INTERVIEW: The Grascals "I Am Strong"

Great musicians will always find a way to make good music, but for great musicians to make great music, they must form a bond – one that, more often than not, goes beyond the purely musical to the personal. For The Grascals, that bond has been forged at the intersection of personal friendships, shared professional resumes and an appreciation for the innovative mingling of bluegrass and country music that has been a hallmark of the Nashville scene for more than forty years. As their releases prove, The Grascals’ rare musical empathy gives them an unerring ear for just the right touch to illuminate each offering’s deepest spirit - whether they’re digging into one of their original songs or reworking a bluegrass classic or pop standard.

I recently visited with Kristin Scott Benson, one of the members of The Grascals to visit about the video that is hitting the emotions of listeners with it’s powerful lyrics and about their new project entitled “The Grascals & Friends” available at Cracker Barrel. The Grascals & Friends - Country Classics With A Bluegrass Spin is now available at all Cracker Barrel locations and online, with Cracker Barrel donating a portion of the proceeds from this CD to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

The Grascals bring their own bluegrass style to life on this exclusive new CD with eight of their friends, including Brad Paisley, Dierks Bentley, Charlie Daniels and Dolly Parton.

Bev: Kristin, 2010 was a great year for the Grascals and now you have the new CD in conjunction with Cracker Barrel. Visit with me about how this came about and why it is a perfect fit with the group.

KRISTIN: The Grascals have always tried to affiliate with other country artists. That is one thing that differentiates our band from most Bluegrass bands. We have ties with some of the people that are more mainstream. We always look for an opportunity to do an album where we feature some of those collaborations. The Cracker Barrel record was the perfect fit for that. On this project are folks like Joe Nichols, Dierks Bentley and Brad Paisley; some of the younger guys along with some legends, such as Tom T. Hall, Charlie Daniels, and Dolly Parton. There is a wide spread of artists on the album. That is something The Grascals have always valued. I think the affiliation we are most proud of is the one with Cracker Barrel, because it has such a recognizable brand. It is associated with so many of the traits that the typical Blue Grass audience members identify with which makes it a perfect for Blue Grass in general and especially for our band.

Bev: You mentioned Dolly Parton. The new video which features Dolly is out now which is also in association with St. Jude Children’s Hospital and Research which is also a highly recognized organization. How did that come to be?

KRISTIN: The highlight of the new record, we all agree, is the song “I Am Strong”. This is the song that the album really centers on. It was inspired by a trip to St. Jude and was co-written by Grascals member, Jamie Johnson. He visited St. Jude and saw signs or posters on the wall with blanks that the kids have filled in. The sentence started with “I am” and then they filled in the blank. There were all kinds of things, like “I am homesick”, “I am nauseated”, and “I am sad”. One kid wrote “I am vomit”. Just being a silly kid. There were all kinds of answers. But in the center of all of them it said “I Am Strong”. This statement inspired Jamie to write the song of his life. It has propelled us into a partnership with St. Jude that we are so proud of. It originally started actually with the Musician’s Against Childhood Cancer Festival which is in Columbus, Ohio by dear friends of ours, Darrel and Phyllis Atkins. They have a huge Blue Grass Festival which they have put on for many years. Then their daughter was diagnosed with cancer and became a patient at St. Jude and when they lost their daughter to a brain tumor and they turned the festival into a benefit for St. Jude. The bands that are involved with that festival already had a tie to St. Jude. The Grascals in particular had made some trips down to the hospital to present some checks from the proceeds of the Festival. That is how the tie with St. Jude originally started. Then when Jamie co-wrote this song, it just brought the Grascals even closer to the kids and to the organization as a whole. The video features a lot of the kids. Dolly Parton is in the video, but for once she is not the star. The little kids are who are acting so bravely.

Bev: There are two versions of the song. I have seen the video one with Dolly. But you also have a version which features a whole array of country artists. What is the purpose of having two versions?

KRISTIN: It is only one video, but there are two tracks on the album, one is a bonus track that features everybody from the record plus Terri Clark and Steven Seagull. The bonus track is at the end.

Bev: For those who have seen it, what kind of reaction are you getting?

KRISTIN: These kids are inspiring. Most of us in the band are parents. It breaks your heart to see these kids who are fighting such a serious illness at such a young age. After you are parents, dealing with your own kids, it really takes the compassion to a new level. When we play the song at shows people are overwhelmed. But when they see the video it really comes to light because they get to put faces with the ideas expressed in the song. You just cannot look at these kids and not be inspired. Another factor is that you see these parents and how brave they have to be. As sick as these kids are, it has to be even harder on the parents. Some of them are really young parents. If they have a two year old as a patient there, they may be only twenty five themselves. They all face it with such courage. For the very young kids, they are just living life what ever comes their way. They are not even aware of the gravity of the situation but the parents sure are! So you get to see them as well as the kids. It gives you the feel of the struggle they are dealing with. I think it is also a song of hope, which is what St. Jude is all about. From the very first meeting we had with them, they said the wanted to accurately portray the hospital. And the hospital is a place of hope. These kids are treated so well, especially the younger ones. They run around and play. It is almost like they do not realize that they are sick. St. Jude prides themselves on making this experience as painless as possible for the patient and for their families.

Bev: The group has had an insane last couple of years with all you have accomplished. Which achievements that you are most proud of?

KRISTIN: For one thing, the band’s continued longevity. The band is six years old. Sometimes you have that initial shot in the arm because you are something new and people being excited about you. But then you need to figure out how to sustain that. I think The Grascals have hit that point where everybody is burrowed in and we have proven that the band is in this for the long haul. That in itself is an accomplishment. It is a tough time to be a Blue Grass band but the band is thriving. Even with the current economic situation and I am thankful for that.

Bev: That is a great way of putting it, because the awards are great. But when you have that kind of friendship and the ties that you have, and to be able to say “hey, we’ve been around a long time”, that is very important, especially today.

KRISTIN: Yes, awards are nice but you have to make a living. We all feel so blessed. And we are lucky in that none of us are actually young in this band. We have so many years of experience with other bands. We realize how rare it is to actually be able to support yourselves playing music. We are incredibly thankful for that. I think one of the things that helps this band survive is because we realize it is a precious opportunity. You have to appreciate it and be thankful for it. Not too many people even have the chance to do that. There is a lot of gratitude in every single member of this band. We have all done it long enough to really appreciate it.

Bev: How has the social media impacted your band? By that I mean Twitter, Face Book, My Space etc.

KRISTIN: It is a huge part of what we do now. It really changes the dynamics of communication with fans. You can be very personal with them. I have some neighbor friends who had never seen the band and they are very well informed about what we are doing. I was amazed. I asked them how they knew all this and they said we are Facebook fans. They knew everything we were doing. It gives us so much accessibility to the fans and it is a tremendous asset. It would be foolish not to make use of it. And it is free! That is the best part.

Another thing that has been a great help to Blue Grass is satellite radio. It has made Blue Grass available to listeners twenty-four hours a day. We have never had the benefit of mainstream radio and this has given people a chance to hear the music around the clock. It is always there and it has grown the genre as a whole so much. We are incredibly thankful for that outlet. I think everyone has seen an increase in popularity since we have had that means of getting the music to people.

Bev: I know you are always doing new things that are fun and exciting. Aside from the new video you have out now, what will be next?

KRISTIN: Well, we encourage everybody to go to our website and check out the video there. And while you are there, look at our tour schedule. That is the best way for us to connect with fans. We would like for them to come to live shows and see us. We have a huge media run planned for the Cracker Barrel record. It starts in Nashville and then we go down to Florida and we go all the way up the east coast to New York. We will spend two or three days in New York City. We are very proud of this record and we do have a lot of stuff going on with that. We are very proud of the affiliation with Cracker Barrel and also with St. Jude. We want everyone to know that part of the proceeds go to St. Jude. That is another reason we are so invested in this emotionally.

There is one other record that I would like to mention. We are part of the fiftieth anniversary of the celebration of the Andy Griffith Show and Cracker Barrel. Cracker Barrel has put together a Fiftieth Anniversary Tin that they are selling in their stores. We are playing seven or eight songs from the Andy Griffith Show.

Bev: Kristin, always nice to visit with you and I am very excited for all that The Grascals have going on. Thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to chat with me.

KRISTIN: We certainly appreciate your time and thank you. We look forward to seeing you again too.

For more information on The Grascals visit

The Grascals & Friends - Country Classics With A Bluegrass Spin is now available at all Cracker Barrel locations and online, with Cracker Barrel donating a portion of the proceeds from this CD to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

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