The brother and sister who embraced bluegrass as elementary school children in New England have such a solid, signature sound ” in the style of their idols including Bill Monroe and Ricky Skaggs ” that it feels as if they have always been part of the bluegrass community. Perhaps that’s because the music of the reigning Inspirational Country Music Bluegrass Artists of the Year is a true staple on radio, in concerts, and during high-profile events including the PBS television special Pa’s Fiddle and on such television shows as Fox & Friends.
Now Elaine and Lee Roy are again candidates for nominations in ICM award categories ” this time for Entertainers of the Year, Vocal Duo, and Inspirational Bluegrass Artist. As if that isn’t enough, the duo are ready to release their next recording this month. Elaine Roy took time out of her hectic schedule to chat about the duo’s music, album, and fans.
OS: New Day Dawning is a great title for your album. How did you come up with that title?
ER: I don’t even know who came up with the idea. We started talking and somebody said “New Day Dawning” and we wanted to write it as a song. There’s such negativity in the world so when it came time to name the album we thought it was the perfect title of the album.
OS: Well, I have to ask if it also signifies a new day or turning point for The Roys.
ER: We hope it’s a turning point! We’ve struggled long and hard to get where we are today. We are really grateful for all that has happened to us and we look forward to a new day dawning and great things ahead.
OS: Now this recording isn’t a full album. Why is that?
ER: Right, it’s seven tracks. I think for us it was trying to turn out more music quicker for the fans. When you record a complete album, that’s a very long process. We just wanted to get music out there for our fans.
It’s difficult to imagine a more poignant moment than when Ricky Skaggs and his band Kentucky Thunder played a moving rendition of “You Can’t Shake Jesus,” at the recent FloydFest in southern Virginia.
Although the 15,000-plus fans that packed each of the four days of the festival heard from a top-flight roster of artists including Emmylou Harris, Brandi Carlile, the Punch Brothers, Jackson Browne, and others, it was Skaggs’ virtuoso playing and heartfelt vocals that enticed concertgoers to stand in the searing sun and cheer, even as FloydFest wound down. Although Skaggs also teamed up with Bruce Hornsby for some power-packed songs, it’s difficult to imagine anything more lovely than the set Skaggs and his band played before meeting and greeting fans.
“It’s the most unusual gospel record I’ve ever done,” Skaggs told the crowd about Mosaic, the album from which “You Can’t Shake Jesus” was taken. “It’s not bluegrass and it’s not country, but you’ll like it. It’s good.”
Anyone wanting to sum up Skaggs’ career and appeal could likely turn to that line for reference. After making a name for himself as a major country star, he moved to bluegrass and even dabbled in other formats with special interest in gospel and Christian-themed songs. The result included 24 singles on Billboard’s Top 20, including 12 at #1 and an array of awards and honors, including 14 GRAMMY Awards, eight CMA Awards (including Entertainer of the Year), eight ACM Awards, two Dove Awards and nine ICM (Inspirational Country Music) Awards.
The band’s 2011 album with Steve Martin Rare Bird Alert went to No. 1 on Billboard’s Bluegrass Chart and won a GRAMMY Award nomination. The band’s 2010 album Deep in the Shade stayed in Billboard’s Top 10 Bluegrass chart for eighteen weeks. Headlining gigs at MerleFest, Bonaroo and other high profile events have followed.
Now the band is set to join with Martin again when it co-headlines DelFest, named for founder and bluegrass legend Del McCoury, the annual bluegrass extravaganza on Memorial Day Weekend in Cumberland, Maryland.
Although other events with Martin will follow, the band’s main focus this year is touring behind its just-released album Nobody Knows You.
Steep Canyon Rangers guitarist and lead vocalist Woody Platt took time out of his jam-packed schedule to talk to OurStage about the past year and just where Steep Canyon Rangers is headed in the near future.
OS: It had to be great working with Steve Martin and playing all the high profile events you’ve done in the past year or so. How did you work in a new record, too?
WP: We had great success with Steve and we wanted to follow that up with a solo record from us. The exposure we got through Steve was great but we also want to work on just our own music. When we’re traveling, we are usually out ten to twelve days in a row and sound check isn’t until about 4:30 so we had some time [to write, demo and otherwise develop the album]. We worked very hard on it last year. Charles [R. Humphrey III, the bassist) and Graham [Sharp, the banjo player] are very, very serious about songwriting and very good at it, so they worked on [the new songs] all the time.
Go ahead and call Yonder Mountain String Band a bluegrass group if you want to, but if you take in some of their shows this summer”such as one at FloydFest in Floyd, VA on July 30 or their headlining gig at Red Rocks Ampitheatre in Morrison, CO on Aug. 20”prepare for a surprise.
Not only will the band likely debut some of its new music slated to be released in 2012, but all of their songs will showcase why they are revered as one of the most progressive bluegrass bands out there. Their signature sound not only swirls rock, pop and hints of other genres into the bluegrass mix but the players’ expertise have made them a darling of jam band aficionados.
“It’s cool there are a lot of other voices [in the] bluegrass world,” said bassist Ben Kaufmann. “I feel kind of like [our band is] part of an icebreaker. We’ve proven you don’t need drums and electric amplification to attract a young audience.”
Of course, bluegrass fans know that those who follow the genre are passionate about what constitutes true bluegrass. The father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, was a strict traditionalist who didn’t enjoy any type of variation in the sound. Not so strict is Del McCoury, who was a member of Monroe’s band and is now thought of by many as the leader of bluegrass. McCoury has not only championed progressive bluegrass bands but has mixed his own music with other genres including New Orleans’ Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
A love for both traditional bluegrass and the new grass movement is what initially brought banjo player Dave Johnston and Jeff Austin, who plays mandolin in the band, together musically as students in Urbana, IL. Their collaborations continued and expanded after the two moved west and met Kaufmann and guitarist Adam Aijala.
Yonder Mountain String Band, which officially formed in 1998 and was playing legendary venues such as San Francisco’s Fillmore within a few years, sees their band as one of the pioneers in further opening up the genre to younger audiences.
“I see us being an important band because we have kind of taken the starch off the collars and church out of the music,” said Johnston, noting that although they don’t play more pop-oriented bluegrass, they are still fans of that part of the genre. “It’s kind of like we have fulfilled an essential need because kids come to see us. Although we’re based in bluegrass and new grass, we don’t try to limit our sound or what we want to do.”
That’s one reason younger audience respond to the sound, the band mates say. Pure forms of country, rock and other traditional genres are almost non existent in contemporary music.
“Country isn’t one thing, rock isn’t one thing, and that’s where music is going,” said Johnston. “We have existed our entire careers not caring what genre our music is from. We are looking for a blend of genres and experimentation…We aren’t looking for hits, we are looking for good songs.”
For news about the band, go to their web site.
Any day now, he plans to announce the “Treasure Chest Tour” that will take him across the country showcasing the country and country pop tunes he saw become hits before he turned his attentions to bluegrass and became a major hit maker in that genre.
“Scriptures talks about a man that goes in his treasure chest and pulls out things old and new,” said Skaggs. “What I will do is have a tour that will encompass Ricky Skaggs from the early days. The band will be [his long-time players] Kentucky Thunder but we’ll also add a drummer and a piano player and do my old country hits that fans haven’t heard me do since 1997 when I got into bluegrass.”
The Treasure Chest Ricky will open is chock full of material. When he was sixteen, Skaggs became a professional musician with the legendary Ralph Stanley and was soon a well-respected singer and mandolin player.
“It’s almost like a celebration of forty years,” said Skaggs noting he will play bluegrass and the Christian-flavored songs from his latest, GRAMMY Award-nominated album Mosaic on the tour. “This will be a tour people will want to see.”
Not that his current bluegrass concerts, that also include some songs from his album Mosaic, isn’t selling out at almost every stop. At a recent concert at the legendary Birchmere in Alexandria, VA” the first of two sold out shows at the venue”the audience’s cheers and hearty applause underscored they couldn’t get enough of Skaggs.
Besides the lightening fast precision with which he and his band played, Skaggs has an extremely casual stage presence. He treats his fans almost as if they are family, taking the time to tell behind-the-scenes stories about the songs he plays and respond to requests. From a young age Skaggs was a fan of Darrell “Pee Wee” Lambert, so he exuded a special joy when telling the audience that the mandolin he was playing had originally belonged to Lambert.
What better instrument to play during a show when Skaggs and his band played some classic bluegrass tunes including several Stanley Brothers’ songs such as “On a Lonesome Night,” and Bill Monroe’s “I’m On My Way Back to the Old Home.” Prior to the show, Skaggs reflected on his musical treasure chest. Although he calls Mosaic “the most important album I’ve ever made,” he stressed that he’s not a Christian artist. His music belongs to the people and the streets, he said, and that shows in the songs on this album.
“There’s something in the sound that is so different than [more traditional] gospel music,” he said. “If you did a mix of what we have and took the vocals out you would enjoy just hearing the music. You wouldn’t think so much that it was a gospel, Christian, spiritual or any time of sacred record. That’s what drew me into it as well. I’m a musician. I love music, and I love to play music, and I love to create different sounds of music.”
Dates for the Treasure Chest Tour have not been announced. Check here for updates.