Rock Guitarist finds bluegrass

If you had stumbled across Trey Alexander nine months ago, chances are he would have been shredding an electric guitar in a manner befitting someone who was named one of the top 10 electric players and was Guitar Player magazine’s guitarist of the year.

But these days, since his baptism into bluegrass eight months ago, he’s all about Tony Rice, Bryan Sutton and Doc Watson. His electric guitars are gathering dust. He has seen the light.

“I play bluegrass six to eight hours a day,” he told me between sets with his band, Thistle Rue, at Circa Blue Fest last weekend in Martinsburg, Va.

Thistle Rue was booked as a side stage act, playing 15 minutes at a time while center stage was being set up for the next headliner. And I’ll be honest, I almost missed them as I hurried backstage for some interviews. Fortunately, as I was passing by, the band launched into a terrific bluegrass cover of REM’s Driver 8 that stopped me in my tracks.

I listened to the rest of Thistle Rue’s set, and my next interview was with them. The story of how they came together just over six months ago is evidence that the future of bluegrass is in good hands and will continue to grow as more people are exposed to it.

The band’s story begins with an odd couple pairing, Alexander, the rock-fusion guitarist, and Dean Phillips, an acolyte of Earl Scruggs and a banjo student of Mike Munford. They met as music teachers at the Guitar Spot, in Red Lion, PA, and when Phillips started preaching the gospel of bluegrass, Alexander was eager to listen and learn.

“I never tried to play bluegrass,” Alexander said. “But it’s neat being exposed to this genre.”

The next step toward forming the band came when bassist Johnny Calamari played a gig at the music shop with another band and hooked up with them. The final piece of the puzzle fell into place on Halloween night last fall, when Jack Dunlap walked into an audition in Dean’s dad’s garage.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Dunlap said. “I was looking for some side gigs to fill up my schedule.”

The other guys didn’t know what to expect, either, but they loved what Dunlap did with his mandolin and his voice. “We knew right then,” Alexander recalled. “It felt so good,” Calamari added.

Thistle Rue at the 2017 Circa Blu Fest - photo by David Morris

The band recently recorded a single at National Media Services and is headed to a studio this month to work on a six-song EP. They hope that project will lead to a full record and a management deal.

Meanwhile, they’re eager to play wherever they can, offering a tight, fun blend of bluegrass standards such as Shady Grove, some originals and some grassed-up songs from other genres, including Driver 8 and Eddie Rabbit’s country hit Driving My Life Away.

Samples of their live set can be seen on YouTube.

This was my first exposure to Thistle Rue. I’m sure it won’t be my last. Catch them if you get a chance.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist, songwriter and upright bass player. He has spent much of his career as a wire service political reporter, including nearly 14 years with The Associated Press and a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and has recently retired as senior editor for Kiplinger Washington Editors.