Greensky Bluegrass: No Rules (and Kazoos)
Hailing from Kalamazoo, Michigan—the city where Orville Gibson first started building acoustic guitars and mandolins over a century ago— Greensky Bluegrass have developed a progressive style over their twelve-year career that blends contemporary musical forms with sounds that trace back to before the invention of Gibson’s Les Paul. Drawing inspiration from acoustic innovators like Béla Fleck and Sam Bush, who launched a movement with their New Grass Revival in the ‘70s and ‘80s, the band’s sound is influenced by the elder statesmen of bluegrass and jambands alike, placing them squarely on the divide between two thriving musical communities.
In October Greensky released Handguns, their fourth studio album as a group and second since adding dobro player Anders Beck to their lineup in 2007. A notoriously prolific live band, they’ve been touring for most of the year since the album dropped, including appearances at festivals large and small this summer. Beck and vocalist, mandolin player and songwriter Paul Hoffman spoke with us between appearances at Telluride Bluegrass Festival and High Sierra Music Festival about their recent tour, festivals, the “newgrass” movement, their genre-crossing live covers and more.
You guys just played with Jimmy Cliff in Michigan, how was that experience?
Anders Beck: It was great. It was sort of a late add-on to our schedule, a support gig. There are things that you never say “no” to, and I think one of those things would be opening for Jimmy Cliff. It’s like a bucket list thing for a bluegrass band. It was really fun. It was a lot of our hometown crowd along with the Jimmy Cliff crowd. I got to hang out with their band a little bit and it was cool to hear that they all dug what we were doing, and to hear a bunch of Jamaican Rasta guys trying to explain to us what bluegrass is in their mind—it was pretty funny. But yeah, it was a great time.
What were they saying about bluegrass?
AB: They’re like “It’s got the reggae, mon, but it’s the blues” and they were talking about how the back, like the chop in bluegrass, you know, the “boom chk boom chk boom chk,” is similar to really fast reggae; it almost has the ska thing going on in a way, which I thought has some sort of correlation to it. They were complimenting all our playing and they really liked Paul’s singing. They said “in Jamaica, mon, they call that ‘good shit’” and I was sort of thinking, you know they say that everywhere too. It was fun, it was a cool experience.
Reggae and bluegrass seem like an unexpected pairing, how did the crowd react? Were they surprised by the acoustic instruments?
AB: I think a lot of the crowd, being that the show was in Michigan, sort of knew us coming into it, and knew that—while we play bluegrass—we also spend a lot of time outside of that bluegrass box. It was definitely a strange pairing, but especially with our kind of bluegrass where there’s a little more space and freeness to be creative— It’s all music is the best way I can describe it, and I think that the crowd felt that way too. So we didn’t get booed off the stage or anything.
You just mentioned the bluegrass “box” and you guys are commonly pegged as contributors to the “newgrass” movement, how do you feel about the whole term “newgrass?”
AB: I think it’s a great term, because bluegrass traditionally is sort of a very finite thing, starting with Bill Monroe back in the day, and then Sam Bush and Béla Fleck, when they started the New Grass Revival, created that as a way to step outside the box, and then their band name became a whole other genre of “newgrass.” The term itself really frees up bands and musicians to use the bluegrass instruments and then do what we do, where we use the bluegrass instruments as a jumping off point for making our own music. And it separates us more from traditional bluegrass, which I think is important when you’re a band like Greensky where you’re trying to write a lot of original material and you’re not just rehashing things that have been done for seventy years in traditional bluegrass.
Paul Hoffman: For me it just means bluegrass with no rules. Everybody comes to bluegrass from a different place, and playing music like bluegrass that’s so seemingly defined, anything that’s outside the norm will set you apart from it. We tend to come to bluegrass from a rock and roll standpoint, so that’s the best description for me. I think that’s Newgrass, I think that’s what those guys did. I was having a conversation with Sam Bush at Telluride and he was telling me stories about the New Grass Revival showing up at festivals with amplifiers and people being real mad about it, and them getting kicked out and not being able to play and stuff. That was new. They’re still kings of bluegrass though, so I’m happy to be a part of it.
What first attracted you to learn an acoustic instrument and play bluegrass?
AB: Well I came from the jamband background. I was big into the Grateful Dead and then Phish, and that was really my musical background. I grew up on the East Coast so I got to see probably 130-some Phish shows before 2000. So that was my musical background—I was an electric guitar player. I moved to Durango, Colorado and stumbled upon bluegrass the way a lot of people do, and I still don’t know if they get enough credit, through Old and In the Way, with the Jerry Garcia connection. After growing up listening to the Grateful Dead, all of a sudden you start to explore and find out that he played banjo in this band, and then you listen to that and all of a sudden you’re listening to David Grisman and Tony Rice. It’s the backwards evolution of bluegrass because you start out with Jerry Garcia-grass and then, at least for me, it made me dig all the way back to Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe, and suddenly I’m listening to this incredibly old music, and so that’s really how I got into bluegrass. And I had been playing a lot of acoustic guitar with friends, and it was just great music to play. It’s the kind of music where you can just sit around and learn songs and play them the next day. And then Telluride Bluegrass Festival had a big influence on me when I decided that, I liked bluegrass and was getting all into it, I saw a dobro workshop in Elks Park, which is where they do their workshops, and that’s when it literally hit me like a ton of bricks that that was the instrument that I wanted to play. I had been looking for it because I was looking for something that combined bluegrass and the acoustic music and the electric guitar that I grew up playing, and the dobro has more sustain and things like that—it’s kind of like the electric guitar of acoustic music.
PH: I was a guitar player growing up, and sort of leaned more towards playing acoustic guitar and singing songs and writing songs than towards getting a Marshall stack amp and learning how to rip like Van Halen. I was turned on to Grisman and Garcia by a friend—I really liked the mandolin and decided to buy one because of Grisman. I think Grisman and Sam Bush were my two biggest influences, stylistically and in the types of music that I played. Both guys are very competent in bluegrass but also have their own styles and twists, and they don’t necessarily adhere to rules. I’ve never been very good at learning every little thing and being that kind of a bluegrass player—which is certainly a handy skill, because when playing with other people you’ve never played with, or if you’re having a jam or something, it’s great if everybody knows the same songs. But for me, learning how to musically express myself on the mandolin and with my voice or with songs and whatever is more important than learning how to play all the tunes and learning how to be the best bluegrass player.