April 12, 2003 The Spark

Goth meets twang in Blackgrass

By Paige M. Travis

The banjo can be such a happy instrument, but in the hands of Joshua Hall, the plucky instrument turns dark and brooding. This haunting gypsy sound pervades 13, the debut CD by local band Blackgrass. Hall is accompanied by Christian Lange on violin, Roman Karpynec on drums and percussion and Scott Trowbridge on lead vocals, guitar, bass and cello. Trowbridge’s voice is reminiscent of Bryan Ferry – a rich, lowend monotone that blends with, and drives, the foreboding tone of the songs. The result of their deep voices and moody instrumentation is comparable to the band Sixteen Horsepower, although in Blackgrass’ case, hellfire and damnation don’t dominate the lyrics. But faith and spirituality are addressed in these songs, as the reverent tones suggest. Beginning with the disc’s first song, the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger,” the lyrics touch upon the themes of loss and salvation. And a few Knoxville landmarks even get a mention on “Big House Blues” - - “Scarecrows looking at the city streets, not so much birds are tryin’ to eat our seeds, but you never know who or what’s coming your way a mile from Magnolia just off Broadway.” Like the sound of the songs themselves, the disc’s artistic design treads the line between medieval religious (with woodblock prints of monk-types and alchemists) and goth (weeping baby heads with butterfly wings). It’s kind of freaky, but so is the music, so it all fits together. The concept of Blackgrass (beginning with the band’s name and carrying through the music, CD packaging and promo materials) is so fully, and impressively, realized. This is the kind of product major labels are always creating, but it’s inspiring when a band makes it happen on their own, when you can just tell that this was their vision not some pre-packaged notion. Nothing about Blackgrass seems accidental, but it all seems genuine. The band will officially release 13 at a performance 9p.m. Saturday, April 26, at Preservation Pub.

June 12, 2003 Metro Pulse

Banjos Aren’t Just for Bluegrass

by Patrick Corcoran

A photographer, a hospital orderly, a social worker, and an actor walk into a bar....

While this may sound like the open­ing to an excruciatingly bad joke, that somewhat oddly matched foursome is the foundation of Blackgrass, one of Knoxville’s more unusual musical outfits. The band walked into a bar together in April to cele­brate the release of its debut album, Thirteen, and is slated to play next at Barley’s June 14. Lead singer Scott Trow­bridge, a social worker by day, labels his band banjo rockers. Blackgrass formed out of the remains of Sunday School, a group that included both Trowbridge and drummer Roman Karpynec, who is an actor and filmmaker. Following that band’s breakup, Scott said he searched Knoxville’s music scene for a musician interested in playing in a banjo or accordion rock band. A friend con­nected Trowbridge with Joshua Hurston Hall, a hospital employee in Crossville who became the band’s banjo player. Shortly thereafter, Trowbridge recruited longtime pal and local photographer Christian Lange as the violinist, and the Blackgrass lineup was set. If “banjo rockers” sounds a little incon­gruous, well, it is. Fans and band mem­bers alike agree that such contrast results in compelling music. “I don’t think any of us really fit in with each other in the traditional sense,” Lange says. “That’s what makes the project so interesting to me. You have all these people from totally different backgrounds that share a com­mon Vision for the band’s sound.” A rock music fan, Hall agrees that the appeal of banjo rock music is in its indi­viduality. “Blackgrass is just a nice different piece of the puzzle,” Hall says. “It just feels good to be weird.” Also described as Goth-twang and Appalachian punk, among other genre-bending labels, Blackgrass doesn’t sound much like anything else around. Listing Reverend Glasseye and Sixteen Horse­power as musical contemporaries, Trowbridge says that the banjo rock scene is grossly underexposed. “There’s really not a lot.” Like any outfit with a violin, banjo, and upright bass, Black­grass is often lumped with blue­grass, but the tag is misleading. “We play maybe one bluegrass  song,” Trowbridge says. The band sounds nothing like the Stanley Brothers, relying more on rock structures and tempos. With the crashing cymbals and relentless rhythms, Karpynec’s percussion brings an element of John Bonham to the mix. Although banjo-player Hall grew up among a noted family of bluegrass musi­cians, his experience was primarily as a drummer in alternative rock bands. Lange also adds an unusual element, with a violin background entirely devoid of any formal classical or bluegrass training. “I’m self-taught on the violin,” Lange says. ‘I've always played with rock and jazz musicians, ever since I was a kid.” Trowbridge says Lange’s musical back­ground is ideal for Blackgrass. “I thought he’d be a real good match.” Trowbridge writes with the dark tinge expected of a band that calls itself Blackgrass. “My songs are a lot more Old Testa­ment than New Testament,” he says. An amalgam of religious references and violent imagery color most songs, with unfor­gettable lines like “Yea, though I walk through valley of the shadow of death! I will fear no evil I’ve got a shotgun with a pistol grip.” When Blackgrass pulls it all together, the result is often stunning. Trowbrjdge’s feel for quirky religious dilemmas, most evident in “God Sings the Blues” and “To Give Up Religion for Lent,” meshes wonderfully with the haunting banjo-rock backdrop. Black­grass’s best material combines thought provoking lyrics with often upbeat music, resulting in an overwhelningly distinc­tive sound. Trowbridge says he set out to form a band specifically around the banjo because he thought the instrument was an ideal complement to his 5ongwriting. “It’s like my dad always said: ‘Welcome to Heaven, here’s your harp; welcome to Hell, here’s your banjo,” he says. “I thought the banjo was just a great instru­ment for the types of songs I wrote.”   The band has played in Cincinnati and Chattanooga and hopes the CD will lead to more out-of-town gigs. ‘Whether other cities follow suit, Knoxvillains are coming to know the memorable lyrics and singular sound of the city’s foremost banjo rockers.

Blackgrass hosts CD-release party

Kristi Maxwell

Staff Writer

Volume 92 Number 68

Friday, April 25, 2003

Blackgrass just might dispel the stigma that comes with number 13 through its debut album, "13," which the band celebrates during the CD release party Saturday at Preservation Pub. The music of the 2-year-old band has been described as anything from "banjo rock" to "postapunkalyptic" to simply "a little weird" - characterizations that might be based on the variety of influences the band pulls from, including Latin, jazz and gypsy tunes. "The group takes a collaborative approach with its writing and arranging, each band member crafting his own part of the melody and imbuing the song with his own particular sound," violinist Christian Lange said. Lange attributes a "lonesome-low" quality to bassist Scott Alan Trowbridge. "He creates dark, dreary lyrics that contrast with the driving, and at times, upbeat instrumentation," he said. Trowbridge's bass and Lange's violin are complemented by the instruments of the remaining members. Roman Karpynec adds jazz-influenced percussion, while Joshua Hall picks what Lange terms his "rock banjo." Despite the band members' varying origins - Chilean-native Lange is furthest from home - they all currently live in Knoxville, making recording an easier process. "Blackgrass records at its own studio here in Knoxville, giving the band ample time to obsess over details without the usual cost constraints," Lange said. The 13 tracks that make up the album were recorded and mixed over one month and were mastered by nationally recognized engineer Seva, who teaches sound art in the UT music department. Lange also put his violin down long enough to design the CD's insert and cover - a skill he has put to work for many bands across the United States. Of the tracks, 11 are originals, and two are covers the band modified to fit its unique rock-grass style. "The two traditionals are bluegrass songs rock 'n' roll-ized such that they are somewhat recognizable from the originals," Trowbridge said. "For example, lines from the traditional 'Darling Cory' like 'the revenuers are coming for to tear your still house down' have been changed to 'the DEA is coming for to burn your cash crop down.'" The CD release party commences at 9 p.m. Admission is free. Preservation Pub is located in Market Square.