Seminal slide guitarist Josh Graves was recovering from major surgery in a Nashville hospital a few months ago when he was informed by nurses that a 25-year-old man on the same floor, a musician, had been run over by a truck and lost a leg.
Graves ventured down the hall to cheer up the fellow. When he introduced himself, the young man repeated his name with wide-eyed, stammered reverence, and the comforter soon found himself bidden to sing along with his new acquaintance on “Angel Band”, a song Graves had recorded decades earlier with bluegrass icon Lester Flatt.
Then the young man happened to voice admiration of another bluegrass master, banjoist Don Reno.
“I said, ‘Do you know his sons?’” Graves says. “He said no. I said, ‘What would you do if they came down here and picked for you?’ He said, ‘I’d sure like that.’ I went back to my room and called them boys. I said, ‘I want to do a little thing here at the hospital. Would you guys come down and help me?’”
In no time, two of the Reno brothers, Don Wayne and Dale, appeared at the hospital with a couple of friends, and the staff cleared a room that quickly filled with “all the patients they could roll in there.” Graves and the others then played for, and with, their young fan until Graves was exhausted.
“I was weak as a cat, but I did about 40 minutes,” he remembers. “Then I had to go lay down.”
At 74, he was almost exactly three times the age of his new friend. Plus, he was in the hospital recuperating from losing a leg of his own — not his first but his second, and to blood clots rather than a truck.
Which all suggests the breezy grit that, along with fiery fingerpicking, has kept Uncle Josh Graves’ name prominent in country and bluegrass music circles for at least five decades. Before launching a solo career in the 1970s, he lent his howling “hound dog” guitar to a succession of bands behind such historic early country stars as Esco Hankins, Wilma Lee & Stoney Cooper, and Mac Wiseman — before joining the group that made him famous: Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs & the Foggy Mountain Boys.
Since then, he has influenced virtually every slide player who followed. His admirers range from giants such as Jerry Douglas and Mike Auldridge to his own rising nephew, Tim Graves, who works with the Grand Ole Opry’s vaunted Osborne Brothers and has his own group, Cherokee.
“I told Tim, ‘Your ambition is to beat me,’” Josh says. “[He said] ‘Oh, no.’ I said, ‘No, I want you to — but you won’t ’til I want you to.’” He grins and adds: “I taught him, but I didn’t teach him everything.”
At his home in Nashville’s northeast suburbs, he sits at the kitchen table where the late Flatt and other notables have eaten Evelyn Graves’ biscuits and white gravy. In the living room, one wall is covered with mementos from various musical organizations lauding his groundbreaking artistry.
His persistent wit, a reminder of hilarity on the old Flatt & Scruggs roadshow, dispels any unease a visitor feels at approaching someone who has faced the surgeries Graves has over the past couple of years.
The humor masks an obvious will to prevail. In today’s interview, he expresses eagerness to return to the road to perform and promote his most recent CDs (Memories Of Foggy Mountain and Sultan Of Slide on OMS Records, World Famous Dobro on Starday and Josh Graves on Rebel).
Such news should revive a shimmering memory in music fans of sufficient age: of Flatt on guitar, Scruggs on banjo, and the Foggies — fiddler Paul Warren, standup bassist Jake Tullock and Graves. Together they vie for distinction as time’s finest bluegrass unit.
That’s attributable to the warm smoothness of Flatt’s mastery of ceremonies compared to Bill Monroe’s imperious, cold-chill command; the easy roll of Flatt & Scruggs’ guitar-led sound as opposed to the chopping rhythm of Monroe’s mandolin; and sheer, intricate choreography, the frentically bobbing black and white hats as, driven by the pace of Scruggs’ hell-for-leather five-string, voices and instruments moved dizzyingly to greater or lesser prominence around the mikes.