The four original members of the Nashville Bluegrass Band -- banjoist Alan O'Bryant, guitarist and vocalist Pat Enright, mandolinist Mike Compton and bassist Mark Hembree -- came together as a backing band for a 1984 tour featuring country veterans Vernon Oxford and Minnie Pearl. All were veterans of the Nashville scene and had been involved with top bluegrass bands in the 1970s.
The Nashville Bluegrass Band signed to the Rounder label, and their debut, My Native Home, was released in 1985. Produced by Bla Fleck, the album announced its innovative leanings with its very first track, an a cappella version of Sister Rosetta Tharpe's "Up Above My Head." My Native Home became one of several releases on which the band turned to black gospel. The all-gospel 1987 album To Be His Child included several pieces of African-American origin, and the 1991 album Home of the Blues featured the Fairfield Four as guest vocalists. Such a project was unheard-of in the virtually all-white world of bluegrass, but it made the Nashville Bluegrass Band into a major touring attraction well beyond the usual festival circuit. Sometimes sharing the stage with the Fairfield Four, they appeared in major U.S. folk venues and became the first bluegrass band to perform in the People's Republic of China. They performed in nearly 20 countries on five continents.
The band suffered a bus accident in 1988 near Roanoke, Va., which seriously injured Hembree. Shortly after that, Hembree was replaced by Gene Libbea and Compton by Roland White. In addition, Fiddle stalwart Stuart Duncan has appeared on every album beginning with 1986's Idletime. Still, they maintained a consistent sound and experienced strong success over a series of albums in the late '80s and much of the 1990s. They moved to the Sugar Hill label with 1988's New Moon Rising (which featured Peter Rowan and Maura O'Connell) and worked mostly with Jerry Douglas as producer in the '90s. Their 1993 album Waitin' for the Hard Times to Go and 1995's Unleashed both won Grammys for best bluegrass album.
After the Grammy-nominated 1998 album American Beauty, the group seemed ready to wind up a stellar career as Libbea and White departed for other projects. But the Nashville Bluegrass Band got a second wind after Enright became one of the voices of the Soggy Bottom Boys, the fictional old-time singing trio led onscreen by George Clooney in O Brother, Where Art Thou? (The other behind-the-scenes musicians were Dan Tyminski and Harley Allen). Compton and Duncan also appeared on the film's soundtrack, and Compton began performing as part of the Down From the Mountain tour band. From these events emerged a reconstituted Nashville Bluegrass Band, now with bassist Dennis Crouch (a student of Hembree) and Compton on mandolin once again. The band celebrated its 20th anniversary with the 2004 album Twenty Year Blues.