One of the hottest bands to catch fire in the world of bluegrass these days are The Grascals. So it’s no surprise then that one of the top up-and-coming fiddle players in all of bluegrass is The Grascals’ Jeremy Abshire. Even though Jeremy could be considered a hired gun, having been snagged from Dale Ann Bradley’s band to replace Jimmy Mattingly in spring 2008, the band never skipped a beat. Six albums, three of which hit #1 on the US Grass Charts, and multiple world tours and TV appearances later, their momentum has not diminished.
I first became aware of The Grascals and their fine music several years ago when I conducted an interview with guitarist Jamie Johnson upon the release of their self-titled debut album. The level of musicianship and songwriting/performing stood out –– significantly so –– from the plethora of post-“Oh Brother Where Art Thou?” bands flooding the market back then. I was impressed then, and I am still impressed by the professionalism, talent, and their ability to translate to the audience the sense that they genuinely enjoy what they are doing.
I had the pleasure to sit down with Jeremy Abshire and discuss all things pertaining to his fiddle prowess, The Grascals, odd adventures on the road, and more, including a potentially disastrous attack of a “killer” beetle. No, seriously.
How did you first start playing the fiddle? What was it about the fiddle that first attracted you?
Well, I was always exposed to good music around the house, and I was always excited about the fiddle playing. I used to re-wind tapes all the time, just to hear the fiddle break again. My grandfather brought a small fiddle home one day from the flea market. I have always felt very blessed because I had no clue how to play a fiddle. But, in the time it took my grandma to go to the grocery store that day, I had learned “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star,” and surprised her by playing it as she walked in the door. From there, I spent the next six months teaching myself by ear, re-winding tapes, and wearing out needles on the record player. That was my start. I think what attracted me to the fiddle was its voice. I remember how it felt listening to Kenny Baker, how it made me feel. I felt the same way listening to a symphony or watching the Boston pops on television with my grandpa… the first time I watched Itzak Perlman. It is such a vocal instrument, and no matter what type of music or style is being played on it, it has a voice, and each voice is different, never boring. I guess that was the attraction. I get bored easily, and I found the fiddle endless in terms of what you could learn to do with it. It’s like you can build a model car and get enjoyment from building it, but that’s it. Then, it just sits on a shelf. The enjoyment and reward from playing the fiddle is never-ending. You can never know it all. There’s always something new to learn. I still feel that way.
How did you first get involved with bluegrass music?
Well, starting out learning by ear I was exposed to a lot of good country music –– George Jones, Merle Haggard, Lefty Frizzell, just to name a few. I was always enamored with the steel guitar and the fiddle. Then, my grandfather started me in private lessons. My teacher, Roger Zahab, was also instrumental in shaping my bluegrass future. Not only did we play classical, but he wrote a lot of music and exposed me to New Age music, which sparked my interest in creativity and improvisation. My grandfather then started taking me to local jam sessions. They used to have a really great one at Quail Hollow State Park in Hartville, Ohio. They had three separate rooms to jam in –– bluegrass, folk, and Celtic. You could sit in any of the circles for as long as you wanted and switch out throughout the night. It was a lot of fun, and looking back, it was a tremendous tool in shaping my playing. Because I spent time in each of the circles, I think it opened my eyes to creativity, and not just what was written on the page, so to speak. This is what brought me to bluegrass. All the music I was exposed to, or studied, was all there in bluegrass. I heard feeling in the music, classical, country, Celtic sounds, old time; it was really what made me want to explore bluegrass. That was my first taste. After that, I met the person who is now one of my best friends and fellow musicians, Ron Bonkowski. From there, I can sum it up pretty quickly. He had a car and I didn’t. We both played and loved bluegrass, and he knew how to get to every bluegrass festival in the country. I think we logged a good 200,000 miles on that ol’ Dodge Omni. Best years of my life. And, the beginning of my epic adventure.
[For the rest of this interview, purchase the Summer 2012 issue.]
[Michael Lohr is a professional musician and music journalist. In addition to Fiddler, he also writes for Bluegrass Unlimited, Hittin’ the Note, Acoustic Guitar, Guitar World, and Celtic Life (Canada), and is a scribe for music magazines in England, France, Italy, and South Africa. He is an active voting member of several music organizations including the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America (SPBGMA), Folk Alliance International (FAI), Americana Music Association (AMA), Roots Music Association (RMA), and the Country Music Association (CMA).]