Jim Burris to retire after nearly 50 years with Grass Strings

Central North Carolina-based bluegrass band, Grass Strings, formed in 1975. They played their first show at Pfeiffer College in January 1976, and have been performing ever since. The band has seen many changes in personnel throughout the years, but one founding member has remained constant, mandolinist Jim Burris, of Kannapolis. After almost 48 years, Burris is retiring from the group.

“I’ve loved every minute of it,” Burris stressed. “I thoroughly enjoyed it. It was never a job. I was extremely lucky to have the musicians that we have had. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. We were a band of brothers.”

Burris joined original members Jeff Russell on bass, Greg Pettigrew on banjo, and the late Bob Hatley on bass. In the beginning, both Burris and Russell played guitar.

“We split the shift,” the 69-year-old picker explained.

Burris’ switch from guitar to mandolin in the Grass Strings is quite the story.

“I literally picked up the mandolin in 1979 or 80. We were booked on a show in Florida. Our mandolinist at the time quit and Bob (Hatley) said, ‘Jim, what are we going to do? We are supposed to be on the road in a few hours.’ I went to Music Mart in Albemarle, bought a mandolin, and a book with chords. I started working on it as we drove from Albemarle to Florida. I don’t know how good I was, but I played it on stage at the show and have ever since.”

The North Carolina musician started playing guitar as boy of eight or nine, and he was in good company.

“We would go to my grandma’s house in Enochville, NC. My Uncle Junior would hold pickings on the front porch. Famous folks came. I remember Johnny & Jack, Bill Monroe, Chubby Wise, Tommy Faile, Speedy Shepherd, and little Wayne Haas coming at one time or another.”

Since starting the band in his 20s, Burris and the Grass Strings have recorded six albums and played festivals, music halls, and private parties across the eastern United States.

Burris recalled some of their most memorable venues. “We entertained in Kalamazoo, MI, for a baseball collectors’ swap meet. There were three or four thousand folks there. We played for the Professional Bull Riders’ rodeos in Alabama and Florida.”

Though Burris has enjoyed his tenure with the band, he feels it is time to pass the baton.

“I am soon to be 70 years old. It’s time to go. I have reached my plateau. I don’t have anything else to give. The rest of the band has much more to offer, more potential.”

Current senior band members of the Grass Strings include Randy Mauldin on banjo, Lester Deaton on guitar, and Ronnie Elwood on electric bass. Two of their band mates are teenagers, Grace Bemus of Charlotte on fiddle, who has been with the band about a year, and Burris’ replacement, Jonah Chaney of Albemarle on mandolin.

Bemus shared how she became a member of the group. “I played at the East Rowan Fiddlers’ Convention in October 2021 and Randy approached my mom about me playing in the Grass Strings.”

Though she really wasn’t familiar with the group, Grace went to a practice with the band.

“They were really, really good, and I didn’t think I would asked me back because I was very quiet and reserved, but Randy wanted to give me a second chance.”

The budding musician was invited back and ultimately was offered a position in the band. She accepted.

“It was a good decision to make. I have improved so much in music from their mentorship. They all have a lot of experience.”

Though Bemus wasn’t familiar with the Grass Strings, she knew Jim Burris.

“I’ve known Jim almost my whole life. I first met him at an open mic night at a brewery in Salisbury. When he announced his retirement, I was sad about it, but happy that I was able to play in a band with him.”

Grace is looking forward to what lies ahead musically.

“I am excited to have Jonah. He is very talented and I am excited to see what he can bring to the band. And I am no longer the youngest!”

Chaney said, “I am grateful to have this opportunity to play with such talented musicians and to learn from new experiences as a member of the band.”

Mauldin, Grass Strings banjoist, has been a part of the group for the past 22 years. He shares a long history with Burris. “Jim and I have been friends almost 40 years. We met through Bob Hatley (the band’s founding bassist). This probably has been the most difficult situation that I’ve been put in. Jim’s retirement caught us off guard. I’m happy for him, but sad to see him go. He’s been there since it started. I’m going to miss him something fierce.”

Guitarist Deaton agreed. “I’m very sorry to see Jim go. He is my good friend and a great singer. He will be missed for sure. I guess we all have to retire at some point, and like Jim, I guess we’ll all know when that point comes. I wish him all the best in anything he decides to do. He’s a good one!”

Burris seems at peace with his decision. “It’s been the ride of a lifetime. It is well worth it when you see people tapping their toes, smiling, and clapping. I’ve been able to express myself through music. I wouldn’t change anything that I did.”

As one exits and another enters, Burris and Chaney will both perform with the Grass Strings this weekend. They will share the stage another band, Jack Lawrence (formerly with Doc Watson) & Red Rocking Chair, this Sunday, 2:00 p.m., at the Swanee Theatre in Kannapolis.

Tickets are available online.

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About the Author

Sandy Hatley

Sandy Chrisco Hatley is a free lance writer for several NC newspapers and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. As a teenager, she picked banjo with an all girl band called the Happy Hollow String Band. Today, she plays dobro with her husband's band, the Hatley Family.