Diggin’ the roots: Grant Farm plays Carbondale’s PAC3
CARBONDALE – Tyler Grant entered the California Institute of the Arts’ music program to study electric guitar – “do Frank Zappa-type compositions, mix classical and rock music,” Grant said. Outside of his main course of study, Grant, along with a few friends, would sit on a back lawn with acoustic instruments and play old bluegrass and country tunes. This was most definitely extracurricular activity; CalArts emphasized world music and Western classical. But in that setting, the quintessential American songs of Bill Monroe and Hank Williams were seen as exotic.”A few buddies would be out back, jamming, picking, and the African drum class would look out the window, see mandolin and banjo, and be smiling and clapping,” Grant recalled. “Everybody loved it. They weren’t used to seeing bluegrass and country. To them, it was this whole other world music that they hadn’t checked out yet.”Grant had grown up a bit south of CalArts’ Los Angeles County campus, in the small town of Jamul, in San Diego County, feeling some vague connection to America’s rural music traditions. His father, who had grown up in central Texas, was a singer with a fetish for early rock ‘n’ roll. “He’d say, ‘Boy, you should’ve been there the first time we heard Elvis on the radio,'” Grant said. Listening to Elvis, Grant was able to hear the traces of string-band and blues that rock ‘n’ roll was built on.”I always felt a cultural connection to country and bluegrass,” said Grant, who played in a classic rock band, covering Jackson Browne and Tom Petty, in his high school years. “But I didn’t really know how to approach it, to study it. I picked at it. I was this hippie kid who would go to the bluegrass club jams and sit in. But I didn’t know what I was doing, stylistically.”Southern California wasn’t going to provide that path. Moving back home after college, Grant fell into what he calls “the San Diego beach scene,” where he played in a Grateful Dead cover band, a funk band and a reggae band. “But all the while I was delving into the acoustic flatpicking, trying to figure out my next move,” he said.Grant found his entryway into that world at the 2002 Rockygrass Festival, which a few CalArts friends had recommended he check out. Over three days at Rockygrass, Grant took in performances by Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs and Hot Rize, and perhaps most significantly, by guitarists Tony Rice and Doc Watson. At night he passed on sleep to participate in campground picking sessions.”It hit me like a freight train. Rockygrass seemed like that was right where I needed to be,” the 36-year-old Grant said from his home in Lyons, Colo., the same town where Rockygrass is held. Grant had heard of Rockygrass and was familiar with some of the music he would hear there. But it was his first encounter with the atmosphere of a bluegrass festival, and the combination of camaraderie among the musicians, the way the music interacted with the outdoors, and the first-rate picking, was eye-opening.”I had no idea how much it was going to affect me,” said Grant, who in 2008 earned the title of National Flatpicking Champion at the competition in Winfield, Kan. “That made me realize it wasn’t just hillbilly hokum, that it was this great art form that could affect people. And it was not just the connection to the music, but how much fun the scene was. I found there were a lot of other young people, my age, doing the same thing. It seemed like a scene I could fit in with and belong to.”•••• Grant Farm, which plays a Halloween party on Saturday, Oct. 27 (8 p.m.) at PAC3 in Carbondale, is a few steps away from the acoustic acts Grant witnessed at Rockygrass a decade ago. The band is a quartet of bassist Adrian Engfer, keyboardist and accordionist Sean Foley, drummer Chris Misner, and Grant on electric guitar.Grant spent seven years in Nashville, where his specialty seemed to be backing prominent female pickers: banjoist Abigail Washburn, fiddler April Verch, Adrienne Young & Little Sadie. But the most influential job was as a sideman for Drew Emmitt a founder of the Colorado-based jam-band Leftover Salmon. As a member of the Drew Emmitt Band and of the Emmitt-Nershi Band, which was co-led by String Cheese Incident guitarist Billy Nershi, Grant developed a broad affection for everything he considers roots music. That includes blues and jazz, country and bluegrass, Irish fiddle tunes and English ballads, and rock ‘n’ roll stretching from Elvis on up to early punk like the Ramones.”We as a band are focusing on the developments in the U.S., or North America, since the advent of jazz, the popularity of blues and bluegrass, which all happened around the same time, in the 1930s,” Grant said. “All these styles are rooted in American culture, even if they can be traced further back. It’s everything we as Americans feel a cultural or historical connection to.”When I wake up in the morning, what are the melodies I’m hearing, the rhythms I’m hearing? We as musicians strive to make a certain statement about who we are. To me, that’s roots music.”As soon as he moved to Colorado, in the middle of 2009, Grant formed Grant Farm; the earliest version was an acoustic duo of Grant and banjoist Andy Thorn. But gradually Grant Farm grew bigger and louder, and a year and a half ago Grant established the current plugged-in lineup.”I always want to do what other people are not doing. Not because I’m rebellious but because I always want to fill in the gap, fill in what’s needed in the scene,” Grant, who continues to spend much of his time teaching as bluegrass camps and flatpicking workshops, said. “I saw that every band out here has a mandolin, every band has a banjo. I was feeling I wanted to get back to the electric guitar. I felt if I was going to play at festivals and larger clubs, it seemed like the scene here could use a real rootsy electric band.”Which doesn’t necessarily mean turning his back on roots music, or twisting too much the definition of roots music. Grant brings up groups like the Allman Brothers, Little Feat and the Band. All those acts dug up roots styles, combined them and electrified them, and came out with something that was innovative but also connected to the roots in recognizable ways.”The Band – they never had a style you could pigeonhole. They had originality, but they never strayed too far from their band concept, this clear concept of staking a claim to all things related to American roots music,” Grant said. “We want to forge our own sound based on our own concept of what are our roots. We’re standing behind this concept of things we’re connected to deep down in our musical selves. Macedonian and Bulgarian music – if I had family from that area, I’m sure I’d feel a connection to it.”Another principle Grant Farm holds dear is of the band as a democratic collective. The group’s first album, self-titled and released last year, featured mostly Grant’s compositions; the material they play reflects input from all the members. The four sing and write together in the van.”That’s what I’ve dreamed about,” Grant said. “The almost impossible thing to grab onto is a collective of people wanting to work together toward the band concept. It would have been easy to stay the flatpicking guy, do competitions. But I’ve always been after something greater – a real band, where everybody’s working together.”firstname.lastname@example.org
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