Musical experimentation has been the trademark of Nashville bluegrass ensemble The Grascals since their inception. Their self-titled 2004 debut release included an inspired remake of the Elvis Presley film hit "Viva Las Vegas" that paired them with Dolly Parton. Guitarist/vocalist Jamie Johnson recalls that the collaboration "really helped make our reputation as a group that would take chances musically and more importantly make them work."
Since that time, they've enjoyed both successful records and industry acclaim, winning 2005 International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards for Emerging Group of the Year and Song of the Year ("Me and John and Paul"), then garnering consecutive Entertainer of the Year honors in 2006 and 2007.
Their recently released fourth CD The Famous Lefty Flynn's (Rounder) expands two group traditions. It includes another left-field song selection, an arresting remake of the Monkees' "Last Train To Clarksville," and boasts an equally intriguing collboration with Hank Williams Jr. on "I'm Blue, I'm Lonesome," a classic number co-written decades ago by Bill Monroe and Hank Williams Sr.
They'll be performing those tunes and others from The Famous Lefty Flynn's in concert Friday when they appear at Bridgestone Arena as part of the Rowdy Friends tour along with Jamey Johnson, Eric Church and Williams. In addition, The Grascals will be featured in a free show Friday afternoon at 5:30 on the Arena plaza.
In addition to artistic exploration, The Famous Lefty Flynn's represents another significant milestone for the Grascals. It marks the debut of their newest member, IBMA 2008 and 2009 Banjo Player of the Year Kristin Scott Benson.
"We were familiar with Kristin's playing already," Johnson said. "But in any situation when you have to make changes it's difficult. But she came in and it's like she's always been a part of the band. Besides being a great musician and wonderful entertainer, she brought something to the group in terms of personality that's really helped the sound and the style."
Known for both sweeping vocal harmonies and top-flight instrumental backing, the latest Grascals lineup now includes Benson's superb banjo playing and Jeremy Abshire's strong contributions on fiddle and viola behind the familiar vocal frontline of Johnson, Terry Eldredge and Terry Smith, plus drummer Steve Turner.
"We definitely love and respect the bluegrass tradition and always include songs done in that style on all our records," Johnson says. "But we're also fans of classic country and love to play some of those songs. Plus we feel if we can do a song or two from another style that we enjoy, put it into a bluegrass setting and bring that to our fans, it helps bring in people who may not be that familiar with what people like Mr. Monroe or the Stanley Brothers or other great groups might have done."
"With 'Last Train To Clarksville,' we kept their basic arrangement, but we put in our harmonies and it really worked well, both in concert and when we were recording it. That's the main thing, we have to love the song ourselves before we'll cover it, and that's one we've always enjoyed."Visual showcase
The inspiration for the latest project featuring Music City vocalist Ilyasin YaZa Zarifa and a host of other area performers came in a rather unusual manner — from watching the news with her child.
"I was watching the news reports about the devastation happening in Haiti with my son Amir," Zarifa recalls. "He turned to me and said, 'Mom, are you going to help those people?' I started to give him the stock answer and then I had to stop and think, what was I going to do to help?"
From that beginning, Zarifa decided to put her skills and contacts to good use. She recruited fellow songwriter and performer Jonathan Armstead to serve as a co-producer and compositional contributor and began to reach out across musical lines to enlist the support of others in the Nashville community. The results are the diverse and engaging EP We Will Not Ignore - Songs In The Key of Humanity, a disc that includes performances from R&B, funk, Contemporary Christian, rock and jazz acts.
Zarifa didn't limit her efforts just to musicians. She also reached out to visual artists, urging them to create something that could be utilized in the fund-raising effort and was also connected to the project. On Saturday night, the visual component will be shown for the first time in a combination art exhibit and album listening party for We Will Not Ignore - Songs In The Key Of Humanity at What If Studios, 69 Trimble St., starting at 6 p.m.
The visual art exhibit, which includes contributions from Jacob Miller, Ash Sivils, Jene India and Lisa Graham among others, will be unveiled. Fans can also hear selections from the EP, which features performances from a roster that includes Mike Anderson, April Rucker, Joe E. Rich, Casme, Rio, Lo Carter, Blak Morris, Will Davenport, Kurt Coble and Kink Ador.
"The great thing about this event and the EP was that we got total cooperation from across the spectrum," Zarifa says. "Everyone was supportive, endorsed the idea and was glad to work with other artists who they normally don't collaborate with and do music that's out of their comfort zone. It was a moving and transformative experience, and I think it also shows how much concern musicians here have about things happening all over the world, as well as in their community."