Interview: Lineup Changes Invigorate the Grascals on ‘And Then There’s This …’
On Jan. 8, the Grascals released And Then There’s This …, their first album since November of 2013. In those two-plus years, the band has lost a founding member and gained two new ones -- and now, they're just as strong as, if not stronger than, before.
"[Our new album] is as good or better than anything we've ever done," Grascals member Danny Roberts tells The Boot.
Fan response certainly supports his statement: In addition to being voted The Boot's January 2016 Album of the Month, And Then There's This ... debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Bluegrass Albums Chart. The record is the Grascals' fourth studio album (out of nine) to top that chart, but the achievement is especially sweet given the band's recent lineup changes.
And Then There's This ... is both John Bryan and Adam Haynes' first record with the Grascals. Haynes has been with the bluegrass group -- also comprised of Kristin Scott Benson, Terry Eldredge, Danny Roberts and Terry Smith -- since 2013, but the new disc is the first on which he's played.
"He made a big change in the way we sounded," Roberts says of Haynes. "... He fits so perfectly, and his attitude on stage, his presence, was just another piece of the puzzle we needed back."
Bryan, meanwhile, joined the Grascals after founding member Jamie Johnson, the band’s former lead singer, stepped away from the group in April; he came recommended by a friend. The band asked him to audition with them at a few shows -- but by the second night, they'd hired him.
"It's amazing how it worked out ...," Roberts, who has been with the Grascals since their beginning in 2004, reflects. "It seems like he's always been here."
Bryan -- who is just 25 years old but has listened to the Grascals since he was a teenager ("Thanks a lot," Roberts interjects with a laugh) -- says that he was "very honored" to be asked to audition ... once he realized the request was real. The singer remembers that he received the call on April 1 and, due to it being April Fools' Day, thought it was a prank.
"It was kind of surreal," Bryan says. "... I didn't go in thinking I would get the job ... [but] even if I didn't get the job, I got to go hang out with people that I listened to and looked up to for a long time."
Bryan has had an opportunity to talk with Johnson since joining the band, and while the former lead singer didn't have any tips or advice for his replacement, he offered something even better: his seal of approval. Roberts explains that Johnson told Bryan he was a perfect fit for the band.
"Jamie's a very talented guy ...," Bryan notes. "It was nice to hear it come from him."
Adds Roberts, "Jamie's family to us. We still talk to him. He's always going to be a friend of the band, and he's a friend to John."
With the injection of new members, the Grascals as a whole have felt "a spark ... a boost," according to Roberts. The three-time Grammy Awards nominees and two-time IBMA Awards Entertainers of the Year didn't necessarily need to change it up, but Roberts says that things are "different in a good way." Specifically, Bryan's youth has helped the band reach a younger audience.
"I make sure that everybody can see, lead 'em around ...," Bryan says with a laugh.
"He's good with our phones if we need 'em adjusted," Roberts chimes in.
Still, age ain't nothin' but a number, as they say. Bryan has an appreciate for old-school styles -- he is Doc Watson's grand-nephew through his mother's side of the family, which he says has "always kind of tied me to that older style of music" -- so the Grascals knew he wouldn't be trying to change them too much, or vice versa.
"But he has changed us," Roberts notes, and Bryan says, "They've added a lot to me, too."
The Grascals had begun a gospel record while Johnson was still in the band, but they abandoned that project after the addition of Bryan. On And Then There's This ..., the song "A Place to Hang My Hat" is the lone holdover from said gospel project. Bill Monroe's "Highway of Sorrow" earned a spot on the disc after it became a live favorite, but otherwise, the group culled the rest of the record's 12 tracks from submissions from "some of the best writers in the business," including Joe Diffie and Larry Cordle. In fact, the only song that any of the Grascals themselves had a hand in writing is the instrumental -- an "unusual" move for the band, Bryan and Roberts say.
Overall, Roberts describes And Then There's This ... as "exciting," "a bit more traditional" and "more organic." Both he and Bryan are big fans of "I Know Better" and "Road of Life," the album's first two tracks. The former is "just different," Roberts explains, while Bryan praises the latter as "so well written, and the melody and everything kind of just grabs you."
"["Road of Life"] is one of Terry Eldredge's best vocal performances," Roberts adds. "He just sells that song so well."
The Grascals will spend much of 2016 on the road, specifically focusing on playing bluegrass festivals; Bryan and Roberts call their touring plans a "re-commitment" on the band's part to their main fan base. And while the group has been "so blessed" throughout their decade-plus-long career and earned opportunities to work and tour with many a big country name, there's still something they're hoping they'll be able to check off their bucket lists someday: becoming members of the Grand Ole Opry.
"They've been so good to us," Roberts says of the hallowed country music institution, noting that each member's connections to the Opry go back decades, even pre-dating the Grascals. "... It may never happen, but we're gonna keep dreaming."
And Then There's This ... is now available via iTunes.
Watch the Grascals, And Then There's This ... Teaser Trailer:
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