Nashville Tennessean July 2001

MUSIC: Nashville Bluegrass Band


By Robert K. Oermann


NASHVILLE, TN -- America’s coolest bluegrass band just got cooler. With its members performing on the wildly successful film soundtracks O Brother Where Art Thou, Down from the Mountain and with a scintillating new lineup, The Nashville Bluegrass Band has become the acoustic-music group to watch in the new millennium.

With two Grammy Awards, two Entertainer of the Year honors from the International Bluegrass Music Association and four wins as IBMA’s Vocal Group of the Year, The Nashville Bluegrass Band is no stranger to acclaim. But as it heads into the production of its 10th album, the group is primed for still greater accomplishments.

“Change is good,” says singer/banjo player Alan O’Bryant. “You’re always looking for ways to reinvent yourself. We’ve always been interested in, ‘What’s next?’ We do some of our old stuff whenever we perform, but really part of the reason for having this band is for whatever’s coming next. And now we have that reinvention.”

Last November, Gene Libbea, the group’s bassist since 1990, decided to leave the band and move to Colorado. At the same time, mandolinist Roland White, also a member since 1990, announced that he was retiring from the road to concentrate on teaching, doing workshops and writing his book. Their replacements turned out to be so perfect that The Nashville Bluegrass Band never even missed a show during the transition.

Mike Compton was the group’s original mandolin player, in 1984-90. When he left, Compton thought he was through with music. He put down his instrument and went to the Catskill Mountains to work in a ski lodge.
“Basically, I was miserable,” he reports. “I realized that music was something I needed to do. I needed that outlet. So I moved back to Nashville and spent a lot of time figuring out how to play again, because I hadn’t been doing it.”

Between 1992 and 2000, Compton got back up to speed performing with The Sidemen, John Hartford and The Sullivans. He was reunited with NBB members Pat Enright and Stuart Duncan when they recorded as “The Soggy Bottom Boys” for the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. He’d never forgotten his days as a Nashville Bluegrass Band member, so when Alan O’Bryant called him about taking his mandolin slot back, Mike Compton didn’t hesitate for an instant. “With Mike back on board, I couldn’t imagine the new lineup not working,” comments Duncan. “I knew then that it would be fine.”

Libbea’s replacement was equally fortuitous. Like Compton, bassist Dennis Crouch has a link to the original NBB lineup. The group’s first bass player was Mark Hembree, in 1984-90. Hembree, it turns out, was an early mentor to Crouch. As a boy, Dennis Crouch had selected the upright bass as his instrument. But he had to stand on a chair to support the instrument, and his hands were too small to reach around its neck.

“Joining The Nashville Bluegrass Band is pretty strange for me,” Crouch reports. “Because I remember being 11 years old at a bluegrass festival in Salem, MO. Mark Hembree was playing bass for Bill Monroe there. I’d been playing, but my hands were small. Hembree took me aside and showed me these hand exercises and taught me how to spread my palms and fingers. So when I later saw he was a member of The Nashville Bluegrass Band, I paid attention. And I kept following the group when Gene Libbea replaced him.

“I respect Gene and regard him as a friend. When I heard he was moving to Colorado, I didn’t know whether he planned to stay in the group or not. But if his job was going to be up in the air, I wanted to be in line for it. That’s why I decided to call Alan O’Bryant and express my interest.”
In the twinkling of an eye, The Nashville Bluegrass Band was reconfigured to everyone’s delight. “There was not one moment of doubt or pessimism,” says Duncan. “We just charged on ahead. It’s sort of a reinvention, but on the other hand, it’s not really a huge change.”

“The first of November last year, it all came crashing down,” chuckles O’Bryant. “And now, The Nashville Bluegrass Band is back! And this is kind of a neat spin on ‘reinventing,’ to have Mike come back in and to have Dennis, who comes from a different place than our previous bass players.”

The “reinvented” group has already made headlines in Nashville. The group has been steadily appearing on The Grand Ole Opry in recent months. In the spring of 2001 the NBB took on the challenge of performing with Then Nashville Chamber Orchestra. Classical violinist Conni Elisor had composed a piece for the group that she titled “Whiskey Before Breakfast: Partitas for Chamber Orchestra and String Band.” The collaboration was performed at three concerts in Music City and taped for broadcast on National Public Radio.

“It was awkward at first, but it came together,” reports Enright. “In rehearsal, we had to draw chord charts. We had to memorize the piece and learn our cues. We’d never played with a conductor before, and that first show was real hard. After that, it got a lot easier. When everybody started to figure out the arrangements and actually began playing together, it started to come alive.”

That adventure is merely the latest example of the NBB’s willingness to experiment, to see “what’s next.” The group was initiallyformed to back Minnie Pearl and others on a 1984 package tour. But the NBB has also performed with Lyle Lovett and Mary Chapin Carpenter at a sold-out Carnegie Hall, and backed artists as diverse as Bernadette Peters and Clint Black in the studio. The group collaborated with Johnny Cash on the movie soundtrack Dead Man Walking. R.E.M. once hired the band to play for a private party. The Nashville Bluegrass Band also provided tunes for Wynonna Judd’s wedding reception.

Although as classic-sounding as any bluegrass group alive, the NBB’s repertoire is laced with blues tunes and songs from African-American gospel tradition, as well as material from the traditional bluegrass songbag. Irish singer Maura O’Connell and the black gospel quartet The Fairfield Four have both appeared on NBB recordings. The Nashville Bluegrass Band was the first bluegrass group to perform in the People’s Republic of China. It has also staged concerts in Egypt, Brazil, Crete, Bangladesh, Bahrain, Qatar, The Azores, Iraq, and Israel, not to mention Denmark, Germany, France, Ireland, Switzerland, Turkey, Japan, Italy, Spain and England.
It is one of the few bluegrass bands that’s had videos in heavy rotation on CMT. Its members are “on call” session musicians for Nashville’s mainstream stars. Its nine albums have virtually defined a modern bluegrass sound.

The Nashville Bluegrass Band initially recorded in 1985 with the Enright/O’Bryant/Compton/Hembree lineup. That was the album My Native Home. Duncan joined in time to record the follow-up, 1986’s Idle Hour. The gospel collection To Be His Child (1987) and the Peter Rowan collaboration New Moon Rising (1988) were also recorded with the Enright/O’Bryant/Compton/Duncan membership.

For 1990’s The Boys Are Back in Town, Compton and Hembree were replaced by White and Libbea. This configuration of The Nashville Bluegrass Band continued through Home of the Blues (1990), Waitin’ For The Hard Times to Go (1993), Unleashed (1995) and American Beauty (1998). The new/old lineup has now begun recording.

Along the journey, all five members have picked up individual accolades. Alan O’Bryant’s song “Those Memories of You” was recorded by Linda Rondstadt, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris to become a chart-topping country hit. Pat Enright became the yodeling voice of Tim Blake Nelson in O Brother Where Art Thou. Mike Compton is a mainstay in the band that is on screen in Down From The Mountain. Stuart Duncan ruled as the IBMA’s Fiddler of the Year for seven years, 1990-1996. He has also become a “first call” session musician, fiddling on discs by dozens of country superstars. Similarly, Dennis Crouch is now “the man to call” for upright bass by Nashville’s record producers. He is also the substitute bass player in the Grand Ole Opry staff band.

“I could be a full-time session musician,” says Duncan. “But it’s such a moving thing to be able to play music live for people. Plus, in recording sessions I don’t really get to play aggressive and hard, so this is more fun. I could take another job playing live with someone else if I wanted to. But I can’t think of any other band where I would get to play so close to the way I like to play old-time music.”

The band’s members come from all points on the compass. Mike Compton is from Mississippi. Pat Enright is from Indiana. Alan O’Bryant hails from North Carolina. Stuart Duncan is from California. And Dennis Crouch is from Arkansas. They’ve joined together under a name that salutes their adopted hometown to create an all-American sound. Their talents have been celebrated, literally, around the world. But their appeal is as basic as a small-town general store.

Says Stuart Duncan, “Stylistically, this band fits my perception of acoustic music closer than any other band I can think of. The Nashville Bluegrass Band is just incredible. I’ve never wavered in my love of playing with these guys. Throughout the years, it’s always been just plain good.”

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