Most of us know how difficult it can be to establish a career in music, and it’s no easier for bluegrass acts than it is for anyone else. For a young female vocalist trying to raise a new family at the same time, there are extra hurdles to overcome. For Stacy Grubb, moving from country to bluegrass happened at a time when even greater obstacles were thrown into her life, and helps explain why we haven’t heard much from her of late, other than a new single at Christmas.
Following the 2009 release of her alt-country record Hurricane, Stacy Grubb spent the past 5 years touring along the East Coast. In this time, she has had the great fortune of sharing the stage with such performers as Don Rigsby, Sierra Hull, Ron Block, and more. But the meeting that has most shaped her career was with Clay Hess during IBMA World of Bluegrass in 2010.
At the time, Clay was part of Sierra Hull and Highway 111, and Stacy was working to establish a dedicated band. By the following year, Clay was debuting his solo project and stepping out as a bandleader himself. He contacted Stacy’s husband, Jason (who had a small roster of bluegrass artists he represented for booking) to see if he would be interested in representing The Clay Hess Band. As it turned out, Stacy had a solid list of dates, but no band to play them; Clay had assembled a stellar lineup of pickers, but was still working to secure the dates. Recognizing the perfect match, he suggested Stacy and CHB hit the road together – so they did. They played stages from Auburn, AL, to the panhandle of WV, to Bean Blossom, to New York City, with plenty of stops along the way.
In early 2012, Clay was wondering why Stacy hadn’t yet gone back into the studio for a follow up record. While the reason was partially due to the fact that the Grubbs had expanded their family with the birth of their second child in 2011, the hard reality was that, as an independent artist, resources to put into a studio project were hard to come by. The more they talked, however, the more plans came together. By April of that year, Stacy, with Clay as producer and guitarist, and Irl Hees, and Aaron Ramsey were tracking at Slack Key Studios in Nashville.
The first single from that project was shared along the halls of The Nashville Convention Center at IBMA World of Bluegrass 2012 with plans for a full record release to follow soon after. However, just a couple weeks after returning home from Nashville, Stacy and Jason’s young daughter, Lyric, only barely a year old, was hospitalized after suffering from rapidly declining health that caused drastic weight and muscle loss among other serious issues. Their once healthy and thriving child was mysteriously now in a critical situation, displaying symptoms the likes of which the doctors at the hospital had never seen.
Ultimately, it was a lethally elevated calcium level that was responsible for her condition, though the cause behind it could never be determined. This resulted in a ten day hospital stay, including 8 days in the NICU, as doctors prepared Stacy and Jason for the fact that being unable to identify a diagnosis meant there was no guarantee that Lyric would ever recover. Through what they attribute to prayer and God’s healing, Lyric’s life-threatening condition was able to be controlled using experimental drugs.
Needless to say, focus shifted from completing the record to getting their daughter well, which included physical therapy and many visits to many doctors in Philadelphia, both to repair damage which her body had suffered, as well as to hopefully determine an official diagnosis. Funds and time that had been set aside for the record were quickly burned through in travel expenses, medical bills, and lost work. While it was in many ways a very dark time in the Grubb household, it was also a beacon that shone on the beauty of the support of family, friends, and the bluegrass community. It took a while for the Grubbs to get solid footing after such an ordeal, but little by little, they were able to return to building the record Stacy and Clay had started what, by then, seemed like a lifetime ago.
Stacy said that making music was far from her mind during her baby’s ordeal.
“When Lyric was sick our focus needed to be on her and our son, too, as it was scary and confusing for all of us, much less him as a kid. I ended up going several months without even listening to any of the stuff we’d recorded. There was still a lot of work that needed to be done, but a lot had already been finished. But after her illness, it was like our lives in general ground to a halt with the exception of putting one foot in front of the other to take care of her. It took us a long while to accept that we’d probably not be getting a diagnosis for her and would just have to start getting back into life and take her health one day at a time.
So, now we’ve got this project and one big chunk of it was created prior to this life-altering experience and the other chunk was created afterwards. Whether that conveys to anyone else in the finished project or not, I don’t know. But when I listen to it, I hear two lives being led. That’s the thing about these awful seasons of life, though. They can be turned into something good eventually.”
Stacy says the experience has definitely inspired some new tunes for some other projects on down the road. As for this one, titled From the Barroom to the Steeple, she wrote 6, co-wrote one with her son Elijah who was 4 at the time of the collaboration, and pulled new music from John Pennell, Mark Simos, her dad Alan Johnston (who penned such goodies as Del McCoury’s Sweet Appalachia, and David Davis’ Two Dimes and A Nickel), and her friends Barry and Danny Clevenger, as well as a tune she learned on a Waylon Jennings album written by Bobby Bond.
The album’s title is pulled from a line in her dad’s contribution called Spirit of the Mountains.
“I’d been rolling album titles around in my head for a couple weeks at least, when I was singing my dad’s song in the shower one day. I sang this line, ‘My voice has been heard from the barroom to the steeple,’ and thought that about summed up my music. So, I went with that.”
She said it seems fitting since the title of her first record was also from a song of her dad’s she’d recorded for that project.
“I realized one day that Clay and I both had records named after forces of nature, his being Rain, mine being Hurricane. I think we were onstage at The Outer Banks Bluegrass Festival when I pointed that out and told him that my album was the best as it was the strongest force. Without hesitation, he said, ‘No, I think yours is just the biggest disaster.’ I walked right into that.”
Reviews of their show together often refer to that playful banter between Stacy and Clay.
“It’s a blessing, for sure, when the people you work with are some of your favorite folks on Earth.”
That was also the case for the lineup of musicians on Barroom, which, in addition to the ones mentioned earlier, include Ron Block, Tim Crouch, Randy Kohrs, Scott Vestal, and Nick Keen.
When asked how this new record differs from the last, she says that some elements are similar, but as far as the sound goes, they’re night and day.
“When I recorded Hurricane, I admit I was pretty floored to show up to the studio and hear the kind of life my songs had taken on. Honestly, I had anticipated that I was cutting a bluegrass record. It was staggering to get there on the first day of tracking and meet the drummer and Brent Mason who’d be handling electric guitar. It’s kind of funny, really. I love what the record became. I am proud of and stand by that record. Still, I wanted to cut a record more in keeping with bluegrass sensibilities as that was my original intent. This new record does that. I love listening to it. I love performing the music from it.
I feel like Clay got close to the heart of who I am as an artist and as a listener, too. It was nice to be able to trust his guidance since recording, for me, leaves me standing too close to get the fuller picture of my own performance – at least, for now. He has taught me a lot, though. I’ll go into the studio next time better prepared than I was this last time. I hope that will always be the case – always advancing and learning.”
Stacy is quick to sing Clay’s praises for what he has taught her, as well as high caliber of talent and skill in his roles as producer and artist.
Likewise, Clay says of her:
“Stacy Grubb is one of the best kept secrets in music. Her vocal quality is as good as it gets, songwriting is interesting while staying true to her roots. A very original artist in a very bland world.”
Released by Cincinnati-based Kang Records, From the Barroom to the Steeple was made available just before Christmas on December 23, 2014. It can be purchased from Stacy’s website or downloaded from the usual places.
We’ll have a review in short order.