I had the pleasure to witness the debut public appearance of the Clay Hess Band, at the Pumpkin Park Music Hall in Milton, West Virginia on Friday night. Most bluegrass musicians and fans across the country were introduced to Clay as lead guitarist with Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder, and his work more recently with Sierra Hull, but after the release of his solo project, Rain, he decided the time was right to step out from the sideman role and take center stage.
In addition to getting the watch the show, I had the added enjoyment of playing an active part in the event, as I provided the sound system for the show. The auditorium is less than two years old, and was constructed as part of the Cabell County Fairgrounds, which serves as home for both the county fair and the ever popular Pumpkin Festival (hence the name Pumpkin Park). Having constructed the auditorium, which can seat 900, the operators have started scheduling concerts outside the normal fair and festival events. Daily & Vincent will be appearing in May and other shows are in the works. It’s always good to see new venues for bluegrass performers.
The show opened with a performance by Stacy Grubb. A prolific songwriter, Stacy presented a mixture of original compositions, several from her recent CD Hurricane, along with her interpretations of classics like Catfish John and Darling Corey (Dig a Hole In The Meadow, if you prefer). For any that haven’t heard her, you owe it to yourself to give her a listen. Her vocal style is reminiscent of Alison Krauss in her range and her ability to display both softness and power. The Clay Hess Band did a great job of backing Stacy, no easy task considering her original material.
With some of his family in attendance, Clay took the stage with his new bandmates. Mixing some of his own compositions (I didn’t realize he had written so many songs), songs from his recent release, and beloved standards, they displayed instrumental strength and the necessary vocal variety (three members of the group took turns at lead vocals) to present an entertaining show.
Playing enough to be interesting without ever abandoning the melody, Josh Hymer played a solid banjo. Making his father proud, Clay was joined on stage by his son, Brennan, on rhythm guitar and harmony vocals. Recommended to Clay by Adam Steffey as “killer”, Clay joked that mandolin player Ryan Moyers hadn’t killed anyone yet (how do we get some of our slang?). Moyers may not have committed murder yet, but he did a fine job on both mandolin and vocals.
Introduced as the first person Clay called when he decided to put a group together, Irl Hees demonstrated why Clay called, with his bass playing, lead and tenor vocals, and stage personality. His solo (I mean solo as in he was the only person on stage) rendition of Working On A Building featured the slap-bass technique which was more common in early bluegrass history, and is always a crowd pleaser.
Of course, the show featured plenty of Clay’s amazing guitar playing. I remember jamming with him 20+ years ago when he was a teenager and being proclaimed “the next Tony Rice,” and although virtually no one that plays bluegrass guitar solos hasn’t been influenced by Tony Rice, Clay doesn’t resort to Rice’s standard licks to construct a solo, but has his own ideas to express. The bigger surprise to those that haven’t seen him often is his vocal ability, which will no doubt continue to grow as he takes on the role of primary lead vocalist.
While they certainly are all experienced musicians, it seemed that as the show went on, the group reached a comfort level which showed not only in their instrumentals and vocals, but in their stage patter. They displayed a sense of humor, most of which seemed spontaneous, and the audience seemed to thoroughly enjoy the evening.
The show was presented by Jason Grubb, Stacy’s husband, who is an attorney in Beckley, West Virginia. Jason has built a practice which includes artist management and representation. His roster of artists includes Stacy Grubb (duh), The Clay Hess Band, The Darrell Webb Band, and a number of other fine groups.
All in all, it was a memorable start for the Clay Hess Band, and I’m sure we’ll be hearing a lot from them in the future. Thanks to Jason and Stacy for allowing me to be a part of the event.
Thanks also to my personal photographer, Valerie Gabehart, for capturing the moment.