Greensky Bluegrass: By Their Own Definitions

By: Sarah Hagerman

Greensky Bluegrass by Eric Kinnally
"I think almost all the guys in the band got into bluegrass the way I did, through the Grateful Dead and The Pizza Tapes," Anders Beck of Greensky Bluegrass relates. "All of a sudden there's Garcia and Grisman and from The Pizza Tapes you get to Grisman Quintet and you hear this guitar player and you're like, 'Who the hell is that?' Then you start listening to Tony Rice recordings, and then from there Béla Fleck and you just keep going back and back to Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs. That's how a lot of people got into bluegrass. I don't know if Jerry Garcia got enough credit for that."

No matter how the journey begins, the bluegrass resin seeps in deep and locks in your bones. In some circles, Garcia hasn't gotten enough credit for inspiring that addictive research, but the musicians of Greensky - Paul Hoffman (mandolin), Dave Bruzza (guitar), Michael Devol (bass), Michael Arlen Bont (banjo) and Beck (dobro) – are attracting a growing fanbase that recognizes a similarly bold line of attack. That no-holds-barred element is an essential component to their sound:

"I love listening to clean, super polished bluegrass, but after awhile it's too much," Beck divulges. "I like mistakes and people taking risks. We like to improvise and see where things are going to wind up. I don't think we are trying to do that, it's just our collective backgrounds have come from that world, so it comes out when we play. Our fans are accepting of that middle ground. They kind of trust us and let us do what we want to do, which is exciting to me as a musician, because we can play super fast bluegrass shows or if we want to get weird we can get weird. We're starting to realize we can fit it all in one show. And it's exciting that people like what we do because chances are we would be doing it anyway."

The Kalamazoo Shuffle

As Hoffman describes it, Michigan is musically rich, but is comparatively scarce on bluegrass. "I think Michigan has a good folk scene. There's a lot of great Americana and acoustic music going on. But I wouldn't say there's a lot of bluegrass. People really like [bluegrass] here, but Michigan is not like Colorado, where you can count a bluegrass band for every finger and every toe, and it's not like the Nashville or North Carolina bluegrass scenes either."

This geographical reality helps inform the band's distinctive sound, according to Beck.

Greensky Bluegrass at NWSS with Nershi & YMSB by Kinnally
"Bill Monroe once said, and I'm paraphrasing, 'Take the music I made and don't play it just like I play it. Take the song and make it your own.' We're really trying to make it our own," says Beck. "There's enough bands that have paved the way – what Yonder is doing, even Leftover Salmon or String Cheese Incident - and Greensky has what I like to call, 'The Kalamazoo Shuffle.' It's got a pulse to it and it's kind of got a lope to it as well, a shuffle. I haven't really heard anybody playing in that style except for Greensky, and this was from before I joined the band, talking from an outsider's perspective. It has to do with the fact that it comes from Michigan, not from Kentucky or Colorado."

As part of the initial trio that formed Greensky in 2000, Hoffman found his musical feet alongside Bruzza and Bont. Inspired by David Grisman, Hoffman was just beginning to learn the mandolin when he met the future members of the band. "The growing process of the band was the growing process of our own instrumentation," he explains. "Dave had only been playing the guitar for a little while; Mike had only been playing the banjo for a little while. So, we started grooving to bluegrass together. I always felt like I was in the right place at the right time, deciding to play the mandolin and then meeting those guys. I never had planned to stay in Kalamazoo for longer than two years, but here I am eight years later."

Beck began playing the dobro in Colorado around the same time after encountering a workshop at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. He lays out the scene: "I was living in Durango, Colorado and crossing over from playing jam band music on electric guitar to acoustic music, but I realized I wasn't very good at flatpicking. I stumbled across [that] dobro workshop while camping in my friend's yard, and I almost dropped my Bloody Mary - I couldn't believe what I was hearing. There was Jerry Douglas, Sally Van Meter, Rob Ickes and Randy Kohrs. It was amazingly clear to me that that was what I wanted to play. It is the electric guitar of acoustic instruments. It has sustain - you can actually hold notes. You can't really do that on an acoustic guitar. It helped crossover from the electric guitar sort of vibe, to sustain those Trey notes [laughs]. A dobro can't quite do that but it's got more of a rock and roll feel to it."

Greensky Bluegrass
Devol, a classically-trained cellist, joined Greensky on bass in fall 2004, after the departure of bassist Chris Carr and dobro player Al Bates, who left after recording Less Than Supper in May of that year. Through the festival circuit, they struck up a friendship with Beck, who would officially join the band in 2008 after having been in Broke Mountain Bluegrass Band and Wayword Sons (Benny Galloway's songwriting showcasing band). Beck cites how Galloway's influence played a role in his decision to approach Greensky. "After playing for two years with Burle, I sort of learned what it is that I really like about particularly good songwriters," says Beck. "My take on music after that is, lots of notes are all well and good, and the perfect solo is great, but it really comes down to the words and the melodies - that's what connects with people. The songwriting was the main thing that really appealed to me about Greensky."

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