Growing up in a small rural Kentucky town, Danny Roberts never dreamed he’d travel the world, play music for presidents, or perform with legends like Dolly Parton, Vince Gill, Kenny Rogers and more.
“I started playing guitar when I was 13,” says Roberts. His neighbor, Jimmy Mattingly, played fiddle, “and he really helped me learn. I started going to fiddle competitions, playing backup, then I began to win contests on my own as a guitar player.” Roberts also learned the mandolin. In 1982, he co-founded the New Tradition, which toured for 20 years.
Roberts and Mattingly reunited in 2004, along with Terry Eldredge, Jamie Johnson and David Talbot. “We were all big Andy Griffith fans, and we tried hard to come up with a name for the group that reflected that,” recalls Roberts. “Then we started thinking about other TV shows we all liked and ‘The Little Rascals’ came up. We played with it and added a G to Rascals and came up with Grascals. We liked that name, so it stuck.”
The Grascals have been successful beyond Roberts’ wildest imagination, with Kristin Scott Benson on banjo, Terry Smith on bass, Adam Haynes on fiddle, Terry Eldredge on guitar, and the newest band member, John Bryan, on guitar. They, alongside Roberts, have earned their stripes in country and bluegrass genres. Their friendships, however, make the group’s delivery.
“…and then there’s this,” their CD released January 2016, debuted at #1 on the Billboard Bluegrass Chart and spent eight months at #1 on the Bluegrass Unlimited National Survey with multiple charting singles. Their newest CD, “Before Breakfast,” released September 1, debuted at #2 on the Billboard Bluegrass Chart. The single, “Sleeping with the Reaper,” hit #1 on the Bluegrass Today weekly chart.
The three-time GRAMMY nominated group’s cutting-edge modern bluegrass gives a definite nod to the music’s founders, but makes music relevant to today’s fans. Taking a familiar song from another genre, they “Grascalize” it, like “The Last Train to Clarksville,” a 1966 hit song by The Monkees. Their accompanying video of the song mimics the wacky style made famous by The Monkees. “Making that video was fun,” said Roberts, with a laugh. “Some of my favorites we’ve done are Elvis tunes, including ‘Viva Las Vegas’ and ‘Mystery Train.’”
The Grascals’ success happened right out of the gate. “From the get-go, we’ve been blessed,” Roberts states. “We did have a bit of an advantage, because we have all been in the business for a long time. People knew who we were.” The group recorded its first album in a studio that used Dolly Parton’s engineer. When she came in, the engineer played her some Grascals tracks. “She liked what she heard and asked us to open for her, then come back out on stage as her band. That was invaluable for us.” Dolly always made sure the marquee read “Dolly Parton and The Grascals.” “Seeing your band’s name on marquees at places like Radio City Music Hall in New York and the Celine Dion theatre in Las Vegas will never get old!” After that tour, Parton told them they needed to leave her before they became known only as her backup band. But her next opening band didn’t work out, “so we were called back to open for her. It was a delight to work with Dolly because she is wide open all the time. She is also a super nice lady.”
The Grascals also toured with Hank Williams Jr., Eric Church and Brooks & Dunn. “The country thing was fun for us, but when it comes down to it, we are a bluegrass band,” Roberts explains. “There is nothing like playing bluegrass festivals, and there is nothing like those fans. With the festivals, we sit at the CD table and really talk to the fans, who are really honest with you. We sell a few CDs or t-shirts and folks invite us to come to their campers to eat dinner. Now we know that a certain festival is where the lady always makes us the great fried chicken, or at another festival a lady brings us homemade cookies. We talk about our families and really get to know one another, because bluegrass fans want to get to know you!”
They’ve performed twice for President George Bush and at an inauguration party for President Barak Obama at the Smithsonian. “We were told not to look at or speak to the President and his wife when we first played at the White House,” recalls Roberts. “But then George and Laura Bush came in and they were as friendly as can be. They seemed like regular folks.” The band didn’t actually meet the Obamas, but had a great time playing for the party.
The Grascals travel the world, to places like Japan, Greece and Switzerland. “I’m doing a workshop in Germany next year and I’m going to take my wife and daughter. She’s 16 and a great singer.” Perhaps the next generation of The Grascals is in the making.
At the time of this interview, the band was preparing for a performance at The Grand Ole Opry, which they’ve played nearly 200 times.
When The Grascals performed on Tonight Show with Jay Leno, they posed for pictures with Jay and Robert De Niro, also a guest that night. Now, that’s cool!
By Susan Marquez