Graber Gryass’s second album shows a profound relationship with nature and the earth.
Of all the new grass bands that have popped up over the last few years, Memphis-based Graber Gryass tower over their peers. Michael Graber’s well-rounded musical CV and the jaw-droppingly excellent musicianship of the entire acoustic collective make this new release a joy to listen to.
Graber has worked with the Grifters, 611, Bluff City Backsliders, Professor Elixir’s Southern Troubadours, and, more recently, Zeke’s Three Generation Jug Rascals, among others. His long-running musical experience extends from heavy metal and punk to Western swing and bluegrass. He chose last year to release his first album of original material as Graber Gryass, ‘Late Bloom.’ On ‘Spaceman’s Wonderbox’ he stretches beyond truly traditional Smoky Mountain/Blue Ridge bluegrass into more experimental but still recognisable territory. The subject matter is still old-school, with the triad of broken hearts, alcohol, and flowing rivers, but Graber also poetically delves into warm nights, fireflies, slow dancing, existential crises, cherishing love, and playfulness. The album is, according to Graber, “like a radio that’s been left on a volunteer station you hear really late one Saturday night—that’s the concept.”
These songs plus a dozen more were written during quarantine and recorded over two days at Royal Studios in Memphis under awkward but necessary socially distancing conditions. The opening track ‘Gravity’s String,’ like ‘River Vow’ and ‘Ever Changing Seasons,’ uses natural metaphors to convey strong emotions. It immediately demands attention with the clear vocal harmonies and full-on banjo and fiddle. The deep kinship with natural surroundings and the earth itself that Graber undoubtedly feels is recommended as an antidote to down moods, guaranteeing that some time outside will “cure your despair.” ‘River Vow,’ with its magnificent mandolin lines, lushly portrays desperate, intense love. ‘It Was Always You’ sounds like it could have been on the radio in the 1930’s, with Graber’s daughter Rowan Gratz’s lovely voice capturing longing and tested patience, and a surprising middle section that wanders intriguingly off base before returning home.
Alongside the cheerful and lighthearted parts of this collection are more serious, darker, and complicated states of mind. ‘Jump in the River’ is about a despondent man who plans to drown himself. ‘There’s a Buzz in Every Bottle’ is a twist on the usual honky-tonk plot of struggles with an unhappy adulterous relationship, and the mournful, waltzy ‘Drinking Again’ is about getting wasted after losing a lover: “Everything is blurry/except for the pain.” Final track ‘Strawberry Cake’ is a smile-inducing, roguish wink that brings to mind Jennifer Cruise’s novel ‘Bet Me,’ which includes a very sensual scene involving doughnuts.
Whatever travails Graber has endured in his fifty years, ‘Spaceman’s Wonderbox’ proves that, thankfully, he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Rather than tread a safe path with a tested musical style, he is putting his own unique stamp on bluegrass with his many talented friends.