POSTED ON APRIL 27, 2011:
Ready or Not, Red-dirt
Oklahoma bluegrass is growing fast
For some time now, folk music in Oklahoma has been largely represented by the rootsy Americana of a country-tinged sound called red-dirt. Now, a new version of another old music is sprouting up in the sooner state, thanks in large part to a relatively young Tulsa band called Grass Crack.
Grass Crack plays a kinetic blend of traditional bluegrass and high-energy -- almost punk -- rock music. The group has been together for almost a year, but its history goes back nearly a decade.
Ten years ago, Nathan Gray was one of the creators and stars of "Beef Baloney," a Tulsa cult comedy show that aired locally on Saturdays at midnight. Sean Stewart was a member of a popular hyper-bluegrass band called Podank. The two native Tulsans, both then in their early 20s, met at Mayfest.
"We were out there shooting videos for our show," Gray said. "Sean and his band were playing music in the street. We got to talking and they agreed to make our theme song for Beef Baloney."
"Stewart's band was successful, but eventually the years of touring had begun to take their toll."
"Podank traveled the American highways for eight years," Stewart said. "But when you live in a Suburban with five guys and a dog, eventually you have to stop."
When Podank called it quits, Stewart began playing music with Gray and long-time Tulsa punk guitarist Dan Riffe. The group found a bass player and played a few shows, but the music never really gelled. That's when Stewart remembered Ky Pebworth -- a rowdy young musician he'd come to know through various folk festivals.
"I'd been watching Ky grow up since he was 14 or 15 years old," Stewart said. "I had my eye on him. I always thought he was funny. He used to crack me up around the campsite. Once he got a bass, I thought, you know, one of these days this kid's gonna be our bass player. And sure enough, he did."
With a working lineup in place, the group needed a name. They settled on Grass Crack -- a play on the word bluegrass, but with a street sensibility not typical of the folksy genre.
"People make a big deal out of our name," Stewart said. "They get so hung up on the word 'crack' that they don't get why we're called that. It's because bluegrass is addictive. It's the legal alternative. We're essentially street performers, so we're selling our 'crack' on the street corner."
The band recorded a demo entitled Flip Flops & Socks in Stewart's garage. They've since recorded a nearly all-original full-length album, ... And The Dirt Came Out, at Songsmith Studios in Broken Arrow. It's available at shows.
Grass Crack's live performances are as exciting as any good rock show, but have a homespun and family-friendly feel that would appeal to just about anyone with a pulse. The group's four members huddle around one or two microphones, briskly strumming their acoustic instruments while effortlessly singing three- and sometimes four-part harmonies. The band is tight, even though they don't have typical practice sessions.
"We decided if we're going to practice, let's not do it in someone's garage." Gray said.
So, the group plays most Saturdays at the Tulsa Flea Market where guitarist Dan Riffe sells books.
"We'll just play there and make a few bucks while we're at it," Stewart said. "It sounds funny, but all the coolest people we've met and the most promising gigs we've got coming up have all come from the flea market."
The next of those shows is this Saturday, April 30, at a Bluegrass Festival in Weston, Missouri.
"They've got us listed as 'Cracked Grass,' Gray said. "They said it's because it's a family festival, but I don't really get what's so un-family-friendly about our name. A friend in Ireland told us that, in his country, 'crack' means fun or merriment -- like, 'let's go have some crack tonight!' So I don't know ... "
The band's also set to perform on the main stage of Tulsa's upcoming Blue Dome Arts Festival and at the Backwoods Bash, Memorial Day weekend at Keystone Lake.
As for the future, Stewart says his band wants what all bands want -- to play for as many people as possible, and to convert them to their sound.
"I like when people come up to me and say 'My parents made me listen to bluegrass as a kid. I hated it and never understood why they wanted me to listen to it, But after hearing you guys, now I understand.'"
It's an understanding more people will no doubt come to as Grass Crack's unique blend of bluegrass spreads like a weed through the red-dirt of Oklahoma's rich musical landscape.
For more information, visit facebook.com/grasscrack.
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