Baltimore-based string band the Dirty Grass Players began life inauspiciously, as the product of a besotted weekly jam session involving a rotating gaggle of long-standing Charm City friends. Three years later and TDGP is a fully-realized bluegrass outfit, having authored one fine full-length release in the form of last year’s self-titled effort, and having been recognized in 2016 as the city’s best bluegrass band.
“We started as just a group of friends getting together on Monday evening, drinking beer, grilling food and playing bluegrass,” says guitarist Ben Kolakowski. “It slowly just got more and more serious, and the next thing you know, we’re playing bluegrass festivals.”
They’re an unlikely bunch on the face of it — Kolakowski had played jazz and heavy metal prior to the band’s inception; bassist Josh Ballard played rock ‘n’ roll; Mandolin player Ryan Rogers is a former jazz guitar performance major. “How some of us ended up in a band like this is kind of a mystery, “Kolakowski chortles.
What they all shared, however, was the instrumental chops necessary to handle the genre’s dizzying tempos and complex single-note lines. “It is a very demanding music,” Kolakowski says. “Tony Rice once said that most bluegrass players could handle playing jazz, but not every jazz instrumentalist could handle playing bluegrass. It’s definitely a player’s genre.”
But bluegrass bands with virtuosic principals aren’t difficult to come by, given that a certain level of technical derring-do is prerequisite to the form. One thing that separates the Dirty Grass Players from other fleet-fingered flat-picking collectives is the group’s penchant for perfectly-executed harmonies. Theirs is an especially potent, all-male vocal alchemy, making for a sound that’s sweeter by half than the sum of its parts.
“We spend a lot of time making sure the harmonies sound good, that they’re well-arranged, that everybody is singing the right part,” Kolakowski enthuses. “It’s actually a lot of fun. I wasn’t much of a singer before now. But our banjo player (Alex Berman) has a great ear, and he arranges the vocals. He does a great job of getting the best out of us.”
Like most other musical forms, bluegrass has its factions, subgenres that diverge in different ways from the tropes established by genre godfather Bill Monroe, and the mountain musicians who preceded him — traditional and progressive bluegrass, newgrass, jam grass, neo-traditional and gospel. The Players are aswim somewhere in the middle of it all, being neither slavishly reverent nor unwilling to observe the particulars of tradition when the time and the venue are right.
According to Kolakowski, he and his ‘mates are happy to navigate the easements between subgenres, with the result that the Dirty Grass Players can take the stage — and flourish — in a variety of contexts and clubs. “We try to bridge the gaps in the world of bluegrass; we don’t want to be stranded in one camp,” Kolakowski says.
“It’s cool to be able to play at a traditional bluegrass festival, and then go and play at a jam band festival. We straddle jam grass, bluegrass, and maybe stuff that infringes on jazz a little bit. We like to do things that challenge us, that make us better as musicians and as a band. We’re right where we want to be.”
The Dirty Grass Players will play Preservation Pub Wednesday, June 27 at 10 p.m.