Hallelujah I’m Ready
With 39 years of practice, David Grier’s ’grassy clatter is unmatched
Local songwriter Matt Urmy keeps his on a leash, or vice-versa
by Kevin Crowe
David Grier has a delightful southern twang, the kind of voice that might turn a few citified heads when it gets going full speed. “What’s to worry about?” his voice comes out quick, like a good fiddle lick, clean and fresh as a Vassar Clements tune.
The International Bluegrass Association has voted him “Best Guitar Player of the Year,” and they’ve done it more than once. He’s won Grammies for True Life Blues: A Tribute to Bill Monroe and The Great Dobro Sessions . His name appeared in the book 1,000 Great Guitarists . And his tunes on the Lone Soldier project were named among Acoustic Guitar Magazine’s “100 Essential Acoustic Recordings of all Time.” Still, there’s something humble about his voice. He’s still a front porch prophet, playing the songs that best fit his mood.
“It’s matured,” Grier says about his sound. “I’ve been playing for 39 years.”
Here, “matured” could be read as shorthand for become blindingly intricate , because the songs on his most recent solo album, I‘ve Got the House to Myself , are absurdly complex. Nevertheless, Grier plays each number without missing a step, never foregoing an opportunity to add layer upon layer of sound. Sometimes it’s packed so tight that the notes bleed together, the musical equivalent of the uncertainty principle.
You’ll often hear the base chords clearly, when he begins to build up, bringing in some dexterous crosspicking as he hammers the bass strings with the pick, while the treble strings are played with the middle- and ring-fingers. His fingerwork is like lightning, featherstitching the notes—ever so delicately—into a dizzying tapestry that probably wouldn’t fit on sheet music. That is, if you really wanted to read each individual note.
“I haven’t really studied it that much,” Grier says of his fingerwork. “Whatever gets the sound out, I’ll do that. I’m just trying to make music the best I can. I don’t know how to describe it, the way I hear things and play them.”
He plays an interpretation of “Sally Gooden,” one of those old, ubiquitous fiddle tunes that has been played to death by just about every old-timer, from Eck Robertson to Mel Bay. But when Grier plays it, those familiar notes come screaming out of his guitar, like a powerful disentanglement. Like a geyser, soundwaves blasting into decrescendo, as if the notes are finding the balance between pure chaos and controlled minimalism. Grier orchestrates it all, slowly relieving the pressure as the song comes to an end.
The process can be cathartic, if you can hang on long enough.
“Music affects me differently. It all depends—if I’m in a good mood,” he explains, “the music can change my mood. If I’m feeling melancholy, it comes out in my playing…. There are places, not any places that I can suggest. It registers somewhere, and when I’m playing, it’ll come out. It’ll lean a certain way. You just go with the flow. You don’t force it to be something it’s not.
“It’s just a continuation of the growth.”
He’s been a part of that growth since he was a child, back when he could be found hanging backstage at the Grand Ole Opry, learning from the greats, such as Bill Monroe. Those early lessons weren’t lost on the youngster. “It was just a cool experience,” Grier says, quite matter-of-factly. “It was the best. That’s the way to learn, to hang.”
Back then Grier’s father was playing banjo for bluegrass shamans like Monroe, and he’d take his son along for the ride, and the elder Grier began giving guitar pointers to his 6-year-old son. It was the ’60s; strange new sounds were being conjured out of guitars like magic. The sounds were coming all around them. Now, with his 1946 Martin D-28, Grier has tapped into a style that’s able finds inspiration from within. You could call it Zen, but that’s not really appropriate. World-class, that’s the sound.
Sounds like his father was right, there’s still no end to the guitar’s possibility.
“There’s a lot of freedom,” Grier says of his solo sets. “It’s a lot cooler in some respects. There’re no arrangements. It’s like, ‘I feel like doing this today.’ And that’s what’ll happen.” And he’ll keep playing what happens, never forcing it. Just let it flow.
“I have no idea where bluegrass is going,” he says, then pauses. “I don’t care either.”
Who: David Grier
My Pet Muse
by Leslie Wylie
Muses can be fickle entities. They have a tendency to come and go at will, leaving us stranded at critical moments, reappearing when we least expect them.
Talking with local poet/songwriter Matt Urmy, one gets the impression that he’s devoted years of his life to chasing the squirmy little buggers around. He’s sought them out in people and places, and upon each hard-won confrontation, done his best to do them justice on the page or in song.
But creative inspiration, as he now understands it, is not so much a chase as it is a surrender to something that’s already inside you. It’s a dialogue between different components of your own self, some of which may extend beyond yourself or what you’re in control of, contributing to the muse’s reputation as a willful, amorphous force. “But once you engage it, inspiration, it’ll come back to you,” Urmy says. “And it’ll tell you what it wants and kind of lead you where it wants to go.”
By extension, one might suppose Urmy’s own muses are a bit pushy or demanding; or maybe the prolific artist, who’s preparing to release his third album of the year and is already halfway into a fourth, is just a good listener. “I’m constantly writing in my head,” he says. “As weird as my memory is—I’ll lock my keys in my car daily, and leave the stove on for four hours at a time—I do have a memory that when I walk around and I see something, it’ll stick with me, and I’ll remember what it was that came to my head in the form of lines or melody.”
Urmy is a poet as well as a songwriter, a soon-to-be grad student in UT’s creative writing program. While the two crafts are related in some ways, Urmy says there’s no set pattern that dictates whether his inspirations take shape as music or language. “When I get home, it’s just a matter of whether I sit down with a guitar and it comes back to me then or if I sit down in front of the computer and it comes to me,” he explains. “They’re very different experiences on my end of things, for sure. One revolves more around storytelling, which is the songwriting, looking all around me for stories, whereas poetry is a lot more abstract in a lot of ways.”
Urmy’s latest release, Shadow of a Lovely Place , is something of a combination of the two. Lyrically, it travels from vignette to vignette, some grounded in observation, some in memory, and seeks out their equivalent in music, with the help of guest musicians Peter Bryan on drums, Tom Pryor on pedal steel and electric guitar, Tim Reagan on keyboards and acoustic guitar, and Seth Hopper on violin. Jen Rock and Jonathan Sexton contribute vocals on a couple of tracks as well. “This record came really hard, really fast,” Urmy says. “I wrote it in a matter of weeks and recorded it in a matter of days.”
Shadow is a departure from his last two albums, Helpless Fool and In Between States , which Urmy released simultaneously early this year. Then again, the latter two albums—one being a smoke-stained confessional, the other an otherworldly lullaby—hardly resemble one other, either. But Urmy doesn’t ask questions: He attributes the differing musical dialects to different aspects of himself.
“It’s gotten to the point where I write the songs I have to write, and I release the songs I have to release,” he says. Helpless Fool , for instance, was an album that had been accumulating, lingering, for years. “I just gathered these songs together and said OK, I don’t care what it sounds like, it’s important that I get this record done so I can seal it off and move on from these songs, because they were hanging on me like albatrosses.”
Shadow is inspired by a new set of life experiences: his recent foray into fatherhood, a rebalancing of close relationships, and a new, often sobering job at Fort Sanders Hospital. There’s a darkness to the new album, but refreshingly, Urmy seems somehow non-judgmental of it. He lets the images speak for themselves rather than trying to make sense of them with words or major-chord resolutions.
“ Shadow is all about what’s coming in and what’s going out, being right there together and holding hands and kind of feeling it all at the same time, and finding your path,” he explains.
When asked if he’s ever scared the muse will leave him, or lose its intensity, Urmy shakes his head. “I just want to be able to get as good at my craft as I can get, be as honest with it as I can, and then let it be what it is, move on to the next one,” he explains. Before leaving, Urmy pulls a scrap of paper out of his bag, a poem. Maybe he figures that, even though it’s just over 20 words long, it offers a better explanation than anything he’s tried to articulate in conversation.
a dream took away my sleep
a small flame
and a vision tightly
For all their surliness, muses do have a way with words.
What: Matt Urmy CD Release Show w/ Reginald Bradley (also catch him at WDVX’s Blue Plate Special at noon)