Anders Beck and Greensky Bluegrass at Shagbark Farm in Michigan (7/16/21) – photo © Bryan Bolea
Greensky Bluegrass straddles two worlds, one that nods towards bluegrass and the other that uses it as a springboard for seeking other plateaus. While their name clearly indicates their affection for traditional picking and singing, the band make it a point not to be confined to any particular parameters. Those that insist on labeling their sound often refer to it as nu-grass, grassicana, Americana, or jamgrass, but one thing is well established — their mix of classic and contemporary sounds definitely defies any easy description. While banjo, mandolin, and dobro play a decided role in their instrumental make-up, spontaneity and improvisation allow them to pursue other avenues, and keep them in tune to a wide realm of possibilities.
Formed in 2000 in Kalamazoo, Michigan by banjo player Michael Arlen Bon and guitarist Dave Bruzza, the band has undergone several changes in personnel over the past 20 years, resulting in the current line-up consisting of Bont, Bruzza, Anders Beck (dobro, resophonic guitar), Michael Devol (bass, vocals), and Paul Hoffman (mandolin, vocals). A win at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival Competition in 2006 elevated their visibility, and now they currently count ten albums released between 2004 and 2019. With the pandemic slowing their outside activity and bringing their touring to a halt, they opted to make the most of their time off by releasing a series of digital only offerings which they dubbed The Leap Year Sessions.
“There was a lot going on,” Beck insisted when Bluegrass Today spoke with him by phone. “We all went to St. Louis and recorded a series of closed performances on high definition video in an empty venue. They’re high quality recordings that were well shot and well edited, and we released them during quarantine. We wanted to create something for people that were stuck at home, and the best thing we came up with were these video sessions. And then we released them every week or so. We got great a reaction from people who saw it as a further way for fans to experience the music without having to go anywhere, or leave the safety of their living rooms. For us, it’s a little window in time. We were really excited to be playing together, but also, it was really freaking weird to be playing in a venue with no people in it.”
To an outside observer however, the bigger challenge might be how to keep their influences aligned while trying to ensure their appeal to a decidedly diverse audience.
“The answer to that can run a gamut of responses, depending on whatever day we’re talking about,” Beck muses. “It works because we are raising the reverence for bluegrass while varying the template at the same time. I like listening to bluegrass music as much as I like to listen to rock and roll music, or jazz music, or reggae music, or whatever. Our influences are just all across the gamut, and of course, bluegrass is one of them. But just because we sort of stumbled on playing music on bluegrass instruments doesn’t necessarily mean that we have to stick with bluegrass. For me, learning that style of music was incredibly important. It gave us a jumping off point to do what we like to do. That’s our reverence for the music right there in a nutshell. You have to be able to play bluegrass, quote, unquote, correctly or properly, and play it well in order to start to monkey with it.”
Still, that begs the question of how the band attempts to please traditional bluegrass lovers while still bringing newer fans into the fold. Asked if they might worry about alienating anyone in that process, Beck quickly demurs.
“I’ll tell you, we don’t worry about it anymore,” he insists “Honestly, we sort of forget about that. The key to understanding the name is that green sky is literally the complete opposite of blue grass. Okay, so we are bluegrass, but we are also the complete opposite. Now that we’ve grown into that name, it’s become a witty little pun. The name itself has really come home to roost, because we are often so far away from bluegrass a lot of the time during our shows. For so long, we felt like we were trying to appease this bluegrass audience, or else those people would get mad at us if we didn’t do bluegrass the way the traditional camp expected us to. We thought they would hate us. We’d be screwed. We felt we needed to do it the right way and all that other stuff. But what we found is that no one was really getting mad at us ever. At least they didn’t express it. We never got the death threats we were expecting.”
Beck attributes some of that acceptance to the bands that came before, noting that Leftover Salmon, String Cheese Incident, and Yonder Mountain String Band actually made that transition earlier. “They were starting to bend the genre a little bit, so it wasn’t like we were doing anything different on that level,” he suggests. “We were just sort of continuing on this evolution, and we certainly invested our Midwest roots into it as well.”
In a sense, it’s that combination of credence and confidence that allows the band to move forward without having to second guess their own MO. Beck readily agrees.
These days it’s less about having to stand up for ourselves,” he maintains. “We can just say we do what we do, and if people like it, that’s awesome. We didn’t do that for a long time because we were really nervous about it. Because bluegrass was in the name of the band, we felt like we had this need to show that side of the band. We have these bluegrass chops, but now it’s sort of just evolved into something past that.”
That said, Beck is quick to counter any notion that bluegrass is no longer an important additive as far as their sound. “We play anywhere from two to ten traditional bluegrass songs in any given show,” he says. “And we enjoy the hell out of it. Our catalog is pretty big. We still love to play that kind of thing. We definitely still play those songs and enjoy them. Sometimes, after a show in front of 4,000 people, when it’s around one in the morning, we’ll go and play a set of bluegrass songs around a single microphone on a small flatbed trailer. We’ll focus on traditional songs for maybe about an hour. That’s our traditional connection. It kind of reminds us of our musical juxtaposition, which I think is still very obvious.”
With the pandemic slowed, at least at the moment, Greensky Bluegrass is back on the road, in a scaled down mode. They’re playing mostly on weekends at the moment as they navigate the course of COVID while trying to calculate what they’re able to do.
“We’re really trying to figure out how to play music in weird times,” Beck admits. “But it’s starting to feel kind of normal out there I suppose. We’re looking forward to a bunch of really cool events. We’ve got three nights at Red Rocks in Colorado, which is my favorite venue in the world. We’re doing the 4848 festival in West Virginia, which is something we love to do. We’re actually kind of partners in that festival. We’ll be doing Bonnarroo again and we’re gonna be in Alaska pretty soon as well. There’s a thing up there called the Salmon Fest that we did a few years ago. Then we’re doing two nights at the Ryman Theater in Nashville for Halloween which I’m excited about as well. We’re also gonna have some fun Nashville special guests there but I can’t tell you about that just yet.”
That said, Beck does admit that it can be a challenge at times when it comes to capturing that live energy and spontaneity in their studio recordings.
“I think that we straddle the line of both those things very well,” he allows. “One of the reasons is due to the fact that we really take pride in creating albums that are unique, because they’re the ones that really represent what we’re going to do in the long run, like, say, 50 years from now. The albums need to stand the test of time. So, we put a lot of effort into creating really good studio albums. We’re not necessarily trying to make it like the live experience all the time. Sometimes we do, but we prefer not having to be tied to that so much. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m proud that we can we can exist in both worlds. That’s a big deal for us. We really felt like we had to prove ourselves, because there was this fear that there would be this mob of traditional people coming over the hill, and that certain people would be saying, ‘that’s not bluegrass or that’s not what it’s supposed to be, or those guys aren’t good,’ or whatever it might be. It was just a weird thought that I had.”
Ultimately though, Beck says the band arey content to do their best at whatever they attempt, and continue to progress and go forward. “We put a lot of blood sweat and tears into this,” he insists. “We’re just trying to evolve, but mainly, we’re just trying to be ourselves.”