MP3 Cuttin Grass - Out Standing in Their Field
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13 MP3 Songs
COUNTRY: Bluegrass, COUNTRY: Modern Country
Kind of Blue
Cuttin' Grass Ain't Afraid to Give Appalachian Bluegrass a Tint of Baltimore
Pickin' And Grinnin': Cuttin' Grass updates bluegrass' country roots for the 21st century.
Cuttin' Grass Musician page Baltimore City Paper
Bluegrass guitarist Jeff Hinson realizes he's a sore thumb in the mid-Atlantic music landscape. Singing and picking with his local ensemble, Cuttin' Grass, he knows that bluegrass isn't native to Baltimore, but he can't deny his roots. "I'm a hillbilly," he says. "But you can't make any money just living as a hillbilly. So I'm a hillbilly locked in the city."
Hinson has figured out how to market his hillbillyness, though. Onstage with Cuttin' Grass, he performs as "Jeff-ro." And he and band mate Tim Mitchell appeared as hillbillies in a local TV ad for Scott Donahoo's Foreign Motors car dealership.
Just don't assume Cuttin' Grass is the musical equivalent of Jeff Foxworthy comedy, a blue-collar shtick built around an air of authenticity. The quartet's recently released and self-produced debut, Out Standing in Their Field, reveals a bluegrass band that acknowledges its Appalachian roots while defining the form for itself. It's a sound the group has shaped out of prolific performances and outlined through its original songs, the result of taking bluegrass seriously but not trapping its sound in time.
Bluegrass' presence in Baltimore is a bit peculiar, but not inconsistent. Baltimore became home to West Virginia transplants looking for a safer career than coal mining circa World War II, and the city's shipyards and steel mills enticed folk with promises of plentiful industrial employment. And with their migration came their culture. Remnants of this wave are found in Ellicott City's live-music venue Friendly Inn and Catonsville's Appalachian Bluegrass music shop.
Cuttin' Grass essentially came out of Appalachian Bluegrass, where Hinson sells musical instruments and banjoist Mitchell gave lessons in three-finger (known as "Scruggs style," after banjo legend Carl Scruggs) banjo picking. But at first the band was all talk. "[Mitchell] and I spent a couple years running around going to bars and talking about forming a band," Hinson says.
The band started to gel when it landed mandolin player Charles Roe two years back. Roe had started as a guitar instructor at Appalachian Bluegrass and developed an interest in the mandolin. Shortly after Roe's recruitment, Hinson met bassist Billy Monroe at the Friendly Inn. ("While another group was playing, Billy was sitting there just charting out the bluegrass they were playing," Hinson says.) Hinson asked Monroe to sit in with them, and with that Cuttin' Grass was born.
And since the members of Cuttin' Grass come to bluegrass from all different angles, the group has developed a unique formula for both redefining standards and writing original tunes, one that honors the folksy tradition of singing about the world around them. Rather than belting out the Stanley Brothers' "I'll Meet You in Church Sunday Morning," as so many contemporary bluegrass bands do, Cuttin' Grass covers ZZ Top's "Sharp Dressed Man." Cuttin' Grass prefers to play secular traditionals like "Big Bug in My Beer" over sacred standards such as the Carter Family's "Keep on the Firing Line."
Secular songs are simply more representative of the world in which the band members live. "We have country roots," Hinson says, but when it comes to the bluegrass of 50 and 75 years ago, he notes, "We didn't live then. A song's got to remind me of something for us to cover it."
This attitude rolls over to their original tunes as well. Mitchell, whose family hails from West Virginia, is the group's chief writer. While his lyrical sense is sentimental like many country songwriters, his writing isn't hokey or abstract. Mitchell writes what he knows and uses simple images and sophisticated-and sometimes surprising-rhyme schemes. In "Grandpa Song," he writes, "When we were done with the work and all/ I'd go and fetch my bat and ball/ That's where he gave me my first chaw/ Of good ol' Red Man chew."
To augment the lyrics, he plays the banjo Scruggs style, which he learned from his family. The three-finger style lends itself to a more melodic banjo sound than the more common hammer-claw style. Mitchell-a fan of Count Basie-also uses Scruggs' technique of creating bluegrass melodies based on big-band tunes.
Monroe, who only started playing bluegrass two years ago, plays the role of Mitchell's editor, taking the raw material and honing it. The bass player says his father, also a musician, raised him "on Broadway and classical music," but he comes from a rock 'n' roll background. "It's nice to play in something that doesn't have drums," he says.
Monroe's ear is sharp, and after one listen to a song he often has suggestions for changes, a different arrangement, or other fine-tunings. "Billy knows all the possibilities of a song," Mitchell says. "Anything you do that's static, you're going to have to fight for it."
And just as bluegrass lives on the peripheries of Baltimore's musical pot, Cuttin' Grass lives in the fringes of the so-called scene. It has regular gigs at the Friendly Inn and at DeGroen's Grill in Little Italy. Onstage, Hinson appears to lead the band; he also books its gigs, manages the Web site, and sells the CDs. But beneath his John Deere hat, he defers all musical decisions to the other players, realizing that what makes Cuttin' Grass work isn't pure hillbilly, but what the musicians bring to the sound from their own backgrounds. "I'm the tree stump," he says. "I'm the one that holds it all together. As far as the music . . . well, they can cover all my mistakes."
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