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Mountain Grass: The "Cool" of Bluegrass

The Mountain Grass Unit is on the move. Composed of a trio of college students, they’re eager to deliver their own interpretation of bluegrass. It’s acoustic music that often relays and interprets other genres – ranging from bluegrass to rock to jazz – in a way that feels fresh and young. They say it’s similar, perhaps, to what Billy Strings does; these young guys from Birmingham, Ala. might have tapped into the same zeitgeist.

Founded in 2019, the bandmates had been part of a more “electric” band. Drury Anderson had been doing some unplugged music on the side with bandmate Luke Black, and it reached the point where they were really enjoying it. They just needed a bass line to make it whole.

“They reached out to me,” explained bass player Sam Wilson. They asked if he wanted to start jamming as a trio in ways more acoustic. “A family friend had an upright and let me borrow it until I got my own.”

The Mountain Grass Unit was a natural fit. The new trio consisted of Anderson, on mandolin and vocals; Black, with acoustic guitar and banjo; and Wilson, with his new upright bass. The three had been friends since they were little kids and grew up living no more than five minutes from each other. Today, Anderson and Black spend part of the year in Boston, where they’re in their junior year of studying at Berklee College of Music. Wilson stayed closer to home and studied at the University of Alabama.

This summer, they toured widely during summer break, gigging in states as far away as Nebraska, Colorado, and Oregon. They are surprised by how quickly they developed a fan base and went from only doing private functions to being booked at big events across the U.S.

“We started out doing every 50th birthday party under the sun,” Wilson joked about their early bookings. Then, something kinda cool happened that they describe as a turning point in their trajectory; they were asked to open for Sam Bush. It got them “fired up.”

In yet another windfall of fortune, in-demand session musician Scott Vestal asked if he could play with the guys. With a list of people he’s performed with that includes names such as Bill Monroe, Dolly Parton, Ricky Skaggs and even David Lee Roth, having the Mountain Grass Unit added to the list no doubt boosted the feeling that they were onto something good.

Vestal invited the trio to his home studio in Tennessee, where they created the band’s first record, titled Places I’ve Been.

“It’s all originals,” Anderson explained. “It’s an 8-track album, released last July.”

Places I’ve Been…” Wilson mused, “...the lyrics…some of it is storytelling. About places we’ve been physically and mentally.”

The band’s website describes it as a record that “underlines the ideas of bluegrass, jam band, jazz, metal, and funk into one piece of work.”

According to Black, the local music scene influenced their style.

“A lot of jam bands come out of Birmingham,” he said.

Black credited Birmingham-area musician Allen Tolbert as a mentor who “taught me how to play everything.” He said Tolbert introduced them to the history and culture of music and modeled a style that, according to Tolbert’s website, combines elements of Tony Rice or Alison Krauss sounds with music as far-reaching as John Coltrane or Miles Davis. It was something to emulate and learn from.

Anderson described what The Mountain Grass Unit does in just a few words: “Hard driving jam grass. Very intense and very experimental.”

For a trio of young college guys, they’re sitting in a pretty good place right now with their tastes in music. The time is nigh.

“Billy Strings is popping off right now,” Anderson said. “Now, it’s the perfect time. Bluegrass is getting cool again.”

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