Photo By Mickey Dobo
East Nash Grass has been called a “who’s who of Nashville’s hottest young pickers.” There’s certainly a buzz surrounding the band, but don’t think of them as up-and-comers. With a recent review in Bluegrass Unlimited, a showcase at the International Bluegrass Music Association festival in September, and the release of their debut album this past July, the band has clearly arrived.
Except for fiddle player Maddie Denton, who lives in nearby Murfreesboro, Tennessee, the other members are Nashville transplants who moved to Nashville to pursue music. About the same time the eventual members of East Nash Grass arrived in Nashville, a new live music venue was starting on the east side of Nashville, called Dee’s Lounge.
Feeding on the vibe of that emerging venue, James Kee assembled a pickup band and secured a regular house band slot on Monday nights at Dee’s. Eventually, the lineup solidified, and East Nash Grass was born.
Being from Tennessee, Kee says bluegrass music was always in his ears and seeped into his soul. When he came to Nashville, that innate love of bluegrass was renewed. Dee’s Lounge was one of the first gigs he found. “There’s no real market for bluegrass downtown, other than the Station Inn, so we sort of had to create our own little bluegrass niche in Nashville,” Kee explained.
So, that’s what they did at Dee’s Lounge. Week after week, the band grew tighter, and started writing original songs. They began recording just before COVID hit, and were able to finish the record during the pandemic, which was released in July 2021. “We’re now promoting that record, and would love to get back in the studio soon and start on the next one,” Kee said.
In the meantime, Dee’s Lounge has turned into a popular live music venue. In fact, the week before this interview, East Nash Grass even did a pop-up performance with ROMP alum Sierra Hull.
“East Nash Grass is the strongest band I’ve ever played in,” Kee said. “They’ve definitely raised the bar for me as far as being challenged musically, and it’s really made me want to keep playing this style of music.”
Bassist Geoff Sounders has a doctorate and is accomplished in many styles of music, but is infatuated with southern bluegrass. Kee says Geoff moved to Nashville so he could play the real southern stuff with musicians from the area. Gaven Largent is from Virginia, so he brings the traditional Stanley brothers sound to the band. Gaven is the newest to Nashville, but is already one of the most sought-after dobro players around. Banjo player Corey Walker moved from Florida to Tennessee to go to college at Middle Tennessee State University.
Although several members have made appearances in Owensboro before, their February show will be the first time the band will perform together at the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Maddie played fiddle for Dan Tyminski at ROMP this past September. Harry Clark played guitar with the Wooks, who appeared at ROMP and other performances in Owensboro. Corey can be seen in several photographs inside the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and Museum, where he’s seen playing banjo behind artists such as Billy Strings, Earl Scruggs, and Marty Stuart.
Kee says the first album has a lot of different moods—from progressive, to traditional, and a little country—to see what people like. “We’ve got some real shredders in this band. We’re lifetime students of this genre, but we’re constantly changing and evolving. We’re always pushing each other just to see what we can do. That’s what’s so fun about this band.”
So while newer bluegrass musicians and fans might still be trying to figure out what bluegrass is, East Nash Grass has already been there, done that, and taken it to the next level. “That’s just the privilege of us growing up in the south,” Kee says. “I turn 34 this spring and I’ve been playing bluegrass since I was 10. I’ve been fortunate enough to see some of the legends live. So here we come, just a generation off the legends, and we’re trying to pay homage to the founders, but also move it forward and make it fun for the listener too by demonstrating that we are students of this music. We honor the heritage, but we don’t take it too seriously, and we still have fun with it.”
Playing as a house band every Monday night gives East Nash Grass a chance to play together and rotate in new songs every week. Since a lot of the same people show up at Dee’s Lounge every week, the band has to keep their set fresh; constantly introducing new original material or playing cover songs they’ve never played before.
When they play a show out of town like we’ll see at the Hall of Fame, they play their best songs, but James admits he’s notoriously terrible about straying off the setlist and calling other songs on the fly. “We like to play off the energy of the crowd. We’re not a listening room band. We have fun when we play, and we want the listeners to have fun, too. We keep it interesting and fresh. We have our standards, but our set is constantly changing.”
At the Hall of Fame show on February 5, fans can expect to hear songs off East Nash Grass’ debut album, but the band will likely throw in songs they know will be crowd favorites. “This band is super versatile, which allows us to roll with a really traditional sound or jam out a little bit,” Kee said. “Each member can play any style of bluegrass there is, so sometimes we’ll groove on a jam or play something just for the fun of it.
We love Owensboro and all we’ve heard about it. It sounds like there are some philanthropic forces behind things there in Owensboro and it’s exciting for us to know the Hall of Fame is getting so much attention. We each have touring experience in Kentucky, so we’re really looking forward to bringing East Nash Grass up to Owensboro and hope to see some familiar faces.”