Gangstagrass and the Will to Thrive

Gangstagrass at Barley's, Knoxville, June 2023 (Photo by Luke Frazier)
Gangstagrass at Barley’s, Knoxville, June 2023 (Photo by Luke Frazier)

(Ed. Note: Today’s article is brought to you by guest writer Luke Frazier who does about as good a job summing up an unsummable band as possible. I first encountered Gangstagrass a decade ago as part of the Scruffy City Ramble at the Square Room. I saw them at least twice after that, at Rhythm N Blooms in 2015, first at Barley’s, and next at The Standard. They are clearly a powerhouse of rap and bluegrass fun.)

We had tickets to GangstaGrass at the Bijou for Friday night, plus they were playing a free set at Barleys at noon. A double dose of the Bluegrass—Hip Hop music hybrid that defines GangstaGrass promised to satisfy my ever-present desire to hear live music, for sure, but I also looked forward to seeing to what extent they might satisfy my itchy postmodern sensitivity. The one that looks for and celebrates the juxtaposition, the remix, the examination of assumptions and categories in fresh and flavorful ways. 

Gangstagrass, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, June 2023 (Photo by Luke Frazier)
Gangstagrass, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, June 2023 (Photo by Luke Frazier)
Gangstagrass, Bijou Theatre, Knoxville, June 2023 (Photo by Luke Frazier)

GangstaGrass burst on the scene more than 10 years ago out of the mind and heart of Rench, a Brooklyn-based musician and producer who was convinced that more people than you think love and listen to both Jay-Z and Johnny Cash. He wondered what would happen if you melded the high lonesome harmonies of traditional bluegrass with the spitfire beats of a rap attack. The banjo and fiddle with the looped beats and passion of a mic-master. The trucker hat with the Kangol cap.

The result was a new sound that Rench realized came from a common place of hard luck storytelling rooted in both African and Appalachian traditions. Histories of power differentials and economic exploitations. Rench at first put it out for free and the positive response included a huge win when the FX TV series Justified picked a Rench tune for its theme song, bringing it to a wide audience. 

Gangstagrass at Barley’s, Knoxville, June 2023 (Photo by Luke Frazier)

Now, after a half-dozen albums and touring around the world, GangstaGrass is recognized as genre-establishing, rather than genre-defying. Their current line-up of Dan Whitener (banjo, dobro, harmonica, vocals), Brian Farrow (fiddle, vocals), R-SON the Voice of Reason (vocals), Dolio the Sleuth (vocals), and Rench (guitar, beats, vocals) brought this creative sensation to both shows. 

At Barleys they opened with acapella harmonies and wove a daytime weave from there, including a cover of the venerable I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow. At the Bijou they went a little harder at the audience and got everyone out of their seats for an extended period (at one point R-SON told us the sitting portion of the show was over, and he was right). The through lines were pro-social messages (unity, mutual respect, shared values, connection), kick-ass banjo picking, fiery fiddle runs, and clever word play, e.g. 

We can cooperate, collaborate on getting by
Or build something substantial enough to lift us up high
As one, since the virtue of nation is increased
By the example of the treatment it extends to the least…

Gangstagrass at Barley’s, Knoxville, June 2023 (Photo by Luke Frazier)

If there is one line that bottom-lines it, it is found in their song Do Better, from their album No Time for Enemies: Cause we all do better when we all do better, can’t get better than that. As Rench put it in an interview last year in, “We are trying to meet in a space where the goal is for everyone to thrive.” And as we all joined to sing that line at the end of their show, we did. 

My quest for experience that scratches against convention was more than met by 10 p.m. as we left the Bijou and walked home up Gay St. I shuddered for a moment at the memory of my younger self’s easy dismissiveness and cynicism; the sound and fury signifying insecurity. Now I try and look for what lifts the spirit, and when it is done with the kind of creative grace GangstaGrass delivers, it’s a wonder to behold.