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The Gravy Boys make Americana with a big embrace

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The five guys dressed in overalls, caps and suspenders look as if though they stepped straight out of a scene in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Crowding around a single condenser microphone, they dive in and out in seamless ballet, taking turns soloing on guitar, mandolin, dobro and doghouse bass, crowing but blending their voices in fraternal harmony. Between tunes, they entertain with jokes suitable for a family reunion, their double entendres flying carefully beneath the radar.

But these part-time musicians aren't Dust Bowl refugees on an old-time radio hour; they actually hold corporate day jobs in IT, biotech law and education research in and around Raleigh. Now, after about a decade of playing together mostly for family and friends, The Gravy Boys are gaining momentum and gigs.

Indeed, they've played Merlefest, one of the country's biggest celebrations of roots music, and were invited last year to the Americana Music Association's annual showcase in Nashville. This fall, they will appear at the Wide Open Bluegrass festival in Raleigh and record a live concert for broadcast on UNC-TV's Song of the Mountains.

"Suddenly," says Gravy Boys guitarist Steve Storms, "just in the last year, we have people reaching out to us."

As a generously inclusive genre, what's known as Americana has continued to expand steadily in recent years, encompassing not only bluegrass, honky-tonk and country but also blues, rock and even some pop. Merlefest, for instance, has embraced Linda Ronstadt and Elvis Costello as headliners; indie rock stars such as Fleet Foxes and Beck play folk festivals.

The Gravy Boys dovetail well with this development: Propelled by solid musicianship and riveting harmony, they deliver originals that fool the ear into believing they could be Depression-era classics. Add to that the occasional '60s or '90s cover, and this is an Americana band that pleasantly jars expectations. A foot-stomping good time on one level, Gravy tunes contain musical twists and deep storytelling that reward repeated attention.

Many of those twists stem from the fact that all of the members of the band are deeply involved in building these songs. The Gravy Boys are a five-point star, consisting of three biological brothers—Joe, Bill and Tom Spagnardi—and two musical ones, Steve Celestini and Steve Storms.

"A lot of bands have one or maybe two people who are clearly the major domos," says Storms. "The thing that's cool about this band is it's all equal, truly and really."

Four of the five are songwriters, while bassist Tom Spagnardi serves as a gut-check, or quality control mechanism, for everyone else: His musical résumé is the longest, including work as a full-time professional musician with Ben Folds (a college friend) in his early Nashville days. He subsequently moved to New York City and gained some prominence with the country-rock act Mr. Henry.

The Spagnardi brothers grew up playing music together in a large family, which ultimately led to the series of winding interconnections that helped form The Gravy Boys.

"We had a grandfather and an Uncle Danny who were musicians," remembers Joe Spagnardi. "My grandfather played the accordion, and he played a lot of songs that he heard growing up in Ireland. My Uncle Danny was an electric guitar player, very influenced by the sounds of the '60s. They would have family parties. Mostly what they did was keep everybody entertained."

The epiphany came when Joe read Bill Malone's Country Music, U.S.A., which chronicles the history of fraternal harmonizers and family acts—The Louvin Brothers, The Stanley Brothers, Maddox Brothers & Rose. He noticed the similarities between his own upbringing and those in the book; with brother Bill, he resolved to re-create that family-band atmosphere.

"When you play a Maddox Brothers & Rose record, there are a lot of shenanigans back and forth. You paid your money to see Maddox Brothers & Rose, and you left there thoroughly entertained. It wasn't just a quiet, sedate, music performance, it was a night out," says Joe.

But with Tom in New York, the family band could only be a duo for a time. Joe befriended Steve Celestini when both were working as in-house lawyers for a Triangle pharmaceutical firm; they formed The Gravy Boys as a trio.

"I knew one song that we all liked. It was a Son Volt tune," says Celestini, recalling the moment when lightning struck. "Billy knew it too, and he started singing along."

Joe picks up the tale: "And as soon as we finished, we were like, 'Let's play that again!' And then we played it again about four or five times."

The Gravy Boys had found its nucleus. They recruited Steve Storms—a member of their book club, as well as a first-rate guitarist—and convinced Tom to relocate to North Carolina. Not long thereafter, Steve's wife, Mary, convinced them to get out of the garage.

"I believed in them enough to want to do something I never tried before, which is manage a band. I got them the gigs," she remembers. "They deserved to get out there and be heard."

A series of house parties at a friend's place on the Haw River served as the perfect crucible for their nebulous musical persona—solid string work, brotherly harmonies and old-time shenanigans, all staged around a single microphone.

"We'd start playing about 8 p.m. and play until 4 in the morning," Celestini recalls. "We would play literally every song that we knew."

Though the Gravy Boys found their identity by emulating these bluegrass traditions, they've never been married to one musical style. Besides writing their own shout-alongs and ballads, they cherry-pick a few unconventional covers, too. Their most recent album, last year's Crackerjack Whistle, retools the ubiquitous Bob Dylan sketch "Wagon Wheel" and The Zombies' "Time of the Season."

Covers can attract new listeners, sure, but it's the band's songwriting that should make them stay. As the Gravy Boys have grown together over three albums, so has their songwriting synergy.

Bill Spagnardi says that their approach has become more collaborative, making each tune that much sharper: "From the first album, we were coming in here with songs written; this is my song, either you like it or you don't. This time, we had a bunch of sessions where it would be two or three of us hanging out and writing and kind of collaborating together."

"If it bends, then we do it," Joe adds. "If it breaks, then we don't do it."

For their sophomore album, 2009's Dust Bowl Lover, several of the band's songwriters coincidentally seized on Depression-era themes, inspired by the likes of John Steinbeck and Woody Guthrie and the country's newly faltering economy.

For Crackerjack Whistle, they both sharpened and stretched their sound on a diverse constellation of tunes where wry humor coexists with tender feeling. Bill Spagnardi's "Firefly" evokes the sweetness and mystery of a Beatles tune, right down to the string arrangement.

"We're always looking for the twist, we call it—a modulation or just the instrumentation: When do we use the dobro, or when do we get Allyn [Love] to play pedal steel, just to make each song sound a little bit different," Joe says.

While garnering more attention and higher-profile gigs have been pleasant surprises, The Gravy Boys insist that simply being able to keep the hobby remains the prime motivator. With the faithfulness of a revival meeting, they gather every week in Storms' garage.

"This is our poker night," Celestini proclaims. "It just so happens that on weekends we get to invite a couple hundred other friends to come hang out with us, too."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Stir occasionally."

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