Anna Kline knew she had found the right name for the bluegrass-and-more project that she was assembling with John Looney when she came across a 1964 album by that most revered of bluegrass pioneers, James Brown.
It was called “Grits and Soul.”
“I was in a record store in Mississippi and found that album,” she said. “I thought, ‘Oh my God, that is such a great name.’ It reflects a lot of things about us. We’re both very Southern to the core, but it also gives us a little leeway, a little artistic license to explore a few different things musically.”
Admittedly, one shouldn’t expect to hear “Cold Sweat” or “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” in a Grits & Soul show anytime soon. The duo’s music is rooted in string sounds and traditions that lean heavily toward bluegrass vocal harmony and instrumentation (Kline plays guitar, Looney favors mandolin). Grits & Soul also devoted itself so completely to forging a niche of its own that it moved from Mount Sterling to Asheville, N.C. — one of the country’s hotbeds for traditional and progressive bluegrass — for five years.
“I was getting back into playing mandolin and acoustic music in general,” Looney said. “Asheville is a great place for that. There is the tradition of mountain music, traditional fiddle music and bluegrass. It’s a hub for all of that. It was also just a great place to learn and meet some of the older musicians. Down there I got to play with some of those old fiddlers and older musicians that have been playing for 50-plus years. It was great.”
Moving back to Mount Sterling in 2016 (Looney, a Virginia native, grew up there, and Kline hails from Mississippi) has opened up the duo to pursuing a touch more of the soul side. Grits & Soul expanded into a full electric band over Memorial Day weekend to perform a tribute show to The Band at The Burl.
“I’m from Mississippi, right around Memphis,” Kline said. “I grew up on blues and gospel. So we’ve taken a different approach to the new music we’re writing and just gave ourselves a little bit of time and space to explore some different things. The electric band was part of that because we wanted to just do something different than what we had.
“We played a lot, and I mean a ton, of acoustic music festivals. It was a little funny because over the years, we would go play at bluegrass festivals but it seemed we weren’t traditional enough for them. Then we would play country or Americana festivals and they’ll say, ‘Wow, you sound really traditional. So we straddled the line there for a while.”
Said Looney: “We’ve been on a big Little Feat jag lately. I love that band and a lot of those funky ’70s artists: Leon Russell, Little Feat and things like that Elton John album, ‘Tumbleweed Connection.’ Plus, I’ve always listened to a lot of Grateful Dead.”
How much the reconstituted electric infatuation plays out in future Grits & Soul music is something Kline and Looney are contemplating. For its Saturday afternoon set at Crave Lexington Food + Music Festival, Grits & Soul will remain on familiar turf, with a bluegrass and country sound built around two voices and two instruments.
National audiences got a literal taste of the duo’s music last week, when Kline and Looney were featured on an episode of the Travel Channel program “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern,” highlighting the Daniel Boone Wilderness Trail through Virginia, Tennessee and Kentucky.
“That was so much fun,” Looney said. “We got an email out of the blue one day from The Travel Channel asking if we wanted to play music on the show. I was like, ‘Of course. That’s one of my favorite shows.’ I’ve seen that guy (Zimmern) eat everything.”