News Column

BlueBilly Grit brings unique sound to festival

August 16, 2013


Aug. 16--An acclaimed band from northeast Georgia that was founded just five years ago on family heritage and harmonies will kick off Friday's portion of the North Carolina State Bluegrass Festival.

BlueBilly Grit will play two shows Friday, one at noon and the other at 4:45 p.m. The group will make its first appearance at a festival promoted by Adams Bluegrass, LLC. BlueBilly Grit is based in Maysville, Ga., which is about an hour from Dahlonega Ga. where Adams Bluegrass is based. It will also be the band's first performance in Marion.

"We are looking forward to bringing our music to the people of North Carolina and we hope they enjoy listening to us just as much as we enjoy performing for them," said founding member Mark Garrison to The McDowell News. "I have been to Marion several times. It is beautiful country."

BlueBilly Grit, also called BBG, has six members who provide both male and female vocals. Garrison plays banjo, mandolin and guitar while his daughter Amber Starr Hollis provides lead vocals, Shawn Hart provides vocals and plays guitar. They are from Maysville, Ga,, which is roughly the same size as Old Fort.

Adam Rambin is on upright bass while Roman Gaddis plays the mandolin. Patrick Chisolm is on the fiddle and sings vocals too. They are from Dahlonega, Ga.

BlueBilly Grit was formed in 2008. The band got its start at an old historic gristmill at a park in Maysville. Garrison's father Bobby "Pee Wee" Garrison used to run that gristmill and every year, an arts festival would be held there. Garrison said he and his brother Adam would jam on the side porch of the old gristmill during the festival.

"My daughter was singing at the time," said Garrison. We talked her into joining."

The original group consisted of his daughter Amber, his son Matt, his brother Adam and mandolin player Tony Ianuario.

"I had played bluegrass off and on my whole life," said Garrison.

He had previously lived in Nashville for 10 years trying to get into the music business. During that time, he worked for country star Reba McEntire. He worked on her estate and its grounds and her horse farms.

McEntire published three gospel songs Garrison had written and offered to set up a record deal for him. But Garrison turned her offer down and decided to return to Georgia. He pretty much got out of the music business and spent the next several years raising a family, according to BlueBilly Grit's website.

However, playing music at that old gristmill rekindled a passion that he always held close to his heart. His family members thought about starting a bluegrass band.

"I had thought of the name BlueBilly Grit several years before," he said.

Garrison explained that "Blue" is for bluegrass while "Billy" is for rockabilly. The "Grit" comes from the legendary Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. In 1972, that band released the classic album "Will The Circle Be Unbroken," which introduced classic country and bluegrass to new generations.

In addition, Garrison wrote a song called "Mill Grinder's Blues." It was about the old gristmill that his dad operated. He and the new band recorded this song, which was put on a compilation CD with other tracks by Rhonda Vincent and Steve Martin.

"That was the start of us getting a little bit of a name going," said Garrison. "We got a little bit of airplay."

Since forming in 2008, the lineup of BBG has changed somewhat but the tradition from Garrison's family remains. The band has released the albums, "Mill Grinder's Blues" and "Ready For A Change." The band also released "BlueBilly Grit: Live at The Melting Point," which was recorded in Athens, Ga. A live video performance has just been released.

Every year, BlueBilly Grit hosts the annual Tony and Ann Ianuario Festival. This event honors the founding member and his wife who were killed in an automobile accident in early 2009.

Garrison will never forget when he learned that both his mandolin player and his wife were dead in that tragic accident.

"We had not been long into this and I was down in Florida," he said to The McDowell News. "My brother calls and tells me about it and I just went 'Wow.'"

A devastated Garrison quickly came back home. Garrison, his son Matt and his brother Adam all performed at the funeral for the Ianuarios. A show had also been booked for the band a few nights later and the members of BBG talked about whether or not they should cancel. They realized that their late bandmate would want them to push ahead.

"We had a show to do but we went ahead," said Garrison. "We played the show on Saturday night after his funeral on Thursday. That was tough. We decided to keep going with it."

In 2012, BlueBilly Grit's hard work and determination paid off. The band won the Telluride Bluegrass Festival band competition in Telluride, Colo.

"We were part of 12 bands that went out to Telluride," said Garrison. "We were glad we were out there. We really didn't care if we placed or not. We made it to the finals and got on stage Saturday and performed. That just blew us all away."

BBG returned to this year to the 40th anniversary of the Telluride festival where they had a slot on the main stage. They performed alongside such big names as Jackson Browne, Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, Peter Rowan, Del McCoury, J.D. Crowe and Emmylou Harris.

The band has performed on numerous radio and TV shows including "Nuts and Bolts of Fishing" on Turner South and "Moby in the Morning Show," a nationally syndicated radio show based in Atlanta.

For many, what makes BlueBilly Grit an exciting band is the musical harmony between Garrison, his daughter Amber and guitarist Shawn Hart.

"She's got a wonderful voice," said Garrison of his daughter. I think she's what sets us apart and our three-part harmony. You know how that family harmony is, you can't touch it."

His son Matt left the group to continue his education and Hart then took Matt's place in the vocal harmonies.

"He is good songwriter," said Garrison of Hart. "He's contributed four or five songs to the group."

After performing at Telluride and other festivals, the members of BlueBilly Grit got to meet with Norman Adams of Adams Bluegrass, LLC. Today at noon, BlueBilly Grit will make its debut with Adams Bluegrass LLC, which holds bluegrass festivals all over the Southeast.

"We are hoping we will be working more with (Adams') festivals," said Garrison. "That is where our audience is."

The band's sound is a combination of traditional bluegrass and more Americana-type music.

"We are a little bit edgy," said Garrison. "We have a little bit different sound. Traditional bluegrass people love us and people who don't like bluegrass like us. We have had people come up to us and say 'I never really liked bluegrass but I like it.'"

The band has also performed in western North Carolina including the Feed and Seed in Fletcher and the Back Room in Flat Rock. The members of BBG would also like to do a "Live in Studio B" show on public radio station WNCW in Spindale.

"We would like to get into the Orange Peel, the Purple Onion and the Grey Eagle," said Garrison. "We want to break into that market."


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