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The Kickin Grass Band talks music beyond their assumed boundaries


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As I wait for Lynda Dawson, the lead singer and songwriter of Raleigh quintet The Kickin Grass Band, to return home, her husband and mandolin player, Jamie Dawson, talks about tunes from the quintet's new album, Walk With Me, with banjo player Hank Smith and bassist Patrick Walsh. They'll rehearse later this evening, so they share notes about adjustments and inspirations.

Walk indeed includes its share of driving, harmony-filled contemporary bluegrass cuts, but it's more diverse than the group's genre-specific name might suggest. Here, Kickin Grass, as they're best known, successfully swings from an old-time ditty to a dark folk tune, from classical-influenced instrumentals to the gospel-inspired title track. When Lynda returns with chips and beer, the four have plenty to say about the influences that shade Kickin Grass' expansive roots view. Jamie even jokes that his high school favorites, Suicidal Tendencies, didn't make the playlist.

The Avett Brothers
"Live and Die"
(from The Carpenter, 2012)

Lynda Dawson: Our first Avett Brothers memory was at the IBMAs in 2004 ...

Patrick Walsh: I saw them before that at The Cave playing bluegrass covers, and they sucked. That was a long, long time ago.

LD: [Local promoters] Steve Gardner and Lindsay Reid put on a North Carolina showcase in Lindsay's hotel room at the IBMAs, and it was us, Chatham County Line, Tony Williamson and The Avett Brothers in a room that was smaller than this kitchen. The Avett Brothers went last, and the energy of the whole room exploded. People were packing in and sitting on the bed. They must have broken like 17 strings in a 40-minute set.

Jamie Dawson: They beat the hell out of their instruments. I was blown away.

Hank Smith: Bob [Crawford, bassist for The Avett Brothers] and I went to college together. I've known him since '97 or '98. The fact that he is a bona fide rock star now is pretty funny. At the time, he was the least likely guy to be a famous musician. He was definitely the band nerd. I like the new track. It's very mature, and it sounds Beatle-y, which I think is them going in a good direction.

JD: They really started out as crazy, flailing, beating-the-shit-out-of-their-instruments acoustic punk. Then they got Rick Rubin and I think that really changed them a lot.

LD: But it's still their sound. I think that's the cool thing about them—they have such an identifiable signature sound, even when it's matured.

Steve Martin & The Steep Canyon Rangers
"Women Like to Slow Dance"
(from Rare Bird Alert, 2011)

LD: I think Steve Martin is one of the most awesome things to happen to bluegrass. It's incredible the people that have come to bluegrass music through him. The fact that he picked a full, existing band to do this with instead of putting together a piecemeal band is so cool. I'm so thrilled for Steep Canyon Rangers to have that opportunity.

HS: But, as you can imagine, the bluegrassholes get all worried about it.

JD: Steep Canyon Rangers is one of the most improved bands over the course of 10 years that you've ever seen. They are phenomenal.

LD: They did it the hard way.

JD: And Steve Martin is the best thing to happen to them, but Steve Martin is a campy guy. I can just see him bringing these songs to the Rangers and them going "Oh God, really?"

LD: Well, that's the same thing that happens when Jamie brings us a song. [Laughs.]

JD: That's my point. I love it because that's my personality, but if Steve Martin brings something to the table, you can't tell him no.

HS: When I was still playing with Barefoot Manner, I was out on the road but came home late at night. My girlfriend at the time was with her brother. They'll go see any bluegrass show between here and Asheville, and The Steep Canyon Rangers had played The Pour House that night. I got home at like 5 or 6 in the morning, and her brother had brought them back to the house, which was a common occurrence. I got home, and it looked like someone had murdered the Steep Canyon Rangers, because they were all passed out. Woody was on the kitchen floor on his back with his guitar on him and PBR cans everywhere. The rest of them were strewn about the house. I had to walk through, stepping over bodies. That was one of the last times I saw them in that kind of candid way. Then, four or five years later, "BLAM!"

Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer & Mark O'Connor
(from Appalachian Journey, 2000)

HS: Our fiddle player is a classically trained violinist, and she definitely brings a lot of this influence to the table. I love this stuff—taking somewhat traditional forms and making it classical. It kind of brings everything home.

LD: I think there's a similarity to the virtuosity that goes along with classically trained musicians and improvising bluegrass or newgrass musicians. When the improvisational ability and the classical training meet and you see that virtuosity slam together, you get this incredible sound.

HS: It's instrumental lyricism at its finest.

John Coltrane
"Giant Steps"
(from Giant Steps, 1960)

JD: I probably listen to more jazz than anything else. 88.9 WSHA is my station. I listen to it in my car all day every day. Well, that and 91.5. I think I like it so much because I don't play it. The last thing I want to do is listen to a ton of bluegrass bands.

LD: You get a little jaded on your own.

HS: I don't imagine jazz musicians sit around and listen to bluegrass though. [Laughs.]

HS: I read in a Miles Davis album that whenever he would play gigs with Charlie Parker in some juke joint, Parker would go up to the jukebox and play Hank Williams and country music songs because he wanted to hear the story. I think this music tells quite a story. Even if it's instrumental, there doesn't have to be lyrics to it. For me, whenever I was learning banjo when I got to college, there were no bluegrass people to play with. The musicians were mostly music majors, and they played straight-up jazz. I think bebop and banjo go really well together. I'm always trying to incorporate some type of jazz influence, much to the chagrin of my bandmates sometimes. I'd love to hear the crossover version in the other direction, if bluegrass instruments could influence jazz in a way that's accepted by the jazz community.

JD: Well, Béla Fleck ...

HS: Yeah, I know. He's the guy who's actually bridging that gap. And he's my biggest influence, musically.

LD: The other cool thing about listening to jazz as a musician is that I know a lot of people listen to it and they can't hear any structure.

HS: Oh man, there's total structure.

LD: But for me, it's a challenge to find the structure within what I'm hearing, and the more I play music, the more I appreciate jazz. Ten years ago, I wouldn't have listened to 88.9 because I felt the same way, like there was no structure there. But now, just to find that melody, to find that root and the chords that they're playing, is a cool challenge. Sometimes in bluegrass there's not a challenge anymore because it's so standard.

Gillian Welch
"The Way It Will Be"
(from The Harrow & The Harvest, 2011)

JD: This is [Lynda's] Béla.

PW: This is my Béla, too. She's never done a bad thing, in my book.

LD: My No. 1 influence. I've probably seen Gillian Welch in concert more than any other artist. Just because it's so inspiring every time I see her.

PW: Yeah, I can listen to Gillian stuff all day long, just like Hank can listen to that god-awful banjo stuff.

HS: Hey, we agreed to reserve judgment there, old feller. I would kindly thank you to shut the hell up.

The Backsliders
"Never Be Your Darling"
(from Southern Lines, 1999)

PW: This is when music was music!

HS: Oh God, the old feller's gonna start reminiscing.

LD: This is quintessential Raleigh music. It's why I love this town.

JD: These guys, Whiskeytown, Kenny Roby, Patty Hurst Shifter ... all those guys are phenomenal. My first real band that actually kinda toured and had a following was Brothers Grim. This is why we started. I played bass with them. This is the style of music we played.

LD: My memory of [Backsliders frontman] Chip Robinson was a solo memory, when Blues Hideaway was still around. It was the juke joint in town and everybody played there. It was a teeny tiny place, but I remember watching Chip play and hanging out with Greg Hanson. Chip was playing some song about rain. Greg and I were talking about how there's something about songs about rain that makes them a good song, so that's how the songwriter challenge started. We all went home and wrote a song about rain, and brought them all back. We continued doing that—picking random words or topics and everyone writing a song about them. There are songs that Kickin Grass plays now that are from those challenge words. Chip Robinson is the person who inspired that whole thing.

Billy Currington
"Like My Dog"
(from Enjoy Yourself, 2010)

LD: I used to listen to commercial country in the '80s and '90s. I loved country. I grew up in New Jersey, and there was a country radio station out of New York that played The Judds and Garth Brooks and Kathy Mattea. I remember the day that I heard "My Front Porch Looking In" by Kenny Chesney [Editor's note: This song was actually recorded by Lonestar.] There's a sippy cup in that song. Seriously, you put a sippy cup in this song?

PW: That's about the time country music went [downhill]. Actually, I blame Garth Brooks for most of it.

LD: But Garth didn't do that! He didn't cross that boundary.

PW: I think he started it, the path, though. It's just downright terrible. It's just a shame that people support that bad of writing. There's just no quality in it. They're taking something that was popular and was a No. 1 hit, putting their own words to the same kind of beat and saying, "Look at my new song."

LD: But bluegrass does that too.

HS: But better.

JD: Not always. There's a lot of terrible bluegrass.

Doc & Merle Watson
"Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar"
(from Doc & Merle Watson's Guitar Album, 1982)

LD: This is like a breath of fresh air. When I hear Doc playing and singing, I'm just like "Open the windows!"

JD: I love Doc Watson. He's just a huge influence on my playing, my singing and my songwriting. He was probably the biggest influence on me.

LD: He exemplified the craft of musicianship. He worked at it really hard. It was his job, his profession, and he treated it that way. He was great because he wanted to be a carpenter and couldn't, so he treated it like a trade and he got so good at it because he worked so hard at it. It's hard work being in a band and making it all happen. The whole process of the music industry is just hard work, and Doc just exemplified what you can achieve.

HS: This past year at Merlefest, I remember walking up with Jamie at the very end of the Doc Watson and Friends performance. When all of the friends get up and walk off, Doc has to wait because his handler has to come and get him. As he's getting ready to get up and saying his goodbyes, he was openly weeping in the chair. Just smiling and crying. I think, at that moment, he realized that was it and he was more or less saying goodbye to everyone. It was poignant.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Listening with The Kickin Grass Band."


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