Husband and wife musicians Grace & Tony are relatively new on the scene, but with their first full-length album released last fall, they have embarked on a touring schedule that is bringing them to the attention of new fans in many places, including an upcoming stop in Louisville on March 22 at The New Vintage. They've honed a unique style that blends the southern gospel and bluegrass that Grace Shultz grew up with and the punk rock leanings of Tony White. White, who is brother to John Paul White of the Civil Wars, spoke to me about how it all came about -- the marriage of two musicians and of two distinct music genres.
Both Grace and Tony were born and raised in Lawrence County, TN and first became aware of one another in their various musical circles. White admits that he had a "secret crush" on Grace before he invited her to jam with friends while he was between bands.
"We started playing these punk rock songs on banjo and mandolin and acoustic guitar, and that's kind of where it started." As the relationship bloomed, so did their music. "We just started writing in that style and the feel that those songs had in the beginning." That style has been dubbed "punkgrass," and it does seem to fit the driving energy and rebelliousness of the songs that are played on traditional string instruments (and the occasional kazoo). White, however, dismisses putting too much importance on labels. "I believe that a good song is a good song. And once you have one, you can present it in any genre, and it will be loved."
The songs on November display an inventiveness and sense of play, peopled with evil masterminds, superheroes, and other strange characters. "Electricity Bomb" is a tale of a post-apocalyptic world where technology seems to have been zapped, leaving lovers to consider each other anew. The feel of the words is both antique and post-modern, matching the aesthetic at work in the instrumentation and their voices. White described their songwriting approach: "I am a melody person and Grace is a lyricist. We both do both things from time to time but we naturally gravitate toward those roles....Neither of us like to write about relationships. We're storytellers. We like to write stories. We're definitely more influenced by books and movies than we are other music."
So far, the touring experience has been very positive, according to White. Last November, Grace finished nursing school which allowed them to play more than just the gigs here and there that they set up on their own. They are signed with Rock Ridge Music and have a booking agency, which has resulted in more opportunities. "The venues are better. We're playing with bigger acts and in front of bigger crowds. All of that's good stuff when you're trying to spread the word." They played a string of dates in the UK to appreciative crowds and were also a part of the Cayamo Music Cruise, for which White had nothing but praise, from the music-savvy crowds to the way the musicians were treated. "It was the best week of our lives," he said with a laugh.
Grace & Tony are looking forward to a bright future, and pretty soon they won't have to defend their musical roots the way they do in the song "Blassphemy," which wonders wryly what Bill Monroe might have to say about the way they are creating a new twist on the bluegrass standard. But they are confident in their answer:
Here's to all the pioneers that bled to pave our way/
I'm toasting all of you and respect the things you say/
We'll play our songs the way we want to play.
Grace & Tony will play The New Vintage (formerly Uncle Pleasant's at 2126 Preston St.) on March 22, joined by Louisville's Misty Mountain String Band at 7:30p.m. and opening for New Orleans' rock band Captain Midnight. See the website for details on tickets (Grace & Tony's website lists tickets as $5, general admission). Below, see the video for the song, "November."