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Members include Stuart Duncan, fiddle and mandolin; Pat Enright, guitar and vocals; Gene Libbea, acoustic bass; Alan O'Bryant, banjo; and Roland White, mandolin. Addresses: Record company--Sugar Hill Records, P.O. Box 4040, Duke Station, Durham, NC 27706.
The five-member Nashville Bluegrass band (NBB) has widened the appeal of a little-known musical genre through perseverance, creativity, and instrumental mastery. "Bluegrass is music built on virtuosity, with most groups boasting either a star vocalist or instrumentalist upon which the band's reputation is built," commented David Duckman in the Chicago Tribune. "The Nashville Bluegrass Band is the rare exception that combines all-star playing with flawless singing, choosing [instead] to emphasize ensemble unity." Guitarist Pat Enright, Alan O'Bryant on banjo, Stuart Duncan on fiddle and mandolin, Gene Libbea on bass, and legendary bluegrasser Roland White on mandolin--award winners all--unite their musical talents under the Nashville Bluegrass Band banner to produce some of the most popular bluegrass music being recorded today.
The seeds of the NBB took root early in the 1970s when Enright, then living in San Francisco, discovered bluegrass music's intricate acoustic and vocal harmonies. With the zeal of many latecomers to the music, he formed the Phantoms of the Opry, a bluegrass band that became popular along the West Coast; by 1974 he was making tracks for Tennessee to get close to the wellspring of country music. Once in Nashville he linked up with O'Bryant, a talented songwriter who had been picking bluegrass banjo since his teen years in North Carolina.
Together, Enright and O'Bryant performed at local Music City clubs that included the Station Inn, a famous bluegrass mecca. Enright moved up to Boston four years later to play with then-teenage banjo artist Bela Fleck while O'Bryant continued performing and recording bluegrass with artists like Bill and James Monroe, Peter Rowan, and Doc Watson. Enright returned to Music City a year later and resumed the association that would lead to the formation of the Nashville Bluegrass Band in 1984.
A current list of the NBB's membership reads like a roster for an Ivy League bluegrass master class; in fact, multi-instrumentalist Duncan joins fellow NBB-ers in serving as master teachers at festivals around the United States, giving both time and expertise to less-seasoned players. A sought-after session man in Nashville recording studios, Duncan augments his time with the band by backing artists like Nanci Griffith, Del McCoury, Dolly Parton, and Ricky Skaggs. His astonishing fiddle runs soar amid the NBB's crisp, unclouded instrumentals.
Also on the roster is mandolinist White, who got his start with brothers Clarence--a renowned bluegrass flatpicking guitarist who joined the Byrds during the late 1960s--and Eric, Jr., as part of the Kentucky Colonels in 1954. The Colonels made several highly acclaimed albums before disbanding in 1965. He further distinguished himself in the bands of Bill Monroe and Lester Flatt and in the Country Gazette. White's soulful signature is now instantly recognizable in the NBB's understated mandolin breaks.
A veteran performer who has played with a broad range of artists spanning both bluegrass and country music--and another former Californian--Libbea gives the music of the Nashville Bluegrass Band a strong grounding with his renderings on acoustic bass. And, in the years since they began performing together, the tight, blues-based vocal harmonies developed by O'Bryant and Enright have been joined by the vocal skills of their fellow bandmembers to good effect. The five men reach back into the mingled roots of bluegrass and black gospel for one a cappella number, producing soulful quintet counterpoints that are widely admired.
While each member of the Nashville Bluegrass Band is an award-winning performer in his own right, the NBB as a whole has received countless accolades from bluegrass judges across the country. And the band's recognition has transcended the bluegrass community, an amazing feat in itself for performers in a musical genre that has traditionally been sidestepped by Top 40 radio, talk shows, and hip tabloid fan magazines. Nominated for Grammy awards three times--in 1988 for New Moon Rising, in 1990 for The Boys Are Back in Town, and in 1992 for Home of the Blues--the achievements of the NBB were finally crowned outside the bluegrass music community with a 1993 Grammy Award for Waitin' for the Hard Times to Go, an album that still charted on Bluegrass Now's Top Ten more than a year after its release. Both Home of the Blues and Waitin' for the Hard Times to Go have been widely lauded by critics as exemplary recordings of contemporary bluegrass music.
While the NBB holds to the traditional bluegrass sound--bluesy, "high-lonesome" vocals painted against a hard-hitting, hard-driving acoustic canvas--it has introduced many new fans to the music. The fact that it was touted by the Nashville Tennessean as "the hippest, hottest new act in [bluegrass]" attests not only to the sound, but also to the band's ability to transcend the "backwoods bumpkin" image that erroneously attached itself to the genre for so many years. And in their selection of music, the NBB chooses not only from among the riches of the established bluegrass and gospel repertoire, but also from the works of modern songwriting talents like Michael Dowling, Mark Sanders, and the late Dave Allen as well.
The Nashville Bluegrass Band's collective talent is so prodigious that one listen can inspire conversion. Actress and vocalist Bernadette Peters heard the band open for eclectic country singer Lyle Lovett one night and promptly booked them to play on two tracks on her 1994 Angel Records release. And concerning that tour with Lovett, "His audience is the audience we're trying to reach," Enright told Jay Orr in the Nashville Banner. "We've played for 45,000 people, most of whom had never heard us before." With that country-wide tour, the NBB reached many more ears than they would have by only receiving airplay on the small but thriving network of bluegrass radio shows.
The NBB's appearance during the bluegrass series at Nashville's newly renovated Ryman Auditorium, the "high church of country music," broadened its audience even more. With a Grammy Award, appearances onstage at the Grand Ole Opry, and a 1994 guest spot on the Nashville Network's popular Music City Tonight to their credit, the Nashville Bluegrass Band has taken bluegrass music one step further into the spotlight. "We're starting to feel like more people are paying attention," Enright told Orr in the Nashville Banner about the band's increasing momentum. "It feels like we've got something going."
by Pamela L. Shelton
Nashville Bluegrass Band's Career
Group formed in Nashville, TN, 1984; signed with Rounder Records, c. 1984; signed with Sugar Hill Records, 1988; appeared at Carnegie Hall, New York City, 1991; toured with country singer Lyle Lovett, 1994; have toured Brazil, Iraq, Israel, Italy, and Japan, and were first bluegrass band to appear in People's Republic of China.
Nashville Bluegrass Band's Awards
Named vocal group of the year, 1990, 1991, 1992, and 1993, and entertainer of the year, 1992 and 1993, by International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA); Grammy Award for best bluegrass recording, 1993, for Waitin' for the Hard Times to Go.
- Selective Works
- (With Peter Rowan) New Moon Rising, Sugar Hill, 1988.
- The Boys Are Back in Town, Sugar Hill, 1990.
- Home of the Blues (includes "Roll Jordan Roll"), Sugar Hill, 1992.
- Waitin' for the Hard Times to Go (includes "Backtrackin'" and "On Again Off Again"), Sugar Hill, 1993.
- My Native Home, Rounder.
- Idle Time, Rounder.
- To Be His Child, Rounder.
- Rosenberg, Neil V., Bluegrass: A History, University of Illinois Press, 1985.
- Periodicals Bluegrass Now, October 1994.
- Bluegrass Unlimited, April 1994.
- Chicago Tribune, December 7, 1992.
- Dirty Linen, October/November 1993.
- Kinesis, Vol. 2, No. 7, 1993.
- Nashville Banner, April 22, 1993; August 3, 1994.
- Tennessean (Nashville), September 27, 1992.
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from Sugar Hill Records publicity materials, 1994.
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