‘Bluegrass Tornado’ Swirls Through Garden
Grandpa’s Cough Medicine Brings Acoustic Punch to ‘From the Ground Up’ Community Garden
If you can bang your head to acoustic instruments, Grandpa’s Cough Medicine will make it happen. Coming to Pensacola’s ‘From the Ground Up’ Community Garden by way of Jacksonville, East Tennessee, and the Americana music mecca of Asheville, North Carolina, the band is a bluegrass outfit of the highest order. Metal and bluegrass may seem like strange bedfellows, but after speaking with bandleader Brett Bass, it makes a whole lot more sense. O/A spoke with the 2015 Rockygrass flat-pick champion about that genre smashing, the communal spirit of bluegrass, and the amount of work it takes to be so damn good at an instrument.
You started playing as a kid at age 11 and Caleb, the mandolin player, started early as well. What about bluegrass lends itself so well to “phenoms” or folks playing at such a young age?
I certainly wasn’t a phenom at that age and didn’t start playing bluegrass until age 19. But to me, bluegrass lends itself to that because it’s so inclusive. In my experience, if a young kid shows up at a jam with seasoned players, he or she is not told to go elsewhere. They’re included in the jam and encouraged, which makes it likely for that kid to continue practicing and growing.
Metal was your first love. What’s the common thread between that and bluegrass?
I think it’s the technical ability, fast tempos and a more general sense of energy that linked the two for me. Bluegrass had elements of metal that I loved. When I heard a bluegrass flat-picker for the first time, i thought “This dude is shredding.” And in a lot of ways I found it to be more pure, there’s no hiding with acoustic instruments.
There’s a power and blunt force of metal that you can’t quite get without drums. Are there times when the lack of drums is limiting in what you might want to accomplish?
Not really for me, part of the beauty of bluegrass is the all string band. Every instrument has a roll, and when it’s all put together it can make a powerful rhythm that doesn’t require a drum. There are bands that I’m a fan of that incorporate drums well into bluegrass tinged music, but I don’t plan on using them.
Your playing is obviously at the highest of levels. How many hours a day did you practice when you first started playing and how has that regimen evolved?
I appreciate the compliment, but I still view myself as a student of flat-picking. I’ve merely scratched the surface in a lot of ways. But as a kid, I practiced anywhere from 2-6 hours a day and took weekly lessons from an awesome player named Alvaro Bermudez, who I recently reconnected with on social media. As I got into bluegrass my practice regimen became learning tunes. Bluegrass has a huge repertoire of traditional tunes, and I learned all the ones I really liked. Once I learned a tune, I’d find the speed I could play it comfortably on a metronome and start to slowly crank it up to increase my speed. Lately the practice regimen has been more focused on playing tunes with my lady, as she learns the upright bass.
What’s the time in the van on the bus like when you guys are traveling so much? Is it bluegrass non-stop? What other types of music do you listen to or how do you guys kill time to?
We will crank some bluegrass in the van, but we ride in silence and just talk to each other quite a bit also. We are constantly cracking jokes and trying to make each other laugh. Having Caleb in the band has made the van rides infinitely more fun than they ever were, because he’s just a hilarious person and always has some funny commentary. We all get along great.
My first time hearing you guys was at last year’s Suwannee Roots Revival. Y’all are regulars there. What’s so special about the place?
Aside from the natural beauty of the park, the people who come there are real music fans. They listen to every note you play and applaud when you nail a solo and it’s just a real pleasure to play for people who care. The people like Paul Levine and Beth Judy who do so much behind the scenes really care too and that’s just as important, they treat the artists like family. Particularly at the Americana/bluegrass centric fests at Suwannee, the after hours jamming is always the best.
Speaking of that performance, I read it was the first time your new bass player (and girlfriend) graced the stage? How nerve-wracking was that for the her and what were the rehearsals like leading up to that?
It was, in fact it was her second gig ever playing upright bass with us and she’d only been playing for two months at that point. We bought her a bass in January and I started teaching her how to play. We had intensive lessons, and covered a ton of material and she practiced her ass off. Every day I was on the road, I’d talk to her and she’d have knocked out 3 hours of practice and was still going. When we’d get home I’d practice with her daily, running all the tunes she’d potentially have to play. She had some lessons with Charles Humphreys III from Steep Canyon Rangers, and watched instructional dvds. She just really took it seriously and never doubted herself. Her name is Christina Nakajima and I couldn’t be more proud of her.
What’s it like being able to play with so many of your idols, from the McCourys to Larry Keel? The list is endless.
The first time I played with the McCourys, it was a late night jam and at the recommendation of one of the stage managers, they invited me to play guitar. I thought I’d just be going up for a song or two, but they sound checked me and I played the whole set. Jim Lauderdale sat in, Emmylou Harris sat in, it was all kind of mind blowing and surreal. I just thought myself lucky. But then the next festival rolled around and Alan Bartram (McCoury bassist) called me ahead of time and asked if I’d play guitar for the Travelin McCourys set, and I think that was the most honored I’ve felt in my life. They are pure class and the black belt ninjas of bluegrass music, and I’ll always be grateful. Every time I get to play with Larry Keel, it’s like a party. It’s just wild and fun, on and off stage.
Any nightmare gig stories from past shows?
Not really nightmarish, but we’ve had gigs where I want to throttle the sound guy. A sound guy can really make or break a bluegrass band, and sometimes they’re just incompetent. A good sound technician will make me want to hug him and buy him drinks.
What inspired the 2016 move to Asheville? And then the next move to Johnson City?
We had a sense of accomplishing all we really could as a bluegrass band in Jacksonville, FL. Being in the heart of bluegrass country has allowed me to make so many connections that weren’t there before. And that even includes hiring players at the level I need, there’s just not a lot of pickers in Jax. I moved to Erwin, just south of Johnson City, because it’s super cheap. Asheville is a boom town and the cost of living is continually going up, Erwin is only 45 minutes outside of Asheville and monumentally more affordable.
What drives the decision to write lyrically on the darker end of the spectrum?
That’s just always been my vision for this band. I found a lot of bluegrass to be the same in terms of lyrical content and I really just want to write the bluegrass I’d like to hear. I have a dark sense of humor, I tend to be a realist as opposed to an optimist, I prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Perhaps it’s my nature.
What is the band looking to accomplish when it steps on stage?
We want to kick as much ass as we can and have fun doing it. We want to drop your jaw and leave you feeling like you just survived a bluegrass tornado.
Grandpa’s Cough Medicine will play from 7-8:30 p.m. Saturday, September 16 at Pensacola’s ‘From the Ground Up’ Community Garden. All proceeds will benefit both the garden and Dixon School of the Arts, a K-8 school serving at-risk you in Pensacola.
Chile Lindo food truck will be on hand serving Chilean food. Seating is limited and it’s encouraged you bring your own lawn chair. Tickets for $10 are available at GrassInTheGarden.eventbrite.com or cash-only at the gate day of show.
Gates: 6:30; Show: 7-8:30