Thanks to Steve Wildsmith for the following interview!
Bluegrass aficionados in East Tennessee are a discriminating bunch, as the members of Gangstagrass can attest.
The band — which performs Friday at The Shed Smokehouse and Juke Joint in Maryville — knows that all too well. On one hand, music lovers who have grown up hearing “Orange Blossom Special” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” find delight in the group’s ability to combine hip-hop with the Old Time sounds of fiddle and banjo. It’s a fusion that hearkens back to Black stringband roots out of North Carolina’s Piedmont as well as the urban poetry of spoken word rhymes.
It’s a fresh take, in other words, on a ubiquitous genre. But, the guys told The Daily Times recently, it doesn’t always sit well with bluegrass purists.
“I think it was at Rhythm N’ Blooms (a roots music festival previously held in Knoxville’s Old City), and we were at Barley’s (Taproom), playing our opening song,” said Randy Green, a.k.a. R-SON the Voice of Reason, one of the Gangstagrass emcees. “It was our first time playing Rhythm N’ Blooms, and the whole place was packed. We do our first song, and we killed it. Everybody was going crazy, but this one guy in the front points at us and just yells, ‘No! No!’ and storms out.
“I’ll never forget that dude and his reaction. It’s still one of the best things I’ve ever seen at a show, because of all the hundreds of thousands of people we’ve performed for, that guy sticks out. He’s the one, and we know that going into any situation, that could happen.”
As R-SON pointed out, however, that’s a rarity. So seamless is the band’s combination of genres that even casual observers find themselves caught up in the Gangstagrass fervor, and that’s what the band aims for every time, added band founder, vocalist, guitarist and beat-maker Oscar “Rench” Owens.
“I’m going into the shows with the excitement of, ‘Oh, boy, we’re about to show these folks what we’ve got,’” he said.
“I like to look into the crowd and watch the faces, and every now and then, I’ll see the face of somebody who’s like, ‘What is happening here?’” R-SON added. “We saw a couple of those faces in Canada a couple of weeks ago at a festival, and it’s just one of those things where you love to see the surprise and the smiles. Usually, it’s a situation where people tell us, ‘People never stand up and dance here!,’ but then we’ll have a whole field full of people standing up and getting into what we’re doing.”
Gangstagrass got its start in 2006, but when the band was tapped for the theme song of the hit FX series “Justified,” the group’s popularity broadened. Acclaimed pulp novelist Elmore Leonard, upon whose writings “Justified” was based, sang the group’s praises, and the song was nominated for an Emmy.
“I grew up listening to a lot of honky-tonk and hip-hop both, and in the early 2000s, I was doing honky-tonk hip-hop stuff myself,” Rench said. “The bluegrass idea was there, but then (the film) ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ came out, and I started doing a hip-hop cover of ‘Man of Constant Sorrow.’ Then, around 2006, I started listening to a lot of Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys from the 1970s, when Keith Whitley and Ricky Skaggs were with them, and I thought, ‘Man, I would love to get more of this going with some emcees.’”
In 2015, the band’s album “American Music” landed in the Top 10 of the Billboard bluegrass albums chart, an unheard of feat for a record with hip-hop vocals, and in 2019, Gangstagrass graced the stage at the storied Nashville bluegrass venue, The Station Inn. It was another first, but the way Rench sees it, the group’s sound isn’t as exotic a concept as some roots music fans might think.
“A lot of people don’t realize the history of early Black stringbands and how much history there is to Black country music,” he said. “We do come across a lot of places where people consider country music to be white music, and we’re glad to help sort of reunite some of these things and desegregate them again.”
By the same token, R-SON credits Rench’s approach to genre experimentation with expanding his own horizons. The band’s first emcee (Dolio the Sleuth) recruited R-SON for one of Gangstagrass’ initial tours by sending him beats Rench had put together; impressed, R-SON agreed to give it a try, and he hasn’t looked back since.
“My bluegrass palate has grown a lot, but Rench, man, Rench can rhyme! That dude’s got bars, so for him, it was less expansive when it came to hip-hop,” R-SON said. “A lot of this bluegrass was new for me. My dad was a big Kenny Rogers and a big Dolly Parton fans, but the fellas have put me on to a lot of stuff the last few years, and it really is fascinating how much of it is contextually and lyrically similar to what’s going on (in hip-hop). A lot of the outlaw narratives exist in both genres.”
Case in point: “Knoxville Girl” — technically a murder ballad more than it is a bluegrass song, but drawn from the same well of stringband and early country. Rench slapped it onto a mix tape to play in the tour van as a sort of primer for the bluegrass neophytes in the group, and all eyes widened at the violence in those lyrics. By the same token, watching hip-hop set its hooks in the bluegrass corner of the group has been satisfying as well, he said.
“We’ve had a lot of lineup changes, but it’s been really awesome to see people come into the band and start learning, just riding around the country in a van for hours at a time and seeing banjo players Googling KRS-One,” he said. “The fact that (bluegrass and hip-hop) are seen as so separate is really an illusion that has been perpetrated for generations, and we’re happy to be a part of dispelling that.
“These communities have come to see each other as different and strange, but they’re not. They have so much in common, and it was only during Jim Crow that the music industry got people to start thinking of music by color — country and bluegrass for White people, R&B and soul for Black people, for example. That was a wedge driven into the music that has helped support how much different these two (genres) sound.”