The words "bluegrass music" can conjure images of the hills of Appalachia. But Anders Beck says another kind of community might also come to mind. His band, Greensky Bluegrass, was formed in the midsize Midwest town of Kalamazoo, Michigan.
"Kalamazoo is where the Gibson factory is," Beck explains. "Gibson made all the mandolins and guitars people in the South were playing, so in a way it's full circle."
Greensky Bluegrass was formed in 2000 when Michael Bont, Dave Bruzza, and Paul Hoffman decided to learn to play the mandolin, banjo, and acoustic guitar together. "The band started out as people having fun playing music. All these years later, we're still having fun playing music," Beck says. "[My bandmates] got into bluegrass backdoor. They liked the Grateful Dead, and then they learned Jerry Garcia played bluegrass. All of a sudden that gets you into Bill Monroe, and the next thing you know the only thing you're listening to is Ralph Stanley."
Beck joined the band a few years into its formation, adding his expertise with the dobro, a wood-bodied resonator guitar that he stumbled upon at a workshop at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. "I'd heard the instrument on lots of songs but didn't realize... that was the sound I wanted to play. The dobro is the electric guitar of acoustic music. It has a little bit of horsepower."
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Though Greensky Bluegrass plays an old-timey brand of music, the band found a way to attract modern listeners. "Cover songs are a way for us to connect with the audience. You can lure in an audience when there's common ground. You like Prince or Michael Jackson? So do we. Then those new fans will listen to your original music."
Beck's favorite of the songs the band interprets is Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City." He says, "I didn't think it would work, but everyone loves it, even me." Their attempt to twangify Genesis' "Land of Confusion," on the other hand, didn't go over as well. "We spent so long trying to learn it that it almost broke up the band."
As the bandmates help bring a genre of music from the past century into the present, Beck is glad they haven't stumbled into hostile traditionalists. "Sam Bush, who is kind of a forefather of newgrass music, told us stories about back in the day getting kicked off stages for bringing an amp to a bluegrass festival, so they're out there. We were worried about bluegrass snobs that are anti-jamming, but we've yet to find those people who will tell us we're doing it wrong."