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String Songs

Meet Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass--a world-class band right in our own backyard

Aaron Farrington
Danny Paisley makes classic bluegrass for a new century.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 10/21/2009

Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass

Flat Iron Inn in Great Mills Oct. 24 and Jumbo Jimmy's in Port Deposit Nov. 15.

It's every music lover's dream: You walk into a non-descript roadhouse, and you find the floor crowded with locals dancing to a world-class band. This happens all the time in Louisiana, but it can happen in Maryland, too.

If you head north from Baltimore on I-95 and take the first exit after crossing the Susquehanna River and head north toward Port Deposit, on your left you'll see a low and long crab shack, red bricks with green shutters. That's Jumbo Jimmy's, named after its crab mascot and the size of the crustaceans the place serves. And if you open the back door on the right Sunday afternoon, you'll find yourself standing next to one of America's greatest string bands: Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass.

The band, which features the leader's brother Michael on bass and their childhood friends Bobby and TJ Lundy on banjo and fiddle, generates the kind of driving rhythms and sweet harmonies that keeps the wooden floor filled with cloggers on the brisk breakdowns and with entwined couples on the honky-tonk ballads. Danny himself is a terrific tenor, able to sound as high and lonesome as Carter Stanley on the mountain songs and as low and lonesome as George Jones on the heartbreak numbers.

Some overdue recognition came to the band when it won the International Bluegrass Music Association's Song of the Year award at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium Oct. 1. That song, "Don't Throw Mama's Flowers Away," is on the group's first-ever nationally distributed album, The Room Over Mine, released last year by Rounder Records. "This is so good I don't know how to deal with it," Alison Krauss wrote in the liner notes. "Bluegrass music has been waiting for a record like this for a long, long time."

On one Sunday a month, however, you can see Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass for no cover at Jumbo Jimmy's. Just let yourself in through the door and try to squeeze in at one of the long tables before the stage or along the wall where the overflow crowd stands. There's no stage to speak of; the band lines up at the edge of the dance floor beneath the wall-length mirror draped with white Christmas lights all year round. The green walls are full of fishing posters and NASCAR beer ads, and the waitresses slice through the throng with heavy trays of seafood.

Early in the second set on Sept. 13, the quintet played "The Room Over Mine," written by the obscure '50s honky-tonker Eddie Noack. It's the tale of two divorced men in a boarding house who avoid each other out of respect for each other's private hell, and at Jumbo Jimmy's the song began with TJ Lundy's fiddle moaning like a steel guitar and his brother Bobby's banjo playing relaxed, pretty arpeggios underneath. Danny belted out the chorus, "He might be thinking of things that might have been," warbling "might" through three different notes and holding out "been" on a long, high note of missed opportunities. By the time the last chorus came around, seven couples were slowly spinning on the dance floor in tight embrace.

The two Lundys and mandolinist Travers Chandler then filled out the four-part vocal harmony on "Ain't Gonna Work Tomorrow," a variation on Flatt and Scruggs' "Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms." The quintet turned Mickey Gilley's hit, "I Overlooked an Orchid," into a string-band lament and Kitty Wells' "Whose Shoulder Will You Cry On" into a bluegrass burner. As Bobby showed off his picking on the brisk instrumental "Mountain Sally Ann," half a dozen cloggers did their heel-and-toe routine on the floor.

Danny mentioned that "Don't Throw Mama's Flowers Away" had been nominated for Song of the Year and allowed, "We're awfully tickled about that." His acoustic guitar, his brother's upright bass, and Chandler's mandolin powered the fast, hard rhythm, while the Lundy brothers filled every nook and cranny with quick, restless notes. Though it's a new song, this is one of those dead-mama numbers that bluegrass audiences can't get enough of. In this case, a very young girl doesn't understand that her mother is dead or why her father has laid the daughter's carefully picked flowers on the ground. Southern Grass finessed the tale's implausibility by building such momentum that you were as overwhelmed by the rush of events as the small child.

All these tunes shared a common sound, the sound of the late '30s and early '40s when old-time strings bands were morphing into bluegrass, but hadn't quite divorced themselves completely from commercial country music. This music combines the warmer hillbilly singing of barroom laments with the piercing vocals of bluegrass, the more relaxed, melodic picking of old-time fiddlers and banjo players with the streamlined attack of Bill Monroe's innovations. It's a sound rooted in the area where Southwest Virginia bumps up against Northwest North Carolina. It's a sound that was transplanted to the area where Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania come together.

"My grandfather moved up to Pennsylvania from Ashe County, North Carolina, in the '30s, along with Ola Belle Reed and lots of folks who came up here during the Depression," Danny explains. "My grandfather had a farm in Landenberg with milk cows and produce and gave all his kids acres of land. Today, everyone who lives on our street is a Paisley, and everyone in our area is from the same area of North Carolina. We grew up baling hay and playing music. The Lundys came up from Galax, Virginia, and moved nearby into Wilmington, Delaware. When we're playing music, we know exactly what each other will do just by instinct. When they play something on the banjo or fiddle, I know just where they're going. I consider Michael, TJ, and Bobby all my brothers."

Reed, who lived in Cecil County, was a towering figure in North Chesapeake music, broadcasting on WASA in Havre de Grace and WBMO in Baltimore and leading the house band at New River Ranch, an outdoor country-music park in Rising Sun. Her songs have been recorded by Del McCoury, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, Marty Stuart, Hot Rize, Crooked Still, Uncle Earl, and the String Cheese Incident. Ted Lundy played banjo for her, but he moved on to Ralph Jamison's country band in Wilmington, where he met singer-guitarist Bob Paisley.

"One of my earliest memories, from when I was 4 or 5, is of Dad and Ted practicing at the house and me just sitting in the middle taking it all in," Danny recalls. "My dad's parents played old-time country on clawhammer banjo and guitar. My mother's father came from Ireland and played fiddle. I noticed that the Appalachian and Irish fiddle tunes had different names and different rhythms, but they were all the same melodies."

Bob and Ted hit it off and in 1964 decided to form their own bluegrass band, Ted Lundy and the Southern Mountain Boys. They recorded four albums together, the latter two with their teenage sons, Danny and TJ. Ted Lundy died in 1980, and the band was renamed Bob Paisley and the Southern Grass. By the mid-'90s it included Danny and Michael Paisley as well as TJ and Bobby Lundy. After Bob Paisley died in 2004, the group carried on as Danny Paisley and the Southern Grass.

"I joined my dad's band when I was 14," Danny says. "I had my bluegrass life and I had my high-school life. I didn't really talk about my music at school, because I knew they wouldn't understand; the kids thought it was hillbilly and backwards. But I didn't care--I absolutely loved the music. To this day, when I hear a great bluegrass song, it will just tear me up. Now those same kids come to see us play."

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