Greensky Bluegrass: Bluegrass with an Edge

Look at the photo at the top of this page. Oh, it looks all reflective and down-home and feel-good as any collection of five acoustic bluegrass musicians should be presented.
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Look at the photo at the top of this page. Oh, it looks all reflective and down-home and feel-good as any collection of five acoustic bluegrass musicians should be presented. Don’t be fooled. These guys are rockers in disguise, and their mission is to blow your mind. Like Led Zeppelin. Like Hendrix. Like Kiss.

Well, sort of…

Some backstory is obviously needed here. Greensky Bluegrass was formed in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 2000, by original members Dave Bruzza (guitar), Paul Hoffman (mandolin), and Michael Bont (banjo). From the start, the band was juggling various influences, and two main loves: bluegrass and rock. It took three albums—2004’s Less than Supper, 2006’s Tuesday Letter, and 2007’s Live at Bell’s—and seven years to zero in on the current lineup with bassist Michael Devol and dobro player Anders Beck on the crew. And guess what? The band’s desire to honor bluegrass while dressing it up in rock jeans and leathers only intensified.

“There are so many people in my generation who got into bluegrass and acoustic music through the back door,” says Beck. “And it was Jerry Garcia who opened that door. It was Jerry’s music that led me to Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs.”

The line between Garcia and Greensky Bluegrass is easy to track, but the members also benefitted from not going through years of seeking out fiddle tunes and bluegrass standards to play. In fact, Hoffman didn’t even buy a mandolin until he was 18 years old, Bruzza didn’t pick up the acoustic guitar until he was 18, and Bont’s first banjo didn’t make the scene until he was 20. Churn the late-starters with a big helping of Garcia and other rock influences, and you have a scenario where learning their instruments was easier and more desirable by way of experimenting, exploring, and writing their own songs.

The introduction of songwriting was huge, as it forged a unique mission for the band. As Beck himself explains on the Greensky Bluegrass website:

“It was all about the songs. You can be the best pickers in the world, or the most educated musicians, but, all-in-all, the things that connect with people are songs, lyrics, and melodies. That was the real kicker.”

The emphasis on songs also drives the band’s fifth studio album, If Sorrows Swim [Big Blue Zoo]. All the arrangements, the textures, the melodies, the dynamics, and production touches were put in full service of the moods the songs portray. The near-psychic interplay of the five Greensky Bluegrass musicians is also evident—a creative dialog honed through countless gigs and rehearsals.

So, in a way, Greensky Bluegrass is like Kiss. This is a band that wants to knock your socks off like any charismatic and sonically impactful rock and roll act. But they also want you to look past the bombast and see something deeper—to look into the heritage of bluegrass, and consider where it has been and where it can go. To paraphrase David Bowie: “This ain’t rock and roll—this is evolution…”

Here, Greensky Bluegrass’ Dave Bruzza and Anders Beck discuss why they are a different breed of bluegrass band.

Dave, can you specify some of the elements that make Greensky Bluegrass so unique?

Bruzza: I immediately see us as something that is not a very straight-ahead, authentic version of a bluegrass band. It’s hard to put it into words, but our band has such a unique sound to it. I know that I don’t often play that boom-chicka-boom rhythm very much—which also makes us a lot different from conventional bluegrass bands. I think I first realized that you could change things up rhythmically in bluegrass by listening to John Starling of the Seldom Scene. That band was a little on the left of things, musically. I’ve also listened a lot to Norman Blake for different ideas, because he does a lot of cool stuff. He’s just so dialed it in there—really tasteful—and he knows when to stay out of the way. He’s great.

Beck: I can contribute a couple of insights. We are obviously influenced by all the bluegrass players we’ve ever heard, and, to that extent, we have absorbed conventional bluegrass music. But we also have a lot of influences that come from outside of that spectrum. Most everybody in the band comes from a rock and roll background. We’ve all spent a lot of time listening to the Grateful Dead, rock bands, jam bands, and those kinds of influences. And because of all those rock bands we love, we’re always trying to emulate huge rock sounds, but with these five acoustic instruments. We want our textures to sound so much bigger than you’d normally think these five instruments are capable of creating. To do that, we have to think of interesting juxtapositions. For example, the typical bluegrass thing is the bass is on the one, and then the mandolin is on the offbeat. But, sometimes, we’ll change that up, and have everyone playing on the downbeat. This sounds really basic, but all of a sudden it like “anti-bluegrass.” It’s simple things like that that often make us sound unique. And I think it’s worth mentioning that our live shows are much more like a big rock and roll concert than a bluegrass show. We don’t all huddle around a single mic and weave in and out. Our goal is to take these instruments and take them a step further—new frontiers, bigger sounds, wider textures, different grooves.

In those cases where you all hit the downbeat rhythmically, or all jump on the same lick, you’re almost talking about classicalmusic- style dynamic structures.

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Beck: Actually, that’s very true. Mike, our bass player, is a classically trained cellist. He likens what Greensky Bluegrass does to a chamber orchestra, and he really pushes us to incorporate dynamics in the same way. He talks about it a lot, and he knows what he’s talking about. We don’t really know what he’s talking about, but, apparently, we are doing what he wants to hear [laughs].

What was the gear you used for the If Sorrows Swim sessions?

Beck: I played my Scheerhorn resonator guitar. Usually, we’d mic the acoustic sound, and then use the output of my Fishman Aura pickup to run effects. The signal path for the microphones was real precise and vibey: Millennia HV3D mic preamps, a Urei 1178 compressor, and a Neve 8068 buss. The mics were a stereo pair of Beyer 160 ribbons, and then a Neumann KM84 to capture the resonator’s highs, and a Neumann U87i to get the body sound, or low end. On the Aura, I typically selected a Jerry Douglass model—which sounds amazing. If I wanted distortion, I’d plug the pickup output into a Fender Blues Junior cranked to around 11. Not for the timid! I’d change up effects pedals based on the mood of the song we were working on, but I tended to keep an Electro- Harmonix Micro Pog, an Electro-Harmonix Q-Tron, and an Eventide Space on my pedalboard. That Space—man, I could do movie soundtracks all day with that thing.

What about strings?

I use D’Addario EXP .042s.

Dave?

Bruzza: I used a lot of guitars, actually— what I normally play onstage. There was my Santa Cruz Vintage Southerner, a 1990 Santa Cruz Tony Rice Brazilian Model, an early 1900s Washburn Parlor, and this little slope-shouldered Galloup guitar. Most of my stuff was miked. We typically placed a Royer SF-1 ribbon near the 12th fret, and routed the mic through a Telefunken V76 preamp and a Neve 32264a compressor/limiter. The mic for the guitar body was a AKG C414, and we sent that through a Millennia HV3D preamp and the Neve compressor. We had a little fun with the Galloup, running it through a couple of amps to get distortion. Well, it was a little more complicated than that! We plugged the Galloup into a Littlelabs PCP and ran the output into a Fulltone Tube Tape Echo. From there, we went to two amps: A 1962 Silvertone 1482 placed in a bathroom, and a 1953 Bell public-address amplifier coupled with a Marshall 4x12 cabinet. We miked the Bell/Marshall with a RCA BK5A ribbon, and the Silvertone with a Neumann U87. Madness, huh?

Was there any calculated plan to what guitar you used on which track? Was it purely a feel thing regarding the tone, or did you compose some of these songs with a specific instrument in mind?

Bruzza: Most of it was really what sounded best. I’d play the guitars back-to-back, and we’d figure out the sound we liked the most. For most of the basic tracks, what always worked was the Tony Rice model.

What strings do you like?

Elixir 80 Nanoweb /20 Bronze, .013 sets.

You and Anders are pretty much the “drums” of the band, so do you guys work out your parts together to give some space to the mandolin, banjo, and the bass? Is it kind of a natural thing, or do you actually sit together and go, “I want to drive it this way, so you hang back,” or “You use this inversion, and I’ll use that inversion”?

Bruzza: A lot of time, it’s pretty organic. We both do a lot of listening. There are certain parts where definitely something happens, and we talk about it, and make it work to what serves the song the best. But most of it seems to be organic. Would you agree with that, Anders?

Beck: Yes. I think probably something interesting to your readers is, within the band, we’re the two guys that are in the same frequency range. We’re actually two guitars, except I play mine flat [laughs]. It’s a Dobro, so it’s a little bit different, of course, but we’re really in the same frequency range. And so we try to stay out of each other’s way in sculpting out the spectrum of frequencies so that it’s not this big muddy thing. We’ve been doing it together for probably seven or eight years now, so it’s pretty natural—like Dave says. But, in addition, we do talk about the fact that because there are no drums, we have to create specific grooves with all of our instruments. When we get in that space, it’s like all of our instruments become parts of the drum kit, and we start visualizing the grooves to the drum part we each represent. For example, we often view the upright bass as the kick drum, the mandolin as the snare drum, the banjo as the cymbals, and Dave and I as the toms. It’s always interesting to try and create a groove without drums. That’s one of the appeals of the band to me.

Anders, a Dobro is a little spikier than a guitar. Do you ever clash with the banjo or the mandolin?

Beck: Because of the nature of the instrument, and because I’m playing with fingerpicks, I occasionally clash with the banjo when we’re both rolling. But, like I said earlier, it kind of works itself out. We stay out of each other’s way pretty naturally. But then we can also sonically build things up with all of us all jumping on a particular range or lick. I view the Dobro as sort of the “fill” instrument in the mix, because I fill the spaces in between the vocals a lot. The Dobro’s harmonic nature makes it a very lyrical instrument in my opinion.

Dave, perhaps you can comment about the glory and danger of developing a musical hybrid—such as what Greensky Bluegrass is obviously doing. You have the benefit of people who aren’t into bluegrass at all saying, “Oh, wow—this is cool. I could listen to this.” On the other hand, you may have bluegrass lovers who are resistant to your going against the grain. How do you guys navigate that sea, so to speak?

Bruzza: It’s great to have people come in expecting a bluegrass band—because “bluegrass” is in our name—and then see that this is no hillbilly show. We push things, explore and experiment a lot onstage, and perform extended improvisational sections. That might make some traditional bluegrass audiences a little nervous. But I hope that those people can see that we’re building on a tradition, instead of going against it. My dream gig would be blowing away an audience with everything we do, but also inspiring them to leave the concert and go check out some music by Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs.

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