the top so fast is a challenge, and you’re very thankful you got there. Some people never even get there, for one, and we’ve been there for years. Some of the awards have not flowed our way, but we’re still up there in the running for all of them, but you have to be happy with what you are doing—the music you’re producing, the people you’re with, and at the end of the day, when you go home, you have to be happy. That’s a big part of life, being humble with what you have and in the end be satisfied with what you’ve accomplished, in whatever job you work. I think we’re extremely happy. We’ve got an incredible team behind us right now, the people still come out to our shows, they still buy our CDs. I just feel like we’re getting better. It’s like a fine wine, getting better in time. The four founding members love each other like brothers, and if there’s ever any problem, we get it out right away, talk about it and get it behind us. We’re extremely satisfied with our career. Our albums are getting better, the music is getting better, the people are still there, and we’re still getting the major publicity, and the Hank Williams, Jr. tour is huge for us, playing in front of ten, fifteen thousand people a night times twenty. You’re getting into hundreds of thousands of people that have never heard our music, or bluegrass period.”

He speaks of “a full gospel record” being in the band’s plans—“We’ll do a gospel album because there’s some great gospel songs out there, some that have already been told, some old hymns, and we want to do our versions of those; and there are some great ones that have never been recorded before.”—but underscores the musicians’ determination “to keep digging and keep chugging, never get too satisfied that we start standing still.”

Which means?

“We’re already looking forward to the next album. We’re already listening to songs again, and moving forward in this career, trying to be tasteful and do it the right way.”

The Grascals’ The Famous Lefty Flynn’s is available at

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