It’s always interesting to see what will happen when new members enter a longstanding band that has previously had a relatively static lineup. Will they pick someone who sounds and plays just like the former member? Will they go in an entirely new direction? Or will they combine fresh talent with the winning combination already in place? The Grascals have recently released their first album since founding member Jamie Johnson decided to take some time away from the road last year. Judging from several listens to And Then There’s This…, which was released earlier this month from Mountain Home Music, they’ve chosen to go with that last approach.
Fans will find a lot to enjoy here. New guitarist and vocalist John Bryan contributes excellent, smooth lead vocals to a number of songs, while the instantly recognizable voice of Terry Eldredge provides not only a nice contrast to Bryan but also a sense of familiarity to remind listeners that this is a Grascals album. The music here is firmly in the contemporary bluegrass vein, and to be honest, a little grassier than what frequent listeners of the band may be used to. They’ve pulled from popular bluegrass songwriters like Larry Cordle, Carl Jackson, Bill Castle, and Harley Allen to offer an energetic, confident twelve-song collection.
Danny Roberts’ mandolin and Bryan’s country-tinged vocals kick things off with album opener I Know Better, a well-written number about a man getting ready to move past an old love. Sweet Little Mountain Girl is a banjo-guided ode to the true-hearted girl from the mountains that most every bluegrass lead singer has pledged his love to, featuring some nice harmonies on the chorus. The cover of Joe Diffie’s early nineties hit If You Want Me To is easily one of the album’s highlights, with Bryan’s heartfelt reading of the lyrics backed by Adam Haynes’ fiddling. Bill Monroe’s Highway of Sorrow is given a bit of a different vibe than other versions listeners might be more familiar with, but that’s not a bad thing.
Road of Life is a Grascals song through-and-through. An easygoing number featuring Eldridge’s lead, it urges listeners to “look ahead to where you’re going, not where you’ve been” and features nice fiddling from Haynes. The classic country-style Gospel song A Place to Hang My Hat, from the pens of Shawn Camp, Brice Long, and Byron Hill, is a standout track, while Larry Cordle and Carl Jackson’s spirited steamboat number Delta Queen allows the band to showcase both their instrumental and vocal talents. Particularly of note are Kristen Scott Benson’s chugging banjo, Haynes’ mimicry of a steamboat whistle, and the soaring harmonies on the chorus. Also enjoyable is Old Friend of Mine, featuring bass man Terry Smith on lead. The popular Grascals theme of “old friends meeting up and reminiscing” is given a bit of a twist in the last verse, and Smith’s warm vocals truly capture the emotion of the lyrics.
I have little doubt that And Then There’s This… will be a contender for numerous awards and “Best Of” lists this year. The Grascals have done a wonderful job picking songs that are not just well-written but also fit their style as a band. As could be expected, the musicianship is first rate, and the vocals are on point. Longtime fans and newcomers to the band’s music should both be pleased.
For more information on the Grascals, visit their website at www.grascals.com. Their new album is available from a number of online music retailers.