Jeff Scroggins & the Scroggdogs

I recently got wind of a new project with Jeff Scroggins, leader and banjo player from Jeff Scroggins and Colorado (JSCO). Jeff is assembling a new band with a host of youngish California bluegrass talent including Scott Gates and members of The Bow Ties. I was lucky enough to get what I initially thought would be a few words from the horse’s mouth on this new gambit.

Hey Jeff, I heard you have a new band project happening. Can you tell us about it?

Thanks so much Dave!! Yes, that is correct, I am launching a new band called Jeff Scroggins and the Scroggdogs. I have wanted for a while now to put together a more progressive project that could provide a creative outlet for my original music, and be a vehicle for an eclectic mixture of different musical styles that I love. It is the result of a lot of thought and planning; when I decided to do this I made sure to give myself time to develop a clear vision of what I wanted it to be, and to become. I wanted to start with a solid outline and structure, but also be sure to give it the space to grow and evolve organically within that planning and structure. It’s like a guided missile in that it is focused on a target, but constantly making corrections based on dynamic changes that naturally occur which I think is an apt analogy.

Right, so why now?

The timing of it — the impetus to actually pull the trigger, get it up and going started a couple of years ago, and was driven by some relatively big changes in my life in a short period of time. The biggest of these were the changes that I began to see coming for JSCO and some significant changes in my personal life. It was not just a reactionary decision, it was also based on my desire to continue evolving musically, personally and spiritually. I truly feel that being a professional musician is a calling, at least it is for me. I feel that I am here to share my music with others, and I want to continue to grow and expand my success in achieving it by continuing to play new music in new places and for new audiences.

Can you share more about these changes?

I recently got engaged to an amazing Canadian girl, which was a huge factor in the timing of this project. I have no regrets about the work that I put in with JSCO. Our plan was to focus on making sure the music was where we wanted and needed it to be, and then to work tirelessly to get it out there, and build as large an audience as we could though relentless touring. I feel like that plan worked well, and with it we were able to achieve most of the list of goals in our mission statement. However, now I really want to slow down the insane amount of travel, and spend as much of my time, as much as I can, enjoying the amazing life that my fiancé and I are building together. I really love the West Coast and the West in general; it is where I want to live and spend time and for the most part live my life, and therefore where I now want to do most of my work.

Big congrats on all that. So the Scroggdogs will help combine these separate but equal needs.

Right, one of the ways I plan to greatly reduce travel is to build a band that will be well received on both sides of the bluegrass “aisle,” so that I can bring my music to new people and new markets. While living in Colorado I was amazed and fascinated by how little crossover there is between the bluegrass and the newgrass/jamgrass/hippygrass scene. There are a few bands (e.g. Del McCoury, The Travelin’ McCourys, The Infamous Stringdusters, Billy Strings, etc) that have figured out how to be at home in, and to some extent, work in both of those scenes, and one of my main objectives is to create a band that can move freely between the two.

I feel that this will not only help me achieve my desire to explore new musical possibilities, but also allow me to be more marketable to more festivals and venues closer to home in the West, where that newgrass/jamgrass/hippygrass scene is so popular. While I totally love performing at the more traditional bluegrass festivals like Darrington, Fathers Day Grass Valley Festival, etc, I also love the energy and musical inclusiveness of the more progressive festivals, and breaking into that market is a big part of what I plan to do with this project.

Right, obviously California is into progressive bluegrass but it’s intriguing, the success of the Northern California traditional bluegrass bands at the Telluride band competition.

It is my opinion, based on observation and anecdotal evidence, that the California bluegrass scene is one of, if not the most vibrant scene of hot young pickers in the world today. After spending the past ten years traveling the world performing and teaching at bluegrass camps, etc, I think that music scenes are often created by one person or a small group of persons with a genuine passion for the music and/or a strong desire to help the young people in their community to develop and thrive.

I believe that the California Bluegrass Association (CBA) as a group has had that vision and desire, and they have done an amazing amount of work to make this happen in California, especially Northern California. Darby Brandli in particular has had a passion for the CBA Youth Program, and in her typical overachieving way has created one of the very best environments anywhere for fostering and growing a passion for bluegrass music in the young people there. The results speak for themselves, as evidenced by the list of kids that have been helped by the CBA youth program that have gone on to be world-class musicians. Among the first to benefit from it was Frank Solivan, and the list just keeps getting longer and more impressive, and includes such amazing talents as Molly Tuttle, AJ Lee, The Gooding family, the Quale kids, and even my own sons Tristan and Ross Scroggins. It also includes pretty much all of the members of this special California edition of my new project.

It is an understatement to say the CBA and its youth programs would not be where they are today without Darby’s love and tireless efforts. Is CBA how you met these fine fellers?

I met them all in my musical travels and adventures with JSCO, and because my family has developed so many ties between us and California. I probably met Zach first somewhere with Front Country, Jan when Tristan played some gigs with Steep Ravine, Yoseff when we performed somewhere that the Central Valley Boys were also playing, and Scott I met at the Great 48 two or three years ago.

Have you played much with Scott Gates previously?

No, I hadn’t really played much with him until recently. He caught my ear from the beginning, because he is a pretty complete player, meaning that he has excellent technique, tone, dynamics, and phrasing. He also plays with a lot of drive and volume and generally is a very good match for my high energy, “rock and roll” aesthetic. I play with a lot of intensity, emotion, and force, and I need the people that I perform with to do the same, or else there is an imbalance energetically that just doesn’t work very well.

I finally jammed some with Scott and when I got to watch him perform at the Viva Las Vegrass event last fall in Vegas, I was even more impressed with him. He is definitely a great player and singer, and he is a compelling performer with just the sort of intensity and aesthetic that I want and need. That was when I really started thinking that he was someone that I wanted to work with. I have also been pleasantly surprised by people’s reaction to the fact that Scott is a part of this. He already has quite a following, and some of my mandolin-playing friends whose opinions I greatly respect have had very good things to say about him. I am excited at the possibilities.

What sort of material is in the works?

That is such an important question, as that is the primary way in which a band is defined, particularly as it relates to  “bluegrass vs newgrass” and the division of the two worlds. I really love bluegrass music and playing hard-driving banjo in a great bluegrass band, and this band will have a real love for and the ability to play powerful and authentic bluegrass music. We will certainly do that in most every show that we play, however, I want this project to be “bigger than bluegrass.”

I really have a passion for bringing new sounds and new possibilities to diverse audiences and winning them over to the banjo! I want this project to be a vehicle for bringing my style of banjo playing and my original banjo tunes to a broad audience worldwide, and achieve it by choosing great material. I plan to take advantage of the large number of amazing song writers I have met in my musical journey, and pull in great songs regardless of the genre. I really love the challenge of finding the heart and soul of a great song and then arranging it for the banjo in a way that is musical and in service to the song. I want this band to appeal to bluegrass audiences, to newgrass/jamgrass audiences, to Americana audiences, world music audiences and more. I want to use it to erase lines and find new audiences, and great material is the key to being able to achieve it.

Those are lofty goals but I’m sure you are up to the task. I’m curious, was bluegrass your first love?

I was not an early comer to bluegrass music. In fact I grew up listening to the popular music of the era, and didn’t even know what bluegrass music was. My mom loved the rock and roll music of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and through her I was exposed from a very young age to everything from Chuck Berry and Elvis to the Beatles and the British Invasion, to Motown and the “Folk Scare.” In fact, my first introduction to the banjo came more from Pete Seeger and Peter, Paul and Mary than from bluegrass.

As a teenager listening to music and learning to play the guitar I was drawn to Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and Eric Clapton, the Who, the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Doors, etc. That music was (and is) my first musical love. Shortly after getting into the banjo on a whim at the age of twenty, I stumbled upon the New Grass Revival, Tony Trischka and Skyline, Old and In the Way, David Grisman, Tony Rice, etc, and that was what pulled me in; those were my “bluegrass heroes”.

So it was all bluegrass from there?

At that point I wasn’t as interested in bluegrass, I just knew that I loved the sound of the banjo. I am so glad that I kept digging deeper and developed a love and knowledge of more traditional bluegrass, but Jeff Scroggins and the Scroggdogs is in many ways just me getting back to my roots and my love of more progressive bluegrass. I want to stretch and perform many types and styles of music that I love on the banjo, surrounded by a group of great musicians that share enough musical commonality to believe in and help me share and achieve that vision and the goals that I have set around it. My original tune Jalapeno Flashback in an example which we will be performing on the tour!

What is the status of JSCO?

Jeff Scroggins and Colorado is still going strong, but significantly cutting back our schedule. We are very excited about our new CD Over the Line and the airplay and positive reviews that it has received and continues to receive. We are hoping to again be nominated for IBMA Awards, both individually and as a band, and we are already working on booking 2020. However, starting in 2020 we will be doing less touring, especially the type where you are out for weeks at a time, which was previously common. We will be focusing on playing mostly larger bluegrass festivals and events, perhaps a dozen or so a year. We still plan to do some international touring occasionally as well.

About a year and a half ago my son Tristan moved to Nashville, and his career is continuing to grow and unfold there. He will be with us for most of the things we are doing in this year, but his relationship to the band has changed. He will be with us when he can, and we hope that it will be most of the time, but it will mean that we will at times be using other great mandolin players to fill his nerdy but formidable shoes.

So we will see some JSCO shows without Tristan?

The Bluegrass on the Beach festival in Lake Havasu, Arizona was historic in that it was the first show we had ever played with a mandolin player other than Tristan (except for when Chris Luquette and Teo Quale filled in for him when he was sick at IBMA last September). Scott Gates performed with us at Bluegrass on the Beach at Lake Havasu City, Arizona and did a fine job, and he will be with us more in the future. We will be touring Europe in May with Jesse Brock filling in on mandolin. We love playing with Tristan, but we are also rooting for him in all of the exciting things that he has going in his life. We will support him however we can in whatever decision he makes, and hopefully playing with JSCO will continue to be a part of that for a long time to come.

So what is a Scrogg dog?

It is a nickname, something that the younger people in the California bluegrass started calling me, and in fact they use it not only for me, but also at times for my sons Tristan and Ross as well. As it relates to the band, I see it as a catchy name with California origins for a group of hot players that believe in my music and my vision, and are up to the task of helping me share it with the world.

Is there anything else you would like to share?

This musical journey has taught me so much and continues to; one of the most powerful things that I learned as I searched for an identity for JSCO was that people love you when you are authentically yourself. In the earlier part of JSCO I kept feeling the need to apologize for being who I was (a hippy from Colorado) in the sometimes pretty conservative world of bluegrass, but at one point I realized that the most powerful thing I could do was just be me. As soon as I accepted myself and was comfortable with who I was, it was amazing how quickly people responded. From that point forward I began feeling that I was a respected member of the community and that I had a “place at the table.” As much as anything I would say that the Scroggdogs is just me taking it further West and further releasing my “inner hippy,” and inviting some amazing West Coast pickers to join me and my cause.

Good for you and us, I think we can all get behind that sentiment. BTW, the food in Irish pubs is really good these days.

It is!! The food in Ireland is actually pretty great; it is much easier to eat healthy on the road there than it is in the US. I hear that they also have some pretty good beer and whisky…

So I hear. Best of luck with it, Jeff, and thanks much for sharing. I’m sure it will be fun and looking forward to seeing these new dogs.

Thank you for this opportunity Dave!

Notes – Thanks to Nico Humby for the nice picture of Jeff and his banjo plus Debbie Benrubi for copy editing.

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is an avid mandolin picker, singer and songwriter who writes an interview column for the monthly California Bluegrass Association (CBA) members publication featuring California regional and national artists who tour California. He grew up in bluegrass country on the Ohio River right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto Rivers dump into the Ohio. The columns are also featured on the CBA website at www.cbaweb.org.