In bluegrass and country music, the sideman is the most essential archetype. As a sideman one learns the craft, shapes a work ethic, and finds a voice. But for most pickers, singers and songwriters, the dream is to become a leader.
For the members of the Grascals, leadership has come reluctantly. Their gifts are incalculable but their ambition has been to cultivate music, not notoriety. Separately they have long worked for and with others: Terry Eldredge (lead vocals and guitar) with the Osborne Brothers and Dierks Bentley, Jamie Johnson (vocals and guitar) with Gail Davies and Ricky Van Shelton, Jimmy Mattingly (fiddle) with Steve Wariner and Garth Brooks, David Talbot (banjo) with Reba McEntire and Jim Lauderdale, Danny Roberts (mandolin) with Ronnie Reno and Melanie Cannon, and Terry Smith (bass) with the Osbornes and Jimmy Martin.
“I never did think of having my own band, because of the headache,” Johnson, the de facto spokesman, explains. “When you’re a sideman you see what it takes to be a leader, what you have to do to make it work, and I just didn’t want that. But it all began with the Sidemen at the Station Inn.”
The Sidemen, a band of bluegrass rogues (sometimes even featuring Steve Earle for extended sets), formed at that legendary Nashville club in 1989. In 2003, the Grascals emerged from those jam sessions and began touring with Dolly Parton — still as sidemen, but receiving a level of exposure they had never experienced (with the exception of Mattingly).
Onstage, Eldredge, the last of the original Sidemen still gigging at the Station Inn, takes on most of the lead vocals. Eldredge, 40, has been singing in Nashville for two decades, building a reputation as one of the finest tenors in bluegrass. His sweet, slightly torn voice is shaped by the Eagles on the radio and Bobby and Sonny Osborne onstage.
“It’s like Steve Earle said, ‘I’m the laziest guy in bluegrass,’” Eldredge laughs. “I always wanted to do it, but until Jamie and the other guys came along, I never got off my butt and did it. The Sidemen was like a hobby gig, like a paid practice, though it bloomed into something decent. But we couldn’t get that serious about it, because everybody was working with someone else, making good money, and you couldn’t ask them to leave that.”
The six longtime friends signed with Rounder and in February released their self-titled debut disc, a collection of highly melodic, intensely tight bluegrass that realizes the group’s collective sense of self. Covering songs made famous by the Osbornes, Price and Elvis (Dolly Parton cameos on a gimmick-free version of “Viva Las Vegas”), as well as obscure but classic-sounding tunes by Nashville journeymen, the Grascals make mincemeat of labels like traditional and contemporary.
“I don’t think it matters where it fits in,” Johnson says. “We have drums on our songs, and a lot of bluegrass people don’t like that. They’re mixed down, but they’re on eight or nine of the cuts. We just loved that snare drum and that steel.”
“Where The Corn Don’t Grow”, a song written by Roger Murrah and Mark Alan Springer (and previously cut by Waylon Jennings and placed on the charts by Travis Tritt), captures Eldredge and Johnson’s Indiana roots in a story told often in country music because it gets at the truth: “Hard times are real/There’s dusty fields/No matter where you go/You may change your mind/’Cause the weeds are high/Where corn don’t grow.”
“I quit my engineering job and up and moved from Indiana to Nashville,” Johnson reflects. “I’m still chasing dreams and thank God some of them are coming true. But I’ve never been against getting off my butt and getting a job when I get home off the road. It can be scary, but honestly, it was scary to move away from home. But I did it and I’m OK.”
The album’s most nostalgic number, Harley Allen’s childhood reverie “Me And John And Paul”, emphasizes the Grascals’ gift for merging skill and an immediate, emotional vulnerability, rare among such veteran pickers. “I was going to change the words, to “Me And Jack And Paul’,” Eldredge says. “I had two childhood friends named Jack and Paul. It took a long time for me where I could get to sing it. It brought back a lot of memories.”
Though they’re hardly a supergroup, the six journeymen know the risks in becoming their own masters as well as the freedom such risks promise. “We want everybody to know that we’re six members strong,” Johnson stresses, “and we have every intention of staying that way. Our whole reason of doing this is for there not to be any sideman — for everybody to be the artist, everybody to make the decisions together. And nobody can fire us.”