The members of New Grass Revival make no claims of being prophets, but they certainly get less respect in their own land than they have found elsewhere.
Participating in two U.S. Information Agency tours, in 1984 and 1987, the quartet received rousing responses from audiences in such far-flung concert stops as Turkey, Ireland, India, Morocco and Nepal. And even though the band fares pretty well at live shows on its home turf, none of its singles has cracked the country Top 40 chart, or any other applicable chart.
What’s the difficulty?
“We’re right on that uncomfortable line,” said banjoist Bela Fleck from his Nashville home on Monday. “We’re between being a little too rock for country and a lot too country for rock. What’s even weirder is (that) some of the country stations have said, ‘Uh uh, they’re too country . We like a slicker sound.’ I don’t know, we’ll just keep holding to what we do.”
What they do, which will be apparent when the group plays Monday at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana, often includes banjo- and mandolin-propelled versions of Bob Marley’s “One Love” or Marvin Gaye’s “Ain’t That Peculiar,” delivered with a tight improvisation more common to jazz. The band specializes in a blend of bluegrass, country, reggae, jazz, rock and other styles that could petrify staid radio programmers, were that not already their natural state.
Mandolinist-fiddler Sam Bush formed the group in 1970; bassist-vocalist John Cowan joined in 1972, and Fleck and guitarist Pat Flynn signed on in 1981. Despite recording for minor labels most of that time, New Grass’ members earned reputations as musicians’ musicians, a status most recently reflected by the group carrying off Best Band and Best Album awards in Frets magazine’s 1988 poll of readers.
Additionally, Bush and Flynn won top instrumental honors in their respective categories. The 30-year-old Fleck--whose technique has peers claiming that he has “reinvented the banjo"--is already exempt from competition after five previous wins and election to the magazine’s “Gallery of the Greats.”
Fleck said there can be a stigma to the “musician’s musicians” title, because that is sometimes construed to mean you can’t be everyone’s musicians, a state that the band would much prefer. Fleck said the group had just spent the weekend courting radio programmers at “big schmoozathons” at Nashville’s 20th annual Country Radio Seminar. The group’s last album, “Hold to a Dream,” and new LP, “Friday Night in America,” due May 17, are on a major label (Capitol), and Fleck said the band is willing to meet radio formats at least partway.
“Part of the battle is just persevering and getting them used to our sound, and part of it is having some flexibility as to what and how we record,” Fleck said.
“We’re not set on weird art songs or anything; we’re always looking for commercial songs, but we have to think they’re good and really like them, and still maintain a quality level we care about. If we stick to that, we’re not selling out.”
Fleck said he thinks country radio is in less of a sonic straitjacket than rock stations, so that is where the group is trying hardest to find an opening. “Country radio is at least playing some songs that have banjos, dobros, mandolins and fiddles, where rock is not--except for a John Mellencamp song once in a great while.”
Unlike the majority of banjo players, Fleck was not enamored of bluegrass music before he took up the instrument. “I was a big Beatles fan,” he said. “Still am. Then I heard the ‘Beverly Hillbillies’ theme and ‘Dueling Banjos,’ and just the sound of the banjo was fascinating to me.
“I didn’t even like bluegrass or country at the time, I just thought the banjo was cool, so I started learning how to play it. In fact, I’ve always tried to study every kind of music on it, besides bluegrass. But then I started really liking bluegrass too. It’s an acquired taste, like coffee or vinegar. It tastes pretty bad at first, but when you get used to it, you realize it’s really deep and interesting.”
As for the talk about “reinventing the banjo,” Fleck responded: “It’s flattering. I could think of worse things people could say about me. But I don’t really look at it that way. I feel more like I’m part of a natural progression of banjo players. Every banjo player that I love has come along and redeveloped some aspect of playing it. I just think I’ve incorporated the innovations of a lot of other banjo players and just built on that.
“In some ways, maybe I’ve treated the banjo more like it was a standard musical instrument instead of something just to be applied to the folk tradition.
“I remember watching Al Di Meola and Stanley Clarke playing guitar and bass with Chick Corea’s Return to Forever and thinking, ‘My instrument has frets just like theirs, so all those notes they just played must be on my banjo somewhere,’ and I set out to find them. Then I realized that all the stuff Chick Corea and Charlie Parker played was on there too.”
Fleck maintains that New Grass Revival’s goal isn’t just to put on a dazzling display of chops. “I feel that New Grass Revival has always tried to leave audiences feeling uplifted,” he said. “There is a certain spiritual message to it, but what we’re trying for is more of an attitude of ‘Be the best you can be’ and ‘Go for the gusto.’
“A lot of the songs we’ve done, like ‘You’ve Got to Reach a Little Higher,’ aren’t ‘religious’ songs, but there’s a spirituality to them. One of the things I dug about New Grass Revival before I joined the group was (that) in a lot of ways people thought of them as rebels, as the black sheep of the bluegrass family, but they always had this spiritual side to them.”
Besides his work with New Grass Revival, Fleck has released seven solo albums. Because the group spends about 200 days a year on the road, “it’s a little like working two jobs. I have to work my solo career into the days we’re home, so if we’re home for 3 days, I’ll be working until late each night. Sometimes it’s more relaxing on the road.”
Weary or no, Fleck said he has enjoyed nearly every gig he has done with the band, with the possible exception of Malta on one of the U.S. Information Service tours.
“The whole island seemed like the setting for a vampire movie, with very strange air,” said Fleck, who shares his given name with the most famous “Dracula” of all. “It made me nervous.”
New Grass Revival and Asleep at the Wheel will perform at 7 and 10 p.m. Monday at the Crazy Horse Steak House, 1580 Brookhollow Drive, Santa Ana. Tickets: $23.50. Information: (714) 549-1512.