Bluegrass Unlimited July 2004
America's Celebrating Twenty years with the Nashville Bluegrass Band
By Bill Michaels
NASHVILLE, TN -- It’s not often that a bluegrass band has the bragging rights to say it’s been together for twenty years. But with few exceptions, the Nashville Bluegrass Band has stayed mostly intact since its beginning in 1984.
“I’d like to think that we’ve learned from the masters, says singer/banjo player Alan O’Bryant. “You learn what to do, and you learn what not to do.”
“There was a like mindedness when we got together musically that we wanted to try to accomplish,” “That and a lot of just mutual respect, but also, just kind of the basic idea that the band existed for the people in it and not the other way around.”
“The people that we’ve worked with down through the years – and there hasn’t been a huge turn-over in personnel--- have been excellent people and gentlemen and really my honor to get to work with them.”
NBB started two decades ago with Mark Hembree on bass, Mike Compton on mandolin, Pat Enright on guitar, and O’Bryant. It was intended to be a one-shot deal opening on tour for country comedienne Minnie Pearl.
“Here’s a month’s work,” recalls Enright. “The pay wasn’t all that great, but at that time it was better than anything else anybody was doing. At the end of it [tour], I said this is sounding pretty good. Why don’t we just keep doing that?”
“Just starting a band and trying to do it full time was foolish in a lot of ways,
Enright laughs, “but the early days were grim financially and we just kept at it.”
Eventually, it paid off and in a big way with a string of successful albums including cuts on the film soundtracks, O Brother Where Art Thou and Down from the Mountain, audience arousing tours, and mantles full of trophies. NBB has won two Grammy Awards, two Entertainer of the Year awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association, and four IBMA Vocal Group of the Year honors from the band’s peers in the industry.
“We have a distinctive sound, and I think that’s something that pretty much any band has to have to set itself apart,” O’Bryant says.” What a lot of people tell me is that within a few beats of the song, they know who it is.”
“After 20 years, you just start pinching yourself anyway,” adds Enright.
“I hear this from other people. We present an interesting mix of music, and we present it well. I think they appreciate the thought we put into everything we do. We kind of totally disregard commercial considerations, most of the time, and it’s been fairly successful for us. We’re not trying to be a top 40 band. We’re not trying to find songs that necessarily fit with contemporary music. At the same time we’re not strictly a traditional bluegrass band. We’ve always had good musicians in the band.”
Two of the musicians that had been with the band since 1990 decided to leave. Bassist Gene Libbea moved to Colorado, and mandolin great Roland White decided to retire (He will fill in for Compton part-time this year on tour with NBB).
“This latest transition was almost like, oh, something that you couldn’t really even have planned that it would have come out any better than it did. And it was just sort of a natural evolution of things,” O’Bryant said.
“This latest transition seemed to be a way to reinvent ourselves and rejuvenate ourselves without having to stray from really the core purpose or core focus of what this band has always been about.”
“When Roland and Gene left, and Mike and Dennis [Crouch] came in, we didn’t necessarily say here’s the stuff we’ve been doing, learn this like this,” Enright said. “We said whatever we’re doing, just play it like you hear it, and let’s see what happens. After a year went by, it all just came together.”
“I think it takes a year of people working together before they really get that almost brother-like intuition about what the other one’s going to do, “O’Bryant said. “And then after that you can hear it. They [band members] … kind of come apart a little bit and then come back together even tighter. It’s like they explode and pieces rearrange, and then they come back together even tighter.”
Reinvigorated creatively, NBB began working on its first studio album in three years, Twenty Year Blues (Sugar Hill Records).
“We’ve never been prolific recorders,” Enright said. “This last stretch is taking that to extreme, but there were other circumstances.”
“Pat lost his dad,” O’Bryant said. “Stuart [Duncan] lost his dad. I lost my wife. There were tours and all kinds of stuff that came up in the meantime.”
“We worked on the record for so long that the technology changed while we were working on the record. It’s like when we started they were making cylinders, and when we finished they were making CDs.”
Nashville Bluegrass Band produced this last project at O’Bryant’s home studio.
“We just decided to try it there,” Enright said. “His board and everything is set up on a little loft in the house.” Amid couches and chairs and rugs hanging on the ways, NBB gathered around the microphones to lay down tracks. But the homey atmosphere presented a few challenges.
“We had to unplug the refrigerator and cut the air conditioning off,” Enright said. “Sometimes there’s a hound dog howling in the back of house, and we had to stop and wait for the dog to stop howling. A woodpecker was kind of pecking at the house for a while, and we had to stop there and try to get rid of the woodpecker.”
The minor inconveniences were worth it though. In the past the band members felt they had to compromise the quality of their albums when they worked under tightly budgeted studio time.
“It’s a lot different when you’ve got an outside producer,” O’Bryant said. “You’ve bought a block of time in a studio and … say you’ve got three or four days one week, and you’ve got three or four days another week, about a month away, or something like that. And in the context of those days and that block of time, you’ve got to cut that record and you’ve got to take what you get.”
Under their own schedule, NBB worked on the recording periodically, trying to nail down each song to the band members own satisfaction.
“If things weren’t happening, we’d just go home and come back the next day,” Enright said.
“For everybody to sit down and record a whole song at the same time was a real revelation,” Enright adds. “We could take the time we needed. We could come and go as we pleased. I think we were able to get better sound because we had the time.”
The extra studio time allowed the band to fine tune each of the cuts in the studio and on the road.
“It’s really nice to be able have a piece of material and work it up, perform it on stage for a good while and let the arrangement on it evolve to a place that you’re really happy with it,” O’Bryant said. Sometimes they evolve to a place where you go, nahhhh. I like to be able to work over a good variety of material to really decide what’s going to go together and what’s going to make a good record. Sometimes you know instantly, this is going to make a great song, and sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you kind of have to beat someone over the head with it and say, ‘look, this is a great song. You need to give it a chance.’ It’s a discovery process, and for us it’s a real folk process because we do these things on intuition, and then we play them for audiences and get their reaction to it.”
O’Bryant admits there are times when the band overworks a song.
“There’s just a place that you get in they process of doing this where you lose the spontaneity, and you start kind of technically working the music out of it and it becomes more of a technical performance.
While the band members have a say so in the making of NBB’s music, they have also agreed to allow each other the freedom to explore other areas of music outside the group.
“If you’re going to be a professional musician, it’s kind of like being a gangster,” Enright analyzes. “You gotta just take every opportunity to make a dollar that comes your way whether it’s a few dollars or a major dollar.”
“Everybody’s happy. You go out, and we do our thing. It fulfills something, or it gives something to people that they want. This belongs to us. Good or bad, it’s all from our own creation.”
It’s kind of a bluegrass tradition that you get a band together, and they work just for you. There’s never been a “star” in the band. It’s democracy at its worst, he laughs. That’s why it sometimes takes us a long time to get something done. But it equally belongs to everybody in the band. It’s been kind of a successful philosophy.
“On the whole it’s been quite a good experience. This is not a stable way to make a living. I’m 59 now. When you get to be the age of well, geez, I’m unemployable, there’s a certain amount of anxiety that creeps in from time to time. I don’t regret one moment of it.”
Perhaps another 20 years for Pat and the band?
“I made need helping getting around. I’ll take this far as it can reasonably go. I’m real satisfied with the way things are going, and I just hope it keeps going for a while. I don’t know what else I’ll do.””
# # #