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Stray Grass - Double Live at KAFM Radio Room
By Greg Hartman

Editor’s Note - many songs mentioned in this article have been covered by many artists and while effort was made to list the original artist, some errors may have occurred.

Stray Grass is a four piece bluegrass band from Grand Junction, CO that loves to stray away from expectations.  First formed in 2004, the group has risen to a top biller for local festivals and regional venues. The original lineup has seen some shifts, but the core has been Gary Tullio on vocals, mandolin and a crafty smile.  The band plays originals, some mainstays, and then drifts to covers from a variety of bands and genres.

For a bit, the group was a five piece, bringing in fiddle player and vocalist Alycia Vince.  After Alycia chose to move to Michigan to be closer to family, the remaining members found themselves needing to take a step back.  Some songs wouldn’t work anymore and her playstyle was part of the identity they’d carved out, seeing a peak playing the main stage of the Downtown Music Festival.

The answer came with guitarist and backup vocalist Ted Shook filling in the second lead microphone.  Virtuoso stand up bass player Dave Rowley, of the Milltailers and We Speak Imaginese, provides a strong rhythm along with versatile banjo and dobro player Byron Walcher.  The band found their path by doing what they do best - going where most don’t expect. The path Stray Grass follows is both unpredictable and a lot of fun.

The band was at a high point on December 16, 2017 at a sold out gig at the KAFM Radio Room.  The venue provides an intimate chance to connect with bands, with limited seating and standing room.  There is a small cash bar featuring local canned beer and boxed wine run by the dedicated KAFM staff, but otherwise the focus on the venue is a great music experience.  On that night, a copy of the recording was kept, as well as video. Unfortunately the video had an obstructed view of the stage, but the audio was promising.

The tracks were forwarded to Taylor Riley at Fusion Audio Solutions, where it was mixed and mastered.  Unlike many “live” recordings, every song is the original live take. There are the expected variances of a live recording, but the process resulted in a perfect keepsake of a band at the top of their game.  Photography by Carol Crockett was processed to create a 21 track double gate CD package: Stray Grass - Live From the Radio Room.

The first CD starts with three traditional covers to warm up the crowd, “Church Steeple” by Tim O’Brien, “Ginseng Sullivan” by Norman Blake, and “Eight More Miles” by Grandpa Jones.  They serve to show that Stray Grass can do just fine with traditional bluegrass staples. The gears start to shift on track 4, Bruce Springsteen's Atlantic City. The Boss has recorded the song with a mandolin, but Tullio brings it right to the front while his and Shook’s vocals shift the tone from haunting to celebratory.  It is a nice introduction to what the band does best, taking a song in a different direction. The recording is rich, allowing the listener to hear each instrument and vocal clearly.

The following three tracks are originals, first appearing on 2010’s studio recording “Written in the Stars”.  Track 6 is the band’s most known original for new listeners, “I Can’t Wait”, featured on the Tubes and Tape project that we covered last year.  The live take shows the great chemistry between Gary and Ted’s vocals in this incarnation of the band. The solo shifts from Byron’s dobro to Ted’s guitar effortlessly, showing that the chemistry is present in everything that they do.  “Written in the Stars” maintains its introspective tone, while providing more musical depth than the original. “It’s a Nice Day Out Today” strays into the country genre, as Tullio adds depth to an apology for an argument by just staying that while he’s sorry, it is still a nice day.

The first disc ends with three solid covers, The Greencards’ “Weather and Water”, Sam Bush’s “Where There’s a Road”, and Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”.  All are made the band’s own without going too far from the original song. The second disc continues with New Grass Revival’s “In the Middle of the Night” and “Let me Be Your Man” to form a solid sample of contemporary bluegrass songs.

The third track of the second disc throws the clock back a few decades to The Grateful Dead, bringing out the bluegrass sounds of “Friend of the Devil” and “Me and my Uncle”.  Following is “Midnight Moonlight” from Old and In the Way. At this point of the show, a listener has been taken on a journey across the bluegrass landscape, from old staples, to smart originals, to New Jersey and Woodstock.  At this point, Tullio’s ambition takes listeners to a place they would never have guessed, but probably should have.

The 5th track of the second disc is Cake’s “Stickshifts & Safetybelts”.  Indeed, the original is just asking to add in a mandolin, and Stray Grass go there with full force and no fear.  Next is Fruition’s “Mountain Annie”, a shift to modern bluegrass without missing a beat. Crowd pleasers “Codeine” from Trampled by Turtles and “Memory Like Mine” from Darrell Scott form in to a 9 minute mash up, with high paced picking and zero compromise.  “Demons” from Greensky Bluegrass wraps up the album’s penultimate leg before the journey travels across the ocean.

Bluegrass is generally reserved for American music, but that doesn’t stop Stray Grass from covering “Rocket Man” with a completely unique take the the Elton John classic.  Piano is replaced by strumming banjo and mandolin, while Shook and Tullio bring the iconic lyrics a new life with a faster tempo and blistering picking. Going further down the rabbit hole, the 20th track of the collection is a sequence of English folk song “The Fox” mashed into Pink Floyd’s “Time” and “Breathe”.  The transition crosses centuries of culture and is simply breathtaking and guaranteed to make the listener break into a wide smile.

The collection ends with “Great Day to be Alive” from Darrell Scott, a proper send off to a great recording and listening experience.  Most of the set was recreated for the album’s release on June 22nd, where over 100 attendees packed in to the KAFM Radio Room to catch the set and get a copy of the album.  The room was packed and while early arrivals claimed every chair, and drug out more, the rest of the crowd squeezed into remaining pockets of standing room. All were enraptured at a band who has found their path and is happy to take you on a journey down it.

The CD can be purchased at Stray Grass’s upcoming shows and will eventually find a home online, but getting clearance from so many artists takes time.  For now, get a preview from their first album on streaming sites and plan on catching them at one of the upcoming gigs: July 13 at Palisade Brewery, July 19 at Fruita Civic Center Park, July 27th at Warehouse 2565, or headlining Local Jam on August 12th at Edgewater Brewery.