Recently, I attended a house concert put on by Old Town House Concerts, which is to say, Ben Slocumb and his wife, Dianne Stober (who also happen to be the parents of Eli Slocumb—more on that later). The concert was by the duet of Grant Gordy & Ross Martin, who Dianne introduced as “world-class guitar masters.” I have to agree.
They performed songs from their new duet album Year of the Dog, and it was masterful! One quick anecdote: Grant introduced a song by saying they were going to do an old country song, and the country was Germany and it was old because it was composed in the 17th century! Yes, it was Bach! And they nailed it! As the liner notes say, “Searching for a balance between composed melodies and improvisation, Gordy and Martin’s repertoire ranges from fiddle tunes to jazz standards, original compositions to traditional hymns to Bach, each piece another paragraph in an ongoing musical conversation.”
You may have heard them play as part of a quartet at the Mid-Winter Festival a few years ago; if you did, you understand how beautifully intricate and intertwined their picking is. I loved every minute (minuet) of the house concert, and I highly recommend that you buy your own copy of their CD!
They were preceded on-stage by Eli Slocumb and Grace Kuch, a pair of youngsters who are exploring what it means to be musicians. I’ve written about Eli before, because he’s an amazing mandolin player who, at age 16, can easily hold his own with much more seasoned players. Yes, there’s natural talent involved there, but just as importantly, he has studied and practiced hard to achieve the level of expertise he exhibits. Grace (3 years younger than Eli), likewise, works hard at her craft. She started playing piano at age 4, but eventually got to the point where she wanted a change. Both Eli and Grace started playing bluegrass in the Laurel Elementary School’s Bluegrass Music program (where they met); they both started out playing fiddle because that was the “loaner” instrument most available, but both quickly gravitated to playing mandolin. The bluegrass program reignited Grace’s interest in music, “I didn’t like playing by myself,” she says.
They played in the elementary school’s bluegrass string orchestra, and got invited to play gigs with Lonesome Traveler (formerly a local bluegrass band that included Chad Fisher, the Laurel School Program’s instigator). Grace says, “It was a built-in community where you could play with people your own age. You could collaborate and keep up with others instead of just doing independent musical learning. With bluegrass, there were always others to play with.”
Three years ago, they formed a group with two others from the Laurel program and started playing shows for Chad Fisher, and in collaboration with Vincent Burkardt, a local KRFC DJ who promotes and encourages kids’ music with his mentoring and weekly radio program. By this time, Grace had switched to playing guitar and venturing into the blues genre, but maintained the connection to her bluegrass roots.
This group was invited to play with Chad’s Lineage Music Project band at the Mid-Winter Bluegrass Festival and at Avo’s Bluegrass Festival! It was a lot of fun, they say, but it turned out that not all the kids in the group had the same commitment to playing music—and the musical connection between Eli and Grace was very apparent, so the duet was born.
Eli has also transitioned into an “assistant instructor” at Laurel, helping Lydia Demi-Smith (who has taken the leadership reins from Chad), continuing with the program as an alumnus. Three years behind Eli, Grace uses Eli as a “learning model” because 3 years is a huge difference when you’re in middle school and high school. In answer to a question from the audience at the House Concert, Eli said that he and Grace “had known each other for a very long time, because, at their age, 7 years is a very long time!”
Now, Grace is more “into” blues. At age 13, she has two music lessons a week: one with Dave Jensen (formerly of Blue Grama), who teaches her the more technical and theoretical aspects of music, while “Jasco” (Jason Coombs of The Symbols, a band playing a fusion of blues, funk and “alt rock”) teaches her how to be efficient playing music. So, she’s getting both “why” and “how!” But the Eli/Grace duet is more than just bluegrass and the blues; they combine influences to perform what they call “bluesgrass.”
For her part, Grace says that Eli has always been a fast player, so playing with him “stretched” her in a way that was fun for her. “Bluegrass is typically on the front of the beat, whereas blues is on the back end of the beat.” Grace says she has always been “more laid back,” so playing with Eli has the two of them searching for balance.
For his part, Eli says that playing blues with Grace has “changed my bag of tricks.” He thinks his picking is now “more Grisman-like, more freeing, it has more room to do what you want.” Very jazzy, and something that Grant Gordy would relate to, since he left the Avo’s bluegrass jam as a teen (where I originally met him) and went out to California to play with “Dawg!”
Eli says he picked up playing the blues by listening to Jonny Lang, and translating that to mandolin. When asked how, he says, “I just did it.” Not content to just mix individual songs from the different genres in a show, the two of them are exploring the fusion of blues and bluegrass.
“An idea may seem great to you, but having another opinion is helpful,” Grace says. Not just to deny it, but also to modify it, transform it. Because they have been playing together for so long, Eli says they “are able to finish each others’ musical sentences.”
As Eli prepares to go off to college next year (he does intend to study music), Grace is still uncertain of what her future will be. Her father relates that, when she was only about 7, she offhandedly said she “wanted to be a waitress, or a musician.” So he told her, “By being one, you may be both.” Sly sense of humor, but it brings up what all musicians know: for all but a precious few, the life of a professional musician is hard. Nonetheless, hope springs eternal. But a dose of realism can help in planning for the future, because being in a band is not just about musicianship, it also has to do with other skills like business, marketing, sound and video—and mastering those skills will be helpful for self-promotion. “You can have more control if your quality level is high.”
Grace plans to play the summer festival season with her self-titled “full blues band,” with David Osborn (drums), Fab Dolegowski (bass), Kirk Perry (keyboard), Cody Landstrom (guitar), and, of course, Grace (vocals & guitar). They have played some of the premier festivals in the area this past year and look forward to another great summer of music.
Eli also has his own bluegrass band, Nice Hat Mister! It has evolved over the last couple of years, with different musicians (full disclosure: I now play with Eli in this band), but Eli is the band’s driving force. Nice Hat Mister played at this year’s Mid-Winter Bluegrass Festival, but it is the Eli/Grace Duet that have already performed as the opening act for Special Consensus at CBMS’ Bluegrass at the Audi seasonal grand finale. Additionally, Eli is currently in the studio recording a solo album. He’s getting help from a few musicians you may have heard of: Tyler Grant (guitar), Eric Thorin (bass), Dusty Rider (banjo), and Joe D’Esposito (fiddle); Aaron Youngberg is doing the recording (he also did the Gordy/Martin Duet album, by the way). Eli says it will draw from all his recent influences—jazz, blues, bluegrass—and “represent what I do, as a musician.” I’m looking forward to hearing it.
On a final note, the Eli/Grace duet also played at the 2017 Mid-Winter CBMS recognition ceremony, representing “upcoming artists.” After they played, Pete Wernick was heard to comment, “That wasn’t just some teenagers playing; that was good music!”