Cover story, published in Folio Weekly on August 28, 2012
Written by Nick McGregor
Original Article >>
Atlantic Beach trio Grandpa’s Cough Medicine walks the line between traditional bluegrass and hell-raising outlaw music
“[Bluegrass] is Scottish bagpipes and ol’-time fiddlin’. It’s Methodist and Holiness and Baptist. It’s blues and jazz, and it has a high lonesome sound. It’s plain music, and it tells a good story. I want it to go from my heart to your heart, and I want us both to hear it.” — Bill Monroe
Most modern bluegrass bands take that definition, laid out decades ago by Bill Monroe, the father of the genre, in one of two directions. Either they strictly adhere to it, pleasing bluegrass purists in the process, or they cheekily reinterpret it for jam-band-loving hippies. Atlantic Beach trio Grandpa’s Cough Medicine, however, doles out its own twisted version of the bluegrass truth. On one hand, they honor tradition with top-notch instrumental chops and a clear-eyed take on the music’s acoustic purity. But with the other hand, they rip that tradition to shreds, pummeling it into submission and burying it deep in the Northeast Florida earth.
Just cop a look at the art direction for the band’s sophomore album, “The Murder Chord,” which they self-released on Aug. 25. The cover depicts guitarist Brett Bass’ bloody hand stretched out across a fretboard; the liner notes show three shovels resting in a pile of dirt; the CD backing features Bass, bassist Jon Murphy and banjoist Mike Coker lowering a body into the ground; and the back illustrates the three finishing up the gruesome job.
Jacksonville musician and graphic designer Grant Nielsen, who performs with area bands Fusebox Funk and JacksonVegas, helped Grandpa’s Cough Medicine execute the photo shoot with his photographer wife, Jenny Balsamo. “Originally, the idea was a Depression-era, ‘Grapes of Wrath’ vibe,” Nielsen says. “But Brett was like, ‘What if we give it a death metal vibe? We want to do something that separates us from every other band out there.’ And that’s awesome. I respect their ability to say ‘Screw you’ to what everyone thinks.”
As for bluegrass’ “high lonesome sound,” which Monroe so aptly described? Grandpa’s Cough Medicine puts a modern spin on that, too. Check out “Substance Abuse Problem,” off their 2009 debut album, “Jailbird Blues”: “Lord knows I’m sleep-deprived when I’m on cocaine/And I sure don’t like to think about what acid does to my brain.” And when it comes to that “Methodist, Holiness and Baptist” trinity, Grandpa’s Cough Medicine takes an even more aggressive stance. “I grew up in a Christian cult, so all that religious, gospel stuff turns me off,” Bass says. “The tradition of picking as good the best people out there? That’s important to me.”
Bass believes that Grandpa’s Cough Medicine fits better within a loose “outlaw bluegrass” vein, similar to that taken by country pariahs Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams Jr. All three sang fervently about alcohol and drug abuse, and Cash even fantasized about committing a few murders of his own. But none gleefully glorified the homicidal act the way Bass, Coker and Murphy do on songs like “Chainsaw Crescendo” or “Bullet For a Thief.” Similarly, very few musicians have had the balls to sing about politicians “snorting cocaine off a hooker’s ass,” as they do on “Political Scandal,” or inquire of the homeless, “Why don’t you go get a job/You smelly piece of trash?” as they do on “Hobo Hater.”
Understandably, that lyrical content has placed Grandpa’s Cough Medicine at odds with local bluegrass purists, several of whom wrote Folio Weekly after the band was featured in 2011 to say “they are not a true bluegrass band” and “no matter how great their chops … if their lyrical themes center around such negativity and filth … it has no attraction.” The band reveled in that hate mail, reasoning that all press equals good press. That sneering attitude has probably endeared them to more fans who regularly pack venues like Mojo No. 4 BBQ & Whiskey Bar in Avondale, St. Augustine’s A1A Ale Works and Fly’s Tie Irish Pub in Atlantic Beach.
A recent Saturday night gig at Fly’s Tie was wall-to-wall with listeners of all ages, sexes, colors and economic levels, perhaps because the band considers the bar their de facto home base. Bass and Coker live around the corner and Murphy has an apartment less than a block away. And Fly’s Tie owner Ralph Tiernan says, “I’m so blessed to have Grandpa’s Cough Medicine playing a regular gig here. I treat my bands like baseball players, keeping stats on them, and they’re my clean-up hitters.”
But even in those cozy confines, Grandpa’s Cough Medicine were consummate professionals, loading in their gear in minutes and starting their set at 10 p.m. sharp. They opened with a blazingly fast mix of originals and standards, the breakneck pace getting everyone from middle-aged couples to young hipsters to crusty Beaches regulars stomping their feet and clapping their hands to some of the fiercest licks ever laid down in Duval County. Whenever Coker or Bass launched into a blitzkrieg instrumental breakdown, the diverse crowd whooped up a storm like they were at a backwoods barn-raising.
More impressive is how each member of the band arrived at bluegrass. Bass, 25, grew up in South Florida and moved to Jacksonville eight years ago, by which time he was already a devout, Ozzy Osbourne-obsessed, heavy-metal worshiper. Murphy, 40, studied music and voice at the University of Arizona and spent time singing in the Arizona Opera Company. And Coker, 21, who doesn’t sing and maintains a modest presence onstage, chalks up his love of the banjo to hearing Earl Scruggs perform “The Beverly Hillbillies” theme song on television.
Bass gigged in grungy garages for years, but at age 17, he took inspiration from Lester Flatt’s flat-picking style and Johnny Cash’s booming baritone, forming Grandpa’s Cough Medicine as “the first serious band” of his life. “That technical proficiency was one of the things that drew me to bluegrass as a metal player,” he says. “[And my vocals] are a point of pride. Metal’s all screaming — I could never decipher what the hell [the singers] were saying. As a kid, I overlooked that because I liked the riffs, but as I started getting more mature, it really wasn’t enjoyable any longer.”
Murphy performed as a solo act and with rock bands in California and Florida before answering Bass’ Craigslist ad for “outlaw country band seeking members.” He played electric bass in the six-piece honky-tonk iteration of Grandpa’s Cough Medicine that didn’t last long; with a straight face, Bass says, “The fiddle player moved away, we fired our electric guitar player, our drummer eventually bowed out and we had to kick our mandolin player out because he was a drunk.” So Murphy bought a banged-up 1958 upright Kay bass, Bass recruited a banjo player and the acoustic three-piece version of GCM was born.
But Bass and Murphy kept bumping into Coker, nicknamed “Banjo Boy” by almost everyone in Jacksonville, at impromptu area jams. They were impressed — not just with his technical skill, but with his original riffs, and though he was in a respected area gospel band at the time, Bass and Murphy quickly recruited him to the dark side. The trio performed its first show together at Fly’s Tie around 2008, and in 2009, they recorded their debut album, “Jailbird Blues,” at St. Augustine’s Eclipse Studios.
All 15 songs on that record — along with the 15 that make up “The Murder Chord” — are entirely original compositions, another point of pride for the band. But unlike many acts that have lost money touring the country too soon, Grandpa’s Cough Medicine happily gigged close to home and racked up appearances at the numerous festivals held throughout the year at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park. “If we had the opportunity to do those festivals every weekend, we’d be all over it,” Bass says. “But monetarily, playing local is good — we make the same amount doing two nights at Fly’s Tie as if we drove up to Georgia.”
Many bands claim to play strictly for the love, but making a good living is integral to the existence of Grandpa’s Cough Medicine. Bass and Coker both pick full-time, while Murphy says his freelance media work has decreased as the band has become more popular. Bass emphasizes that they’ve self-financed every project they’ve undertaken, including the recording of their new album, which was completed in a stunning 30 hours spread out over four days in Nashville with acclaimed bluegrass producer Randy Kohrs. “For a local band from Florida, they came in with a very professional attitude,” says Kohrs, who’s recorded with Hank Williams III, toured with John Fogerty and produced all of cult bluegrass star Jim Lauderdale’s work. “They’re all fine pickers, and Brett is a powerful singer with a lot of attitude and stage presence. But it was fun to get them out of their element; I think I pushed them vocally farther than they’ve ever gone before.”
Bass, Murphy and Coker all agree that Kohrs helped make their songs “infinitely better.” “If you want to be taken seriously, you have to take yourself and your craft seriously,” Bass says. “That’s why we went where there was expertise in our genre. Obviously, we have fun with our songs, but we want to put out a product that we would actually listen to as a fan.”
Another vast improvement between “The Murder Chord” and “Jailbird Blues” comes from the fact that each song alternates between Bass’ vocally aggressive songs and Murphy’s smoother, more honey-voiced tracks. “It’s a nice mixture of being fun and serious, which is a hard thing to balance,” says Grant Nielsen. “If you get tired of one style, they have a whole ’nother one on offer. They’re so theatrical yet totally nonchalant, which comes from the gravity of their personalities.”
Grandpa’s Cough Medicine is also known for its charitable performances, cheering up sick patients at Wolfson Children’s Hospital and giving demonstrations to local elementary school kids. Murphy laughs, “Obviously, we don’t play the vulgar stuff for kids,” and Bass adds, “I like kids, and I’m certainly not trying to make music that will terrorize children.”
But Grandpa’s Cough Medicine is happy to keep up its hell-raising reputation, which is precisely what caught Randy Kohrs’ ear. “I see them as an acoustic Hank [Williams] III,” he says. “They’re afraid of nothing — true outlaws in every sense of the word. And I think they have a bright future ahead of them.” Bass, Coker and Murphy obviously want increased success in the future. They’ve performed at Disney World for a railroad convention, have appeared on Michael Feldman’s NPR show “Whad’Ya Know?” and have opened for progressive bluegrass stars Yonder Mountain String Band and Larry Keel.
But their “screw it all” attitude really can’t be suppressed. “We’re not trying to be marketable or mainstream,” Bass says. “More traditional people might not like us for it, but that’s their prerogative. We’re not going to censor ourselves because of what people think bluegrass should be. If that means some people are going to get offended and say we’re not bluegrass, so be it.”
One song that’s potentially offensive is “Rachel’s Revenge,” off the band’s first album. The narrative plays out with “Three black boys/[who] wore their pants down past their ass” mugging a female friend of Bass,’ before the singer dreams of “Western justice in South Jax Beach.”
“They don’t know what they set in motion/That girl she is my friend/I’ll leave their bodies in the ocean/When they meet their gruesome end.” Bass shrugs off any perceived controversy, though, saying it’s the band’s most requested original tune. “I wrote that because I was pissed and had to let it out somewhere. Songwriting’s a healthy way to deal with anger, which is the emotion I feel the most, in a harmless way. I might have written a violent song, but no one got hurt. It’s just telling a story.”
No matter how much they flout bluegrass tradition, the genre’s narrative history still suits them best. Southwest Florida guitar maker Ken Bailey, who built both of Bass’ current six-strings, credits the band with helping move bluegrass into the future. “They’re like heavy-metal bluegrass, which is great,” Bailey says. “The new material that they write is really good. And like anything, if bluegrass isn’t growing or changing, it’s dying. If everybody sounds like Bill Monroe, the music will disappear.”
Bass credits Bailey not only for his instrumental help, but for loosening up bluegrass’ notoriously tight strictures. “Ken’s in the bluegrass association down [in Plant City], and they had no-drinking rules at jams, so as a result, no one would show up,” Bass says. “You have to let people come and have a good time! Why try to regulate fun? Bluegrass isn’t church. Hank III made me see that you could play this hillbilly music and still be a badass without going to church.”
Again, Bass rails against bluegrass’ gospel tradition, saying, “We’ll totally take that stand; I’m not going to pretend to be Christian to appease Christian people. It just seems hypocritical.” But he saves his most vituperative fury for popular American bands like Old Crow Medicine Show and Mumford & Sons, which he decisively describes as “not bluegrass.” “Those bands don’t chase that tradition of being badass at your instrument,” he says. “They’re slackers. You have to put in the time and learn the strict things that serve as the foundation of bluegrass. I wouldn’t call myself a flat-picker if I couldn’t flat-pick a bunch of fiddle tunes.”
Grandpa’s Cough Medicine does aspire to perform at traditional bluegrass gatherings like MerleFest or the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, while also understanding the possibly controversial role they’d play there. “There’d certainly be people there who’d be offended by the things we play,” Murphy says. “But there’d be just as many who’d love it.” Bass says that their numerous performances at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park’s Magnolia Fest and Spring Fest have resulted in their moving up from small, outdoor stages to indoor halls. And Nielsen says that should come as no surprise. “Brett, Mike and Jon are all top-tier musicians,” he says. “And Brett, even as young as he is, is the best flat-picker I’ve ever seen in my life. When he goes to Suwannee, larger acts and national touring bands will invite him up to play. And when he starts playing, every head on stage turns toward him.”
Back at Fly’s Tie, Grandpa’s Cough Medicine takes only a few breaks in their four-hour bar set, all three musicians wringing the cramps out of their hands after nonstop picking. They mingle with the audience, shaking hands with old friends, inviting fellow musicians up for a jam and working the room like true professionals. Kohrs, Bailey, Nielsen and Tiernan all agree that the band could easily raise their profile to regional or national status. Tiernan even says, “I tease them that they’re a lottery ticket away from me flying them over to Ireland, because they’d kill it in Europe.”
But Murphy says that the band understands the importance of its local bar gigs. “We’ve never played a show here in Jacksonville that wasn’t for at least one new person,” he says. Bass agrees, saying, “Playing in a bar, you never know what random f*cker’s going to walk in, dig what you’re doing and, hopefully, buy a CD. That’s why we keep the majority of our songs fast tempo with hot picking. We only play slow songs every once in a while to give ourselves a break. And then we get right back at it.”
And while Bass, with his imposing physical presence and broad facial features, is the band’s de facto frontman, he also understands the importance of Grandpa’s Cough Medicine operating as a whole. “I can pluck around on the banjo, but I can’t approach what Mike does with it,” Bass says. “And neither he nor Jon can do what I do on guitar. In a very real sense, we are a unit.”
Even if a label never comes calling, even if national stardom never arrives and even if their brand of outlaw bluegrass continues attracting fans and pissing off purists in equal measure, Bass, Murphy and Coker will still passionately ply their dark, sinister and singular trade. “So many bands are keeping the strict bluegrass tradition alive,” Bass says. “But that’s not our job. There’s so much cookie-cutter shit out there — why try to be that?”