WHAT Is Brushfire Stankgrass?
Brushfire Stankgrass is an extremely happening Asheville band formed by Fairview-raised guitarist Will Saylor and his younger brother, banjo-playing Ben. Along with drummer Micah Thomas and bass man Bryan White, this ingenious group is blending old styles and breaking new ground with a lively, rhythmic, exciting and downright fun sound that is as joyous to listen to as it is hard to describe. And it is hard to describe. Here’s an attempt from their own website: “They still maintain their bluegrass chops today, but have added some Moog analog effects and ‘trance-mountain dub’ rhythms to create an instantly unique style which has moved beyond the traditional into truly uncharted territory; they call it Stankgrass.” Was that perfectly confusing? All right then, try this:
Ben: We’re a good representation of Asheville music. I believe what we have created is a very accurate cross section of modern Appalachian music mixed with the best of the best of American musical styles from the last 100 years. Hmmm. Okaaaay. Anyone else?
Paul (their father): Their music is eclectic. Or maybe eccentric.
Linda (their mother): They definitely color outside the lines.
Anna (Ben’s wife): Ben would never rhyme ‘Girl’ and ‘World.’
All of this means that words just don’t do Brushfire Stankgrass justice. You really need to hear them—either live or on CD. One thing I can tell you is that both boys (OK, they’re men now, but I can’t help it, they used to play with my children!) are superb musicians. Ben, 30, is one of the most innovative banjo players I’ve ever heard (there’re lots of moments when you don’t realize you’re hearing a banjo), and Will, 33, is a terrific jazz/rock/improv/jamming guitarist. Their music is upbeat, rhythmically driving, and joyful—not a lot of sappy love songs or angry hormonal rages here! In fact, often it’s downright funny. I mean, how many groups would write a song like:
Futbol Reggae… I love futbol, it’s part of being a man Just to kick the round ball as long as I can stand And when my legs are through and they put me in a wheelchair I’ll be working on my headers and they’ll say he’s strong in the air. Carnivorous: They say that you’re the biggest, biggest, biggest fish around Waiting at the bottom with its mouth open wide Anything comes in, eaten up, swallowed, pooped out Whiskers are like swords, size of a Volkswagen . . . BUS! Banjo in My Spaceship: All the aliens say, ‘Play that Foggy Mountain Breakdown.’ Well, I say, ‘Alright, but have you heard that Bela Fleck?’ They say, ‘The radio frequency takes too long to get here, So we ain’t heard that stuff yet.’
This (you won’t be surprised to hear) is just one aspect of their music. Long jazz jams are another. Beautiful love songs to our mountains are another. And almost psychedelic, higher-consciousness songs are one more. Will says, “We like to expand each year and see where the music takes us. I try to never play the same thing twice.”
WHO Is Brushfire Stankgrass?
This past Easter Sunday, I got a chance to sit down with the Saylor clan at Paul and Linda’s lovely home in Fairview Downs and learn the back story, which goes way back . . . all the way to when Linda was in a girl in 5th grade.
Linda: We took a music aptitude test in school one day—and I passed! So I went home and told my mother I wanted to play an instrument.
Linda’s Mom, Betty Gibson (aka “Gert”): I told her, ‘Your daddy already has a violin. So we’re going for that. Linda grew up to become a violin teacher, teaching as many as 40 students out of her home and playing with the Asheville Symphony. And you can bet that two of her students were her sons.
Linda: They began at three years old. We brush our teeth, make our beds and practice our violins. Ben broke free first: Practice time became tantrum time. He wanted to play guitar or banjo. Guitar gave me visions of KISS, so I said, ‘OK, you play the banjo.’ Nonmusical (“I own a guitar. I play the radio.”)
Paul: I think it was my idea. We were already calling him Benjo. That was his grandma’s name for him.
Linda: Will made it all the way through Suzuki Violin Book 7. He performed all of Book 4 from memory—in second grade! But eventually he wanted to drop violin, too.
Will: I liked strumming chords and the polyphony of guitar. So Mother bought a little guitar for me at a yard sale. She got me a little chord book and said, ‘You learn all these chords, and we’ll get you lessons.’
Linda: It took him a week.
Will: Later I tried to make it into an electric guitar. I was maybe eight. I took apart a broken coffee pot, put one of its wires on the high E string of my guitar and the other on the low E string, and plugged it in. Zaaaaaap! It broke a string—which melted a line across my pick guard!
Ben: We played bluegrass with Mom at family functions and such. We called ourselves The Boys and Mom. But Will was playing rock and roll with Ricky Baboff down the street. He had a band. I wanted to be in it, too, so I dropped the banjo and picked up the electric bass. I mean, I never imagined the banjo and electric guitar could go together.
This, of course, is the basis of their whole sound now.
Will: Our band’s debut was at the Reynolds High School Talent Show. We played Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Red House.’ Then we got our big break: the Reynolds Middle School Dance! We rocked that scene. I played in several rock and roll bands after that, through college at UNC and after. We called ourselves Blue Collar Groove or Loose Gravel or Slow Children Playing. It wasn’t until our rock band got asked to do a regular bluegrass gig at Barley’s that we first called ourselves Brushfire. Soon after that, Ben joined us, and, well, here we are!
Brushfire Stankgrass has become prominent on the local Asheville music scene, accumulating a loyal flock of fans. Their father, the voice of Reynolds basketball, is one. He goes to all their concerts, where he peddles Paul Saylor’s World Famous Beef Jerky. But now they’re about to start their first out-of-state tour. And they’re not stopping there.
Will: I love what we do. We have a great time, and people like it. I want to expand each year and see where it takes us.
Ben: I think we have something unique to offer the musical world. Maybe someday we’ll leave our mark on the scene.
So, neighbors, you better catch them while you still can! You can see their first truly local performance in Gerton on May 6 (see sidebar). Or you can catch them later in the month on May 25 at French Broad Brewing Company. Or buy their CD, One for the Salamanders (www.stankgrass.com). Then you, too, will go around with words like these singing in your head:
Miles fall beneath my feet. Tuckasegee’s deep. No one for miles around. Not lost, but not quite found. Down in Panthertown.