Deebs Days Countdown: An Interview with The Mountain Grass Unit July 15, 2022 08:43
Great to speak with you guys today. Let's start off with some general background info on the band. How did The Mountain Grass Unit get started in your early teenage years?
Drury: Well, Luke (Black) and I originally started playing fiddle tunes as kids. That went on for a while, and I think we tried more of an electric thing in 3rd or 4th grade. Luke picked up the electric guitar and getting into that. I was getting into the drums, and we tried that for a little while. Fast forward to 7th grade, and Sam (Wilson) comes up to me in gym class and says, "Uhh, hey man! I'm Sam. Luke asked me to be the bass player in y'all's rock band."
Luke: Yeah, so we did that for a while. Sam got a bass from someone here in Birmingham.
Sam: Mr. Hurley let me borrow one. Luke taught me to play electric bass before that. I kind of taught myself how to play upright. I guess that was 8th or 9th grade?
Drury: I was in 7th grade, and y'all were in 8th grade. It was the next year that we started getting serious with bluegrass. Luke and I were both taking lessons from Allen Tolbert. Our first official gig was The Ted Talk.
Sam: _TEDx__ Youth came through and did a thing at our middle school. They had us get up there and play three songs. I'd been playing upright for probably three days, at this point. If you search through the depths of YouTube, you can find a video of it. It's just terrible.
Luke: Yeah, it's pretty bad. It helped us start this group though. We actually had to sit down and practice for the gig. It was so bad. I was playing banjo without finger picks, which is just a crime in the bluegrass world. It definitely got us started though. After that gig, there was a little bit of buzz. We kept practicing and learning more songs. Then, we started adding Grateful Dead songs and other songs from our rock category. We were having a lot of fun.
So, would you say those lessons with Allen Tolbert really sent you guys down the bluegrass wormhole?
Luke: Yeah, for sure. Like Drury was saying earlier, I took banjo lessons from Herb Trotman around maybe 1st grade. He was taking mandolin lessons from Jason Bailey, so we had a little bit of the bluegrass drive. Then, I saw Allen Tolbert play at The Acoustic Cafe, and I said, "I want to play exactly like that." That's when the bluegrass drive started hitting me. Drury started taking lessons from him around that time as well. Allen definitely influenced us a ton.
Drury: A ton. It was a cool time, because Allen is a little more traditional with bluegrass. While we were playing traditional bluegrass tunes, from guys like Tony Rice and David Grisman, we were also discovering people like Billy Strings. People who played those traditional tunes, but also got jammy with it...and played Dead. I've always loved The Dead. Luke and Sam have as well.
It was around that point that we realized "jam grass" was the way to go. That was really where it picked up. This was right around the time that The Talismen asked us to open up for them at WorkPlay Theatre. I think that was December of 2019.
That's right. Crazy to think that was almost three years ago. There was also a gig with Sam Bush Band at WorkPlay, right?
Luke: Yeah, that one was really interesting. Drury and I had a marching band show that night. We played a pretty big role in this show. We had to go up to our band director and explain to him that we had an opportunity to open for Sam Bush, which was obviously a pretty big deal at this point. It was a bit of an ordeal, but he agreed to it.
Drury: He let us do it, and then we pulled it again for a Billy Strings show (laughs). That was a really cool day though.
Sam: It really was. We had only played a handful of gigs as a trio at that point.
One of the guys from Sam's band ended up sitting in with y'all, right?
Drury: That's right. Scott Vestal is Sam's banjo player.
Luke: We love Scott. He helped us record both our EP and our album coming out (on July 25th, 2022). We just ended up hanging out with him a bunch. He's such a nice guy.
Drury: He's super cool. When he's recording with us, it's all about us, which is really nice of him. When he picks up a banjo though, he will tear it apart. Scott is a monster player.
I'd say that conversation with your marching band director ended up paying off quite well for y'all.
Drury: Let's just say that I'll remember the Sam Bush show, and not the night I missed the marching band show (laughs). I think I can just put marching band behind me at that point.
Sam: I remember thinking, "If y'all don't get out of this marching band show, I'm gonna lose my mind. We have to play this show!" (laughs)
Photo by Thomas Diasio
You mentioned that things started picking up towards the end of 2019. Perfect timing for the events of 2020, right? I can imagine how challenging the COVID shutdown was, both as high school students and an up-and-coming band. How did y'all go about accepting this reality and putting your energy in the right place to keep things moving forward?
Drury: It was definitely unfortunate, because things were picking up in January of 2020. We had a regular spot over at Basil Pizza. Playing there a few times a month. The word is getting out around down. COVID hits and just screws it all completely. We had a few meetings and decided to just try and write, initially.
We did have an opportunity to do a few live streams on The Music Never Stopped Facebook page. That actually made us some chump change, so that was a big plus. Steve Masterson helps us open up some opportunities for outdoor gigs. It all worked out though. Most of the songs on our upcoming album were written during that time in 2020.
I'm sure the opportunity to play those streams on that type of platform, with a pretty significant built-in audience, ended up being huge for exposure. Followers of that page are really the perfect target demographic. I'm sure a lot of people outside of Alabama are still following y'all because of those streams.
Drury: Absolutely. That's really the name of the game, man. Luke's been really hammering down on our social media. I've always tried to be pretty active on Instagram and YouTube. What's cool about this community is that there are a lot of people out there who are willing to sit down, watch your videos online, and provide solid feedback on what they like about it.
Sam: It's been interesting as we've been traveling more this summer. We've had more gigs outside of Alabama. We were recently in Atlanta and Nashville. People would come up and mention that they watched us on those streams. It's pretty amazing to hear that and meet these people from all over.
Those interactions really go a long way. So, y'all released your first EP last year. I know there is a new album on the horizon. What has it been like getting in the studio and bringing your songs to life?
Luke: It was really fun the first time, because it was our first studio experience. We were so dialed into these three songs of ours. I feel like we probably put too much thought into it all.
Drury: That's exactly what I was going to say.
Sam: We definitely did.
Luke: This time at Scott's, we went in there and did them pretty raw. Only a few takes on a each track. I feel like it sounds more like us.
Sam: I think it sounds more like our live show.
Drury: It does sound more live.
Luke: We've been working on some of these songs for 3-4 years. Some are a little newer, but many have been brewing for a long time.
Drury: One of them was originally an instrumental called "Paradise," but we've since added vocals. So yeah, that one is probably about four years old now.
Sam: It's pretty cool to look back at songs like that one. It's really changed and evolved into something new.
Have the final touches been put on the album? When can people expect to see and hear the release?
Sam: We're done on our end. It will be released on July 25th.
Oh wow! I didn't realize that. Release day is right around the corner.
Drury: Oh yeah. It's coming up, and it will be available for preorder on iTunes on July 16th. We ended up with 8 originals on this one. We're really going to be pushing the pre-orders. We'll take as many as we can get.
Right on. I know this summer has been big for y'all. You're getting to hit a bunch of new cities and venues. What have you guys learned about life on the road thus far?
Drury: Well, we're really glad to be such good friends. That really helps things. It's been so fun. It kind of feels like we're just messing around and making some money.
Sam: It doesn't even feel like a job, really. It feels like a vacation with some shows here and there.
Luke: It's been a blast. We've had a few all-nighters already. We're learning how to handle those scenarios. Pulling out of one town at 3AM and pulling into the next one as the sun is rising.
I'm sure. These are some truly crucial times for y'all. You're laying a foundation and learning the ropes of running a professional, touring band. Sometimes those load outs are mighty late into the night, and the drive ahead can still be brutal.
Drury: For sure. We've been really fortunate to work with some really great venue owners and buyers. A lot of people who have been really good to us. Everyone has been super kind.
Luke: Absolutely. It really means a lot to work with such great people. Hearing that someone has been waiting for so long to see us play. It honestly means a lot.
Drury: It really does, especially when you're playing in a totally new place. We've never been to some of these cities before. The kindness we've seen makes us feel like we fit in, and we're welcome there.
I'm sure the positive feedback makes the world of difference. There may be lighter crowds on random nights, but when you are treated with such kindness, it really goes a long way.
Let's talk a little bit more about CBDB's upcoming festival at Avondale Brewery in August. Deebs Days is giving The Mountain Grass Unit a nice taste of the festival life early on. What are y'all's thoughts on being a part of this lineup?
Sam: Personally, I'm really excited to play alongside all of these other bands. Can't wait to see The Talismen again. It's been a year or so since our last show with them. Really excited to see those guys again.
Drury: The entire lineup is just really exciting.
Luke: It's going to be really great to meet and hang out with the other performers. There are so many great bands playing. I can't wait to watch it all go down.
Sam: I mention The Talismen, because they really helped us crack into the jam band world. They've had us open several shows and been really kind to us. We're excited to build more relationships like that.
Drury: For sure. I credit them for getting us into the jam band scene. We haven't really been playing at festivals of this capacity yet. It's exciting to be on a lineup with guys like Daniel Donato, Sicard Hollow, and CBDB: people we've been watching on social media over the years. Those are musicians that we really look up to. It's great to see a progression of what we're able to do. I hope we can bring something really special and unique to the table.
Absolutely. Every band that you've seen out there has been in this position. Breaking in to the festival circuit and having some big opportunities. Soak it all in, and of course do your thing on stage. I think it's safe to say there will be many more down the road.
Drury: It's going to be awesome. It's exciting to think about what could come out of this experience. I know we all hope to make some great connections and start some solid new relationships. Hopefully, this can lead to some other festival appearances.
That's right. You guys are way ahead of the pack already. You're fresh out of high school, but you've already built a solid fan base. Y'all are building the band's resume, and doing so will continue to open all kinds of doors.
Drury: I really hope so. That's definitely the goal. It's great timing with the album coming out. We will have a month or so to get the word out. Just enough time to promote those tunes.
Well before we wrap this up, I wanted to make sure that we've covered all of our bases. You guys have quite a few more summer dates. You have the album release and Deebs Days coming up. Anything else that the band is fired up about?
Drury: We're going to carry on our dates through the summer. Obviously, school is a little bit of a speed bump. I'll be joining Luke at Berklee in Boston, while Sam is in Tuscaloosa. Luke and I will be playing up there a bunch. We will continue to have band meetings to make sure things are on the right track. We'll have a bunch of zoom calls. We plan to have some gigs booked for when we're all back in Birmingham over the holidays too.
That's the right attitude. Just keep doing what you're doing. This band has a lot of people's attention already. It sure feels like you guys are on the fast track to doing some really special things. You guys know how unique of a thing this is. Set goals, communicate, and stay the course. There's no telling how far you guys can take The Mountain Grass Unit.
Drury: We really appreciate that, Jordan. We are just taking it one step at a time. Figuring out what is the next best move for us. I'm hoping that we can just capitalize on the progress we've made and keep the momentum going. If we can do that, I’m confident that it can really go somewhere. We just have to keep putting the work in.
Photos by Jean Longuil Frank