It took Greensky Bluegrass 15 years but they finally made the Billboard Top 200 album chart. In September, their most recent album, If Sorrows Swim, which came out the same month, debuted at No. 127 on Billboard’s Top 200 — the first time the band has cracked that chart — and No. 1 on the Bluegrass Albums chart. Not bad for a band that hadn’t released an album in three years. But then again, these winners of the 2006 Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band competition have a way of growing on you — and surprising you. For starters, Greensky Bluegrass doesn’t have a drummer, but their live performances would have you believe differently.
“We start with bluegrass instruments, add effects to them, try to recreate textures and create the equivalent of a drum set for the band without actually having one there,” Bont says. “The drum set is what gets people grooving, and to not have a drummer in our band is actually to our disadvantage, so we take great pride in trying to figure out how to make that all work.”
Making a missing instrument seem present is the kind of effort that has made the Kalamazoo, Mich.-based band a staple of the bluegrass and festival circuits. It’s also helped Greensky Bluegrass become the well-oiled machine it is today.
“The way we’ve evolved most by playing live shows is our ability to read one another and be able to follow one another, musically,” says Bont. “That’s one of the big things I’ve noticed over the years. If I listen to one of the guys take a solo or something’s just going a certain way, then I automatically know what’s going to happen next.”
This is a good thing in Bont’s mind, even if sometimes it borders on scary good.
“It’s kind of weird sometimes, actually,” he laughs, “but if [dobro player] Anders [Beck] is taking a solo and he plays a certain lick, I will bet very good money on the lick he is going to play next, just because of the fact that we have played together for so long. We’re like a musical brotherhood in a way.”
The five of them are united in their desire to blur musical lines and defy people’s expectations with respect to their preferred genre of music. Just look at the band name — “Greensky” is the opposite of “Bluegrass” — it goes to show that though bluegrass is their genre of choice, they’ll do the opposite of what you may want them to do. Bont says, “We’re not just going up there and playing bluegrass music with bluegrass instruments and regurgitating a banjo solo verbatim that other artists have been playing for 40 years or whatever.”
Sometimes a band deteriorates over time, gets a little clumsy and makes a fool of itself. But other times, a band grows, hits their stride some years in, and becomes stronger with each tour and each album. Greensky Bluegrass falls into that latter category, and Bont is well-aware of how rare a thing that is. “I think we’re really great idealists, if that’s even a word,” he says. “It sounds like it could be a word.”
It is and it fits them to a “T.”