Interview: Jason Shepard of Scarlet Begonias

(Photo by Phillip Douglas Photography)

In just two weeks, on April 3rd, 2015, we will host our first Spring Concert in Downtown Montgomery at The Warehouse at Alley Station.  This event will benefit The Cancer Wellness Foundation of Central Alabama.  In the spirit of The Grateful Dead's 50th Anniversary, Scarlet Begonias (Augusta, GA) will make their first ever trip to Alabama.  While this group is a relatively new project, the group consists of five seasoned Georgia musicians who have made a major splash with recent performances of The Dead's Europe '72 and American Beauty albums.  This week, we sat down with Jason Shepard (guitar/vocals) to find out a little more about how the band came to be, and what we can expect on Good Friday.

Scarlet Begonias is:

Jason Shepard ❀ Guitar
John Kolbeck ✿ Guitar
Michael Garrett ❀ Piano
George Dale ✿ Bass
Brian Brittingham ❀ Drums

Manager: Nicholas Cason (Satisfied Entertainment)

-For ticket information on our Spring Concert, click here-

(Artwork by Mike Sears - Light Train Studio)

Scarlet Begonias is a newer product amongst a group of longtime Georgia musicians.  How did this new project come to life?  Was their much experience playing Dead tunes in years past?

Jason:  Well, I kind of came late to the party.  The other four guys had gotten together a few months prior.  They had kicked around some different people.  They had David Nickel and Bentley Rhodes, from Bloodkin, come in, as well as some other folks.  For whatever reason, they were still looking for someone to play in the band.  I really knew nothing about that at all, I was just doing my own thing here in Evans, GA.  So one day I got a call from John Kolbeck, who is the lead guitarist and one of the singers in the band.  He let me know what they were doing and asked if I was interested.  This was around Thanksgiving of 2013, so a little over a year ago.  So I said sure.  I didn't know The Grateful Dead's catalog that well, but just like any other music fan you have your four or five favorite Dead songs.  I certainly always liked and appreciated their music, but just hadn't really delved into it the way some folks had.  So I show up, and we hit it off and things went great.  They said that they wanted to turn this into a really special project.  It wasn't meant to just be another "bar band."  

The idea was to play some great one-off shows here in there in different places.  Almost a year and a half has gone by now.  Like I said, I never considered myself a Dead Head, but I have always appreciated their music and wanted to give it a go. Sure enough, I'm really loving it.  Obviously, we don't have Jerry Garcia on lead guitar.  We kind of put our own slant on it, so I don't know how much of a tribute band we are, but we do play The Dead's songs.  We're kind of more vocally based, and we having a lot of fun with it.  


(Artwork by Mike Sears - Light Train Studio)

-The movement started by The Grateful Dead is larger than life.  The love and dedication from the band itself, as well as the Dead Heads, really can't be matched.  Have you experienced that same type of passion from the crowds at your shows?

Jason:  Pretty much every single one.  That was what was really surprising to me.  I hadn't really thought about it, you know?  We decided to do The Grateful Dead thing and started rehearsing, working really hard on each song.  Of course, in the back of my mind I'm thinking to myself, "Ok this is a lot of fun, but who knows how it will play out?"  What's really cool is that from the very first gig, a lot of people are showing up.  We know why they are there.  Not just for us, but they're there for the music.  They are there because they want to hear The Grateful Dead's music in any way that they can.  Obviously, The Dead lends itself to the live performance and the improvisation.  So I think...I'm not sure...but I like to think that people show up hoping that there will be a little bit of magic, a little bit of sparkle, a little bit of glitter in the music. 

Hopefully we're giving a little bit of that.  But to answer your question in one word: definitely.  You look out during a song, halfway through a verse, and everyone is singing along to every song.  It can be a little intimidating, because you realize that you are the focus of a room full of people that probably know a lot more about that music than you do.  So we all try our best to be respectful of that.  We try to deliver for them and try to honor the song.  So far, it has worked out.  

It's unbelievable.  Right after a show, that's that special time.  You know, after you go grab yourself a cold beer. You start having conversations with folks, and you realize that you are in way over your head.  These folks are professionals.  They know so much.  What's really cool for me is that I get to play music and meet people, and it's still such a learning experience.  People share stories.  The cities they visited and the shows that they saw.  I've had so many people mention our progression from one song to the next.  "Wow!  We've never heard anybody transition from this song to that song before."  And I'm thinking, "Ok, is that a good thing or a bad thing?"  But generally speaking, the overwhelming response has been really positive, so I guess we are headed in the right direction. 


(Photo by Nick Cason - Satisfied Entertainment)

-The Dead's song catalog is as extensive as anyone's.  How has the song selection process worked for you guys thus far?  Are you guys taking any specific strategy when mastering new material? 

Jason:  That's a great question.  Initially, it was "Hey, lets play the songs that we know."  Those jams we were all familiar with, just so we could see where we were at with each other and get comfortable.  So it started out that way, you know, "Friend of the Devil", "Truckin", "Uncle John's Band", "Casey Jones"...the seminal hits that everybody knows.  We were all musicians that come from different bands.  We've all been playing for decades, for goodness sake.  So we really started that way, and from there, it started to evolve.  Then we wanted to figure out what we should learn to play to really challenge ourselves.  Lately, we've been playing this place called Home Team BBQ in Sullivans Island right outside of Charleston.  Man, what a place!  Tony McKie is kind of our uncle.  He takes care of us.  But you can't play Home Team BBQ unless you're playing your own original music. are a part of their album showcase series. 

So we have been down there twice playing a Grateful Dead album.  So when you get a call from T-Mac to come down to Home Team and are asked to play Europe '72 or American Beauty...well I guess it's been decided which songs we are going to work on next.  This last time, American Beauty, what a challenge that was.  That album is so vocally oriented.  There are so many harmonies intertwining with everything that is going on.  That one was a really big challenge.  We started off with Europe '72 and just two weeks ago we played American Beauty.


(Artwork by Mike Sears - Light Train Studio)

Aside from learning the Grateful Dead catalog, what have you guys focused on in order to capture the essence of The Grateful Dead live experience?

Jason:  The main thing that we have done besides zeroing in on the main hook of the song and the main riff, making sure thats correct.  The big thing we're doing is trying to hear what all of the different vocals are doing.  And I'll tell ya, I had never really paid too much attention to all of the vocals.  I would always kind of hear the main melody, and I knew that there were harmonies there that sounded great.  And last year we really delved in and listened to what they were doing.  Those guys have got to be one of the most underrated vocal groups because there are just so many different parts going on, and they do it so well.  We were listening to "Attics of My Life" over the last four months, and we couldn't figure it out.  We could hear the different notes that were being sung, but because the way that the different parts were woven in together, you couldn't tell which person was singing which part at times.  So that was our biggest challenge, to try and do honor to those songs.  The guy from Dark Star Orchestra, John Kadlecik, he is probably the guy who has come the closest to playing the Jerry parts.  Such an impressive way that he has tackled that.  I can't imagine the man hours that he has put into that.  Then you listen to Jimmy Herring play with them, or Warren (Hayes) play with them, or whoever, and they get all of the notes here and there.  For the most part, they are trying to do a little bit of their own thing.  This guy from Dark Star, that's as close as anyone has ever come.  I don't think we have ever had the attitude of "we want to come as close as we can".  I think we would probably have pulled out the rest of our hair, whatever is left of mine.  It's not like we aren't playing guitar solos, we are, and John does a great job.  But it is more of a vocal thing for us and more of a rhythm oriented thing.  You hear a little more piano in there as well.  

(Photo by Nick Cason - Satisfied Entertainment)

-Much excitement has surrounded the recent announcement of The Dead's Fare Thee Well shows in Chicago in July.  How has the hype surrounding these final shows affected the mindset of the band?

Jason:  It has affected our mindset in the way that people are calling us a lot more now.  We are getting a lot more opportunities to play.  There are a lot of people going to the Chicago shows, but then there are a whole hell of a lot more that aren't going.  They have to stay home, but that excitement and spirit of The Dead is being rekindled in some folks.  We're getting a lot of phone calls, and we're playing a lot of gigs.  So that's changed the mindset because we know how excited people are about hearing Dead tunes.  It's the good kind of pressure, and it has translated to every Wednesday night, from 9:00 to about midnight, we're in that practice room and we're getting it done.  And sometimes it's Sunday nights as well.  It's manifested itself in more gigs, a lot more rehearsal time, and like i said, the good pressure, the best pressure.  


(Photo by Nick Cason - Satisfied Entertainment)

-As your tour dates and exposure increase, there has to be a higher demand for you guys in many new cities.  How do you determine the amount of touring for 2015?

Jason:  That's a great question, and that's something we have talked about a lot lately because we are getting a lot more opportunities.  It's not like we're able to pick and choose.  I don't mean to say it like that.  But its in a way of, "ok lets try to be careful of what we want to do here", because I have a feeling that the best is yet to come.  To be honest with you, right now what we are most excited about, and I am not just saying this because we're doing this interview, but we are most excited about this Alabama show.  That's where my roots are.  My dad was raised in Mobile, Alabama.  And I have family all over the state.  Then we get on your website and see pictures of The Warehouse, and we all kinda got the warm fuzzies, like "Are you kidding me?  We're going!"  So if we start getting more calls for rooms that are like The Warehouse, we're just gonna be fit to be tied brother.  You know?  So right now our main focus is getting ready for this Alabama show.  It's all about the excitement and anticipation of things to come at the moment.  We're excited about who's gonna be on the other line when we pick up the phone, if that makes sense.  We're gonna do our very best to honor you, the City of Montgomery, and of course that beautiful venue.  We have really felt the momentum of what's going on over there.  From the moment that this show was announced, our Facebook page just started blowing up with people in Alabama.  Every day we would get on the phone and it's like, "Dude, 35 more! What the hell?"  We can't wait for our little Alabama Getaway in a couple of weeks.

-Scarlet Begonias would like to thank their manager and "sixth begonia" Nicholas Cason of Satisfied Entertainment for all of his hard work and dedication, making much of their success possible.  They would also like to thank George Claussen of Friends With Benefits Fund (Augusta, GA), who has also played a major role in booking and promoting the band.-

-Scarlet Begonias will perform the pre-party for next month's Major Rager concert in Augusta, featuring The Omega Moos, The Revivalists, Lettuce, Gov't Mule.  The Major Rager is Friends With Benefits' Annual Masters Week Concert in Augusta, GA.-

-For more information on Scarlet Begonias, including booking information, make sure to check out their Facebook page.-

(Artwork by Mike Sears - Light Train Studio)