From Gray Sky to Greensky

Greensky Bluegrass found success through heavy touring and embracing its “Midwestern Jamgrass” niche

click to enlarge After thriving in its Michigan hometown’s supportive music scene, Greensky Bluegrass began to tour relentlessly, gradually becoming a big draw across the country with its distinctive brand of Jamgrass.
After thriving in its Michigan hometown’s supportive music scene, Greensky Bluegrass began to tour relentlessly, gradually becoming a big draw across the country with its distinctive brand of Jamgrass.

W

e often hear about things like the Punk revival and the endless offshoots it’s spawned. Or we find an article about the rebirth of Hip Hop and how its true culture never died. But what we don’t see or hear about quite as often is Bluegrass spinoffs like Midwestern Jamgrass. The reason, perhaps, is that many might beg the question — is that a thing?

That offshoot does exist, and the five-man phenomenon Greensky Bluegrass stands at the forefront of the genre, representing the epitome of a band that paid its dues on a continuous stretch of highway to build a dream.

Greensky began as a pickin’ session between guitarist Dave Bruzza and banjoist Michael Bont in the early 2000s. Soon joined by mandolin player Paul Hoffman, the trio developed its Bluegrass foundation as musicians together, drawing inspiration from the likes of Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, The Grateful Dead and Phish. The musicians spent their formative years unplugged, shredding at house parties and open mics. By the time Mike Devol, a former Classical cellist, started playing bass with the trio in 2004, the group had an album’s worth of original music ready.

As the group started to build its way out of the open mics in its hometown of Kalamazoo, Mich., a loyal fan base began to manifest, supporting the band’s stage explorations and allowing the musicians to develop their unique method of improvisation.

“Rehearsals were spent mostly on song development, and as a result, our jamming kind of had to develop on stage through trial and error,” Devol says. “We played a lot of shows for a lot of years, so it’s almost like we spent more time performing than we spent rehearsing.”

Obvious by the reaction audiences had to their sound, Greensky had something good going from the start.

“For a while I think we were the only band doing what we were doing,” Devol says.

But while this may be what helped draw the fans, Devol attributes a lot of significance to Kalamazoo’s music community as well.

“Bands weren’t so much in competition as they were in cahoots, supporting each other, calling each other out to open for each other. That’s a lot of what we experienced in Michigan,” he says. “Throughout the state, there were a lot of bands that we would play with at festivals all summer, and they would come to Kalamazoo and play and we came through their town. It was that community of opening for each other and giving each other opportunities and press, pushing each other toward success.”

In 2006, the band completed its lineup with the addition of Dobro player Anders Beck. When Greensky started seriously touring, it was with relentless vigor, playing upward of 150 shows a year and developing a heavy and rising presence on the summer festival circuit. But as they began to mix into a scene that included already successful Jam-oriented Bluegrass acts such as Leftover Salmon and Yonder Mountain String Band, a niche became more important than ever. Enter Midwestern Jamgrass.

“For a while I’ve thought (our style) was because of where we’re from. When you listen to Yonder, they sound like Colorado. When you listen to Salmon, they sound like Colorado. They all live in Colorado, so their songs are about mountains and skiing,” Devol says. “If we were writing about any of that we’d just be lying. We came from the Midwest where it’s gray. We weren’t submerged in that Bluegrass culture that all those bands came up in, and I think the fact that we aren’t Bluegrass purists — we weren’t raised in North Carolina learning to pick the rat way — has helped us develop our own sound. We’re trying to put on a Rock show, not a Bluegrass show.”

Drawing these new lines in the sand for themselves and diverting from the tried-and-true Bluegrass method worked. Greensky is now riding high on the heels of a nationally distributed album, If Sorrows Swim, and on tour the band is drawing serious crowds at almost every stop.

“Now we pull 800 people in like Des Moines, where there used to be no one, even when we were already pulling 1,000 in Colorado,” Devol says. “Now we have a crew and lights and a tour bus. It’s become this loud thing that’s bigger than Bluegrass, but different from Rock.”

Greensky is the classic story of a band that started in a small town and didn’t blow up, but built up. Through dedication and tireless devotion, the musicians achieved something for which most bands strive. But with success, questions of “Where do we go from here?” can become more difficult. And as the musicians grow older, it’s only natural that they might move apart for “real-life” reasons — currently, Bont is the only member who still lives in Kalamazoo.

“The answer becomes a little complicated because we don’t really live there anymore, but when people ask where we’re from the answer is still Kalamazoo, Mich.,” Devol says. “That’s where we were born as a band. That’s where we grew up as a band. You can’t really trade those experiences for anything.

“You go through a lot of music careers waiting for your big (break) or to achieve some level of success, and then when you get somewhere that feels good, you want to continue to grow,” he continues. “But it’s also about sustainability. It’s about figuring out how to play enough, but not too much, and figuring out how to pick the right gigs and say no to others. We all really love our job and we really love each other, but we also have to learn to figure out our own lives and our own worlds. When you’re a young band you just go for it, you have nothing to lose, but we’ve reached a certain level where we do have something to lose.”

But while that may mean easing off its intense road-warrior lifestyle, it doesn’t mean Greensky is slowing down creatively. The band has plans to head into the studio this fall and winter to record another album, and its fall tour is just beginning. Devol says the band is very excited for the autumn trek, after coming off of a heavy festival run this summer.

“Festival season is great for all the reasons that it is, but by this time of year… we really get in stride, in rhythm,” he says “We have a soundcheck every day, and we play two sets and an encore, every night. So it’s exciting after festivals, where we just show up and play, to get back in theaters and in the tour bus. It gives us a chance to pick up one day where we left off the day before. (Touring) is where the music really grows and thrives, and it’s fun.”


GREENSKY BLUEGRASS plays Thursday at Oakley’s 20th Century Theater. Tickets/more info: the20thcenturytheatre.com


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