The Grascals’ mandolin ace Danny Roberts has traveled the world enjoying a wealth of musical experiences in bluegrass, but this 4th of July weekend he soaked in a couple of moments that were extra special to him at the 45th Annual Smithville Fiddlers’ Jamboree and Crafts Festival.
First, the two-time SPBGMA Mandolin Performer of the Year was honored with the Blue Blaze Award for “actively cultivating a love of bluegrass music.” Sierra Hull and Darrin Vincent are the past recipients.
The Smithville, TN stage is familiar turf to Roberts who cut his teeth competing at the Jamboree and similar contests as a teenager.
“It kind of hit me starting here in these competitions just how blessed I’ve been,” Roberts said in an interview with Bluegrass Today following the awards presentation and performance. “God has been so good to me beyond anything I could ever imagine.”
Prior to picking up the special trophy, though, Roberts was feeling a bit anxious, but not for himself. It was the first real show that he’s played with his talented daughter, Jaelee Roberts, 15.
“I was kind of nervous for her,” Roberts said. “She can sing. She has sung with The Grascals since she was knee high, but she was always a little more apprehensive with fiddling. She was playing a bunch of new stuff she hadn’t played.”
“Getting up there with her and seeing the crowd reaction and watching her pull the fiddle playing off just great along with the vocal parts—there’s nothing like seeing your child do something like that. I’ve been fortunate enough to play all over the world. We’ve been everywhere and played with Dolly and Porter, been on the Grand Ole Opry, but still there’s nothing that means more to me than standing next to that little girl and hearing her sing and do her thing. That’s far and away above anything else.”
Roberts also was joined in a rare performance with his wife, Andrea Roberts and two Grascal bandmates, Kristin Scott Benson on banjo and vocalist/guitarist John Bryan. Before they hit the stage, another band performed that consisted of several former members of the group he co-founded, New Tradition.
“Watching those guys and seeing them watch me up there playing, I really started feeling nervous more for me than my daughter,” Roberts admits.
Returning to the Smithville Jamboree was a blast from the past for the veteran performer, who saw several musical buddies from his early days.
“Fred Duggin and I have played together forever,” he said. “We started backing each other on guitar contests when I was probably about 14, 15 maybe. We backed each other up until we started the band, New Tradition, together. “
“When I got out of high school, I moved to Murfreesboro in 1982, and he and I opened a music store there. He’s one of my longest, oldest friends. It’s special to see him here. Roy Curry was probably one of the biggest influences on my guitar playing coming up. I wanted to be Roy. I used to try to play like him. He’s not that many years old than me, but he was that far advanced when I came along.”
“Seeing those guys out there was like old home week. All those memories come flooding back. It made me a little tense, but I still had a blast.”
The Leitchfield, KY native competed in the Smithville Jamboree, but in Roberts’ day he had the added challenge of going up against more experienced musicians.
“I had to get in against the big guys from the get go,” Roberts said. “Having the competition for the kids to where they can compete against each other instead of having to battle against grown-ups, it’s invaluable for what it can do. My daughter, I think, was 5 the first time she played here. She’s placed in every competition. She’s won the singing here before. To have the experience to get on stage, it’s just amazing.”
As Roberts’ skills progressed, his band at the time, New Tradition, had great success in the competitions and was asked to play for the dancers.
“Now, most of these dancers out here are their kids,” Roberts said. “It’s like a big family. It’s a culture down here that grows and spreads. It’s very neat to be able to give kids something to do besides play video games,” he says with a laugh.