The working nature of a bluegrass band depends on many things. There is its loyalty to the music’s considerable tradition, along with a willingness to accept a few contemporary adjustments. Then comes an obvious attention to musicianship and the role it plays in creating an outgoing band spirit that ultimately sells the music. But there is also something less obvious, yet equally essential to career longevity — the ability to accept and adapt to a change in personnel.
Danny Roberts knows all of that, especially the latter. As of this spring, the mandolinist and Leitchfield native stands, along with bassist Terry Smith, as the last two remaining original members of the Grascals. But that’s fine with him. Over the past 15 years, he has watched the other co-founders depart for reasons refreshingly free of animosity, making them more like extended family members than simple band alumni. Roberts has also experienced how the introduction of new blood has continually helped freshen the band’s sound — one that owes heavily to country music but adheres to string music essentials.
Such a sensibility was enforced this spring when guitarist/vocalist Chris Davis was brought in to replace co-founding Grascal Terry Eldredge, who was retiring from the road. Did the exit of another original member give Roberts pause for thought on the band’s future? If it did, the reflection was brief. The realigned Grascals — which, aside from Smith, Davis and himself includes banjoist Kristin Scott Benson, fiddler Adam Haynes and vocalist/guitarist John Bryan — has already cut a new album and dived briskly into bluegrass festival season.
“All bands, as do all businesses, generally have an ebb and flow, the ups and downs,” Roberts said. “Fortunately for our band, things have mostly been on the rise. One of the things for us that we’ve been very lucky with is has been with these band member changes. The people that have come in to replace the originals have been really liked.
This week, the Grascals will bring its newest lineup to the Kentucky Castle for the Concerts at the Castle series. It’s the second season for the concert series at the landmark hotel and restaurant. Outdoor performances are staged on the roof (weather permitting) and lawn inside of the iconic Central Kentucky attraction visible from Versailles Road.
And while the Castle is a new venue for the band, it stands, as Roberts puts it, as a “mystical” place that many touring bluegrass artists know very well.
“I grew up in Leitchfield, so I’ve seen that castle my whole life. I can remember years ago, I drove up the driveway a little ways and thought, ‘Man, we better get out of here.’ You felt like somebody was going to start hurling fireballs over the wall at you.”
“It’s not just me, either. Everybody, even people not from Kentucky, know that place. So many musicians know it. You have to go past there when you’re traveling to play through Kentucky up to West Virginia. Everybody travels past there. That’s one of the things that adds extra excitement about getting to go there. The Castle has always been a topic of conversation for musicians. It’s been one for me all of my life.”
For $35 you can take in the show or for $95 you can do the concert and dinner at the castle. On the menu is pulled pork egg roll for an appetizer, a Cobb salad, beef tenderloin medallions or pistachio crusted salmon for dinner, served with sides of roasted garlic whipped potatoes and local stewed pole beans. For dessert there is a mini chocolate bundt cake.
The Grascals’ sound began to take shape when the original lineup toured as the backup band for a 2004 tour by Dolly Parton. While the collaboration came when the country star was promoting bluegrass leaning material, the country-bluegrass connection stayed with the Grascals. Its most recent album, 2017’s “Before Breakfast” embraces bluegrass tradition with a faithful rendering of the Flatt & Scruggs gospel staple “He Took Your Place.” But Roberts revealed the upcoming album with Davis will likely include a bluegrass-inspired take on “Drivin’ My Life Away,” a chart-topping country, as well as pop, hit for Eddie Rabbitt in 1980.
“I’ve always, in the back of my head, thought Eddie Rabbitt songs would make good bluegrass songs, but I’ve never heard anybody do one. So we were sitting there at one of the first shows we did with Chris and he said, ‘Guys, you ever thought about doing something like this? And he kicked off ‘Drivin’ My Life Away.’ Now we’ve recorded it and I think it’s going to be one of the most fun things we’ve done in a long time.”
When: 7:30 p.m. July 11
Where: The Kentucky Castle, 230 Pisgah Pike
Tickets: $35 (concert only), $95 (concert with 6 p.m. dinner)