By Jeff Wall
Try to imagine this. It's late April in North Carolina. You are in Wilkesboro at Merlefest, the big Bluegrass Festival held every year in memory of the late guitar picker Merle Watson. It's two a.m. and you've stumble d up to a campfire to hear some hot picking. You look around and see that the pickers are none other than Bluegrass Music Legends Doc Watson, Mac Wiseman, and Del McCoury along with the rest of the Del McCoury Band and they are flat tearing it up! As you sit around the fire listening to the Greats you notice a light in the sky. And the light is getting closer. The picking stops and everyone stares at the light which has turned into a spaceship of some sort, and it's headed straight for you!!! The space sh ip lands in the field alongside and a ramp deploys from the side. Are these the little green men? Visitors from another galaxy? the door opens and everyone strains to see who it is coming down the ramp. It's a tall Black man with a bass shaped like a star .
"Ahhhh, It's Bootsy, baby!'" you hear as he heads down the ramp. This creature walks up to the fire and says: "I was just cruising around in the Mothership and I heard the music. I hope y'all don't mind if I drop in and jam with you for a while. "
The music starts up again sounding like Bluegrass at first, but then something strange happens. Bootsy begins laying down a funk groove and suddenly it's not Bluegrass anymore. And its not Funk. It's a combination of the two. "Ah it's Groovegra ss Baby" hollers Bootsy again as they all launch into "Blue Moon of Kentucky."
This is unlike anything you have ever heard before! It's Bluegrass, It's Funk, it's Dance music. It's wild and it's good! Mighty fine! Mighty fine indeed! You and the r est of the crowd can't help but to get up and start dancing around the fire.
Science Fiction? A bad Tequila nightmare? Well, maybe the flying saucer part. But the rest is true. Doc Watson, Mac Wiseman, and the Del McCoury Band have all just finish ed making an album with Bootsy Collins. Part Bluegrass, part Funk, its called Groovegrass. And it's not a novelty album either. This is a serious album, and it is seriously fun.
Doc Watson, Mac Wiseman, and Del McCoury are all three legends of Blu egrass Music. At one time or another, each has been a member of, or recorded with, the legendary Father of Bluegrass Music's band, Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys. Individually they've won some Grammies, IBMA awards, and sold millions of albums.
Bootsy Collins invented the Funk. Starting out as a member of James Browns band, he revolutionized The Hardest Working Man in Show Business's sound. He later went on to form Parliament/Funkadelic with fellow visionary George Clinton.
Two groups o f people, from two completely different musical backgrounds. What brought them together? What made it work?
Scott Rouse is the brainchild behind Groovegrass. Rouse, 34, was raised on Bluegrass. His father, Dr Jim Rouse, got to be friends with flatpi cking guitar wizard Arthel "Doc" Watson through the picking parties held by Gallager Guitars in Wartrace, Tennessee.
"I've known Doc since I was six years old. I've been to every MerleFest since the first one. That's how I got to know Mac and the McCoury's" said Rouse.
In High School, Rouse listened to Bluegrass, Van Halen, Parliament/Funkadelic, and Dance Music. "Anything with a lot of energy in it. "I prefer traditional music, but I like to experiment as well"
While attending the Berklee school of music in Boston, Rouse had two roommates who were Funk and R&B producers. Through them he gained exposure into producing and R&B. "I went to Berklee to become a sessions musician. Then I started getting all these gigs and was skipping cl asses. My counselor told me I was already doing what I came to the school to do, so why bother? So I dropped out. I would do sessions work in Boston and New York and end up re-arranging the entire thing. After a while, I started getting gigs as a musician and as a co-arranger." When asked what he played on and produced, Rouse says humbly "You haven't heard any of it before. Dance stuff, pop stuff, and some rock and roll. Nothing there to brag about."
When asked about where Groovegrass got it's begi nnings, Rouse says, "I've been doing it for about 15 years. When I was doing all that session work, I Äwas basically playing bluegrass licks on an electric guitar. I got toreally missing bluegrass bad about this time. So when I had some free time in the studio, I would record some songs. 'Deep River Blues,' 'I Wonder How the Old Folks Are at Home,' and that kind of stuff. But then I was trying to figure out how to get people who have never listened to bluegrass to listen to it. So I got the idea to m ix dance stuff on top of it. I'd take these acetate records I had made and give them to Djs in the dance clubs in Boston and people really dug it! I went into a club one night and the Dj asked me if I had any more of that Groovegrass stuff. The name just stuck."
On a trip back home Rouse was talking to his father and Doc Watson about his future plans. "I was making good money doing this dance and funk stuff, But I really missed the Bluegrass. I was trying to decide in which direction to go"
His father told him "Why not do both?"
"Dad and Doc told me to move to Nashville and keep on pursuing the Groovegrass thing. So that's what I did. I moved to Nashville and got thrown out of the office of every major label head in town. Every ti me I brought up the Groovegrass idea, people would laugh. Eventually I talked Warner Brothers into letting me do a Dance Mix for a country record. We decided to do a Dance Mix of 'Swingin',' which had been a hit for John Anderson twelve years ago or more. So we got hold of the masters and I went into the studio and did it. Warner Brothers was ecstatic. Nobody had done anything like this before. Right about this time, John Anderson had just changed labels and was trying to revamp his image, and was tryin g to get away from that whole 'Swingin'' thing. He asked Warner Brothers not to release it and they didn't. But somehow, someone got hold of a DAT tape of the song and suddenly everybody in town had a copy. It caught on at the local Dance Clubs and before you know it, every Dance Club in America had a copy. Now that people had some kind of idea of what I was trying to do, Suddenly everyone wanted Dance Mixes. So that was my break into the Music Business in Nashville."
And he has been successful at it. Rouse is the one behind Jeff Foxworthy and Bill Engvall's success. "Warner Brothers came to me and said, we have this comedy artist that we don't know what do with. Jeff was doing pretty good for a comedian, but comedy records don't really sell. So we set one of his routines to music and the thing just took off for him. I'm really tickled too. Jeff's a great guy and just funny as hell, but I'm really not into doing that stuff anymore. I would rather be doing the Groovegrass."
With this kind of success behind his belt, Rouse went back to work on the Groovegrass idea. "I told Mac, Doc, and Del kind of what I had planned and they dug it. So in between doing studio work for other people, we would all get together and work on the Groovegrass Boyz. I wanted to get Bootsy involved because I had always dug what he had been doing, so I sent him a copy of some stuff I had been playing around with and he loved it. Bootsy saw it as an entirely new form of music. An extension of the same thing that he and George Clinton had done. Inventing Funk while still respecting and paying homage to R&B and Soul."
"The first Groovegrass project that we released was an EP of the Osborne Brothers' 'Rocky Top' on Decca. We did a Radio mix, a Dance Mix, an Internat ional Competition Mix, and then we made sure that the original version of the song was put on the disc. You see, the whole purpose behind the thing was to expose the kids to Bluegrass. Hopefully they would hear the Dance Mix, then go buy the single, hear the original, and want to find out more about the guys who did this."
When asked if it worked, Sonny Osborne is quick to exclaim "Hell Yes it worked! We sold a bunch of those things! Something like 100,000 or so copies all over the world."
100 thousand copies of a Bluegrass record? That's almost unheard of in the Bluegrass industry. "Bluegrass fans are super loyal, but they don't spend money. Del has been in the business for 30 or 40 years and still drives his own bus." says Rouse, "These guys don't play bluegrass to get rich. They play bluegrass because it's in their heart and soul. Any of these guys, Doc, Del, or Mac could be Country Artists, but they would rather play Bluegrass, do the festival circuit and play for the fans."
La st year the Macerena craze hit. So the Groovegrass Boys decided to do a version. "Ronnie and I were sitting around and heard the original version and told each other that we could do that, and do it better. So we goteverybody together and cut it one night ." says Rouse, "I had talked to Roy Wunch over at Imprint Records about the Groovegrass Boyz and he was behind us all the way. They released the single for us and it sold about 100,000 copies as well."
And now the Groovegrass Boyz album is finishe d. And it's something else. "This is not a novelty record", says Rouse. "This is serious music. It's not Bluegrass, although Bluegrass is at the heart of it all. We wanted to be able to turn other people on to Bluegrass music while at the same time doing something new and different."
"Originally we were going to release it on Imprint, the same label that did the Macerena for us. Then Imprint decided to get out of the music business so they could concentrate more on their film and television work. Roy Wunch called me up and asked me what I thought about what was happening. He told me that they were still willing to handle the Groovegrass project for us if we wanted them to, or we could take it somewhere else if that made us more comfortable."
So the decision was made to form their own label. They put up a website. "We are on the Internet. Right after we released the Macarena, I started getting all kinds of e-mail from people wanting to know more about the entire Groovegrass thing. The suppor t from all the Bluegrass fans was phenomenal. So we decided to make a limited run of 2500 copies of the new disc, we added some special artwork and when they're gone, they're gone. There won't be any more made. We decided to sell them for $18 a piece, $1 1 dollars with the coupon, and that covers the shipping and handling. We also decided to donate a dollar from each disc sold to the Roy Husky Jr Memorial Cancer Fund."
When asked about the record deal, Rouse responded, "We have been in negotiation s with several record labels for a distribution deal. My main concern is that the pickers involved get paid. We didn't have any production budget so to speak, when there was time available in the studio, I would call everybody up to come in and work. Ther e were several times I would call Ronnie McCoury or Jason Carter up at two a.m. and tell them I needed them to come in and lay down a track, and these guys would get up out ofbed and come in and go right to work. They were on call 24 hours a day. and for that they deserve to get a piece of the royalties."
There are ten tracks on the Groovegrass Boyz CD. Four are Groovegrass versions of traditional Bluegrass tunes; "Salty Dawg," "Uncle Pen," "Can't You Hear Me Calling," and "Groovegrass Girlz." "I h ad some time open up in the studio, so I called everybody up and told them we needed to do another song for the album. Del asked me what we were going to do and I told him I had no idea, we'd just write something when everyone got here. So we took the so ng 'Buffalo Girls' and changed it up a bit and made it into 'Groovegrass Girlz.' Del had never seen the verse that we had for him until it was his turn to sing. That was done as live as we could get it."
Also on the disc is a dance number based o n the "Chicken Reel" called "Barnyard Stomp," as well as the "Macerena," and a clawhammer and Groovegrass version of the Lynyrd Skynyrd song "Mississippi Kid." "Mac and I were out at this picking party here in Nashville. It's pretty late and most everyone was heading home, when up comes this guy named Leroy Troy and started doing the most amazing Uncle Dave Macon kind of thing. All the guys said "Rouse, we got to have this guy on the disc", I told everybody, but "But it's too late, the record's almost fin ished." "We don't care! We got to have him!" So Leroy showed up with his banjo and did this number and just smoked it."
There are also three traditional Bluegrass tunes, "I Feel The Blues Moving In" and "White House Blues" by the Del McCoury Ban d, and, at 7:15 into track ten is a wonderful version of "The Old Account" by Mac, Del, and Doc.
Other than Bootsy Collins on a couple of tracks all the musicians on the Groovegrass Boyz disc are full time bluegrass musicians. Mac Wiseman, Doc Wa tson, Ronnie, Rob, and Del McCoury, Jason Carter, and Mike Bub from the Del McCoury Band. Clawhammer Banjo player Leroy Troy. and Gene Wooten and Terry Eldridge from the Osborne Brothers, Long time Doc Watson sideman Jack Lawrence, and Flatpicker Steve K aufman. And of course Scott Rouse.
It's a surprisingly good album. A mixture of Bluegrass and funk that is made into something new, exciting, and fresh. As Bootsy says "Ahhh it's Groovegrass baby". We are going to see more of the Groovegrass. And I for one am excited.
In closing Rouse had this to say; "Remember, we're not trying to change Bluegrass, we're just trying to get it to a generation that doesn't know it exists. Give a civilian a Carter Family CD."
PO Box 121979
Nashville, Tn 37212
Visit the Groovegrass Website at: http://www.groovegrass.com
Copyright 1997-1998 by Jeff Wall