Comprised of Anders Beck (dobro), Michael Arlen Bont (banjo), Dave Bruzza (guitar), Mike Devol (upright bass) and Paul Hoffman (mandolin), Michigan’s Greensky Bluegrass have gained attention for their energetic live shows and twists on traditional music. Before heading to Asheville for a 9 p.m. Sept. 26 show at the Grey Eagle, Beck spoke with Ashvegas about the gift and curse of the band’s name, the Great Lakes State’s bluegrass scene, and a brush with the ultimate request song.
Question: How did Greensky Bluegrass form?
Answer: The band formed initially as a bunch of friends learning to play bluegrass music together in the usual ways. Playing in basements, garages, porches, and such. Its been quite an exciting evolution over time. For example, the band went from studying the playing of Sam Bush back in the day to having him play entire shows with us these days.
Q: What is the bluegrass scene like in Michigan and how is it distinct from other bluegrass scenes around the nation?
A: The Michigan bluegrass scene is definitely pretty small compared to places like Asheville… or North Carolina in general… but there is a vibrant little scene. Our hometown of Kalamazoo, MI was home to the original factory where Gibson made the banjos and mandolins that are now coveted by so many musicians, so there is a real connection to the history of the music that few people realize. Its been pretty cool to help put Michigan back on the bluegrass map as the band continues to grow.
Q: How did recording [Greensky’s latest album] Handguns on the same console that was used for “Free Bird” impact the sessions?
A: I’d say the overall impact was incredibly positive. It’s weird for me to think that an inanimate object like a mixing console can have mojo, but in this case it was undeniable to me. That console has made countless hits for the likes of Skynyrd, Paul Simon, The Rolling Stones and tons of other historic artists and just sounds amazing. Without getting too technical, the preamps in that particular Neve console created, and continue to, this beautiful super warm, fat sound. We (with Glenn Brown, who owns the console and engineered the album) achieved tones on the Handguns album that I am really proud of and I think will be forever.
Q: Your use of distortion, horns, and other unexpected styles distance you from stereotypical bluegrass, yet your music is very much steeped in the genre’s traditional elements, to that point that half of the band’s name pays homage to that history. Why is it important to have “Bluegrass” in your name? And/or is it a label you struggle with?
A: I think that the key to the name lies in the juxtaposition, the play on words. “Greensky” is the opposite of “bluegrass” and that is important to remember. We have all studied traditional bluegrass and spent years learning from our musical forefathers. In fact, the band started out playing very traditional bluegrass music around a single mic, but as we evolved as a band and as musicians we began to meld all of our other musical influences- jam bands, rock and roll, jazz, etc- into the music to create a sound that is uniquely our own.
We do occasionally struggle with having the word “bluegrass” in the name of the band because we fear that it pigeonholes us into being something particular. There will always be people that see that word and automatically assume that they won’t like our music because they don’t like bluegrass music, but the fact of the matter is that we play traditional bluegrass instruments and use them as a springboard to create our own sound and as I was mentioning, that is where the “Greensky” part comes into play. We get weird, we rock out, we write songs that are outside of the usual realm of traditional bluegrass, we use distortion and other cool effects, we have a big light show… and our live shows are really, really fun! The band that we have evolved into really embodies the spirit of the name so well, in my personal opinion. We are bluegrass, but we are also the opposite of bluegrass and everything else in between.
Q: What are the expectations for your upcoming Austin City Limits appearances? Any bands you’re particularly hoping to catch during your down time?
A: I’m excited to play ACL for the first time. I love music festivals that cross genres and I am excited that Greensky can be apart of such an interesting lineup. It really exemplifies the point I was trying to make earlier when you asked me about the name of the band. Yes, we are “bluegrass,” but we also can play ACL festival and draw a crowd there. I’m excited to see Wilco and Dawes. I really love both of those bands. Also, Lionel Richie will be there! We played “Dancin’ On the Ceiling” a few times a couple years ago. Maybe we can get him to sit in with us for that one!