TERRE HAUTE —
A club in New York City or the front room of the Eldredges’ house near West Terre Haute.
The setting never fazed Terry Eldredge, even as a teenager. He could play music anywhere, bold and confident.
“He was never bashful,” recalled Louis Popejoy, a renowned Terre Haute musician and one of Eldredge’s early mentors.
More than 30 years ago, Popejoy fronted a bluegrass quartet that included Terry and his older brother, Grady, that toured the country, including the Big Apple and other East Coast locales. The bright lights and audiences didn’t shake Eldredge.
“I’m a 13-year-old boy, never been out of West Terre Haute, and there I was in downtown New York City,” Eldredge remembered, chuckling. “I didn’t really feel under pressure.”
And why would he? For years, Eldredge, his siblings, his folks, aunts, uncles, cousins and friends would host community jam sessions in their house every weekend. “I’ll bet you there wasn’t a night that there wasn’t somebody out there playing,” Popejoy said.
Eldredge confirmed that memory. “It was almost like a mini festival at my house,” he said.
Indeed, the roots of Terry Eldredge’s life in music run deep in Vigo County, his home community, where he was born, raised, performed with bands in pizza parlors and bars, sang in the West Vigo High School choir, graduated and immediately headed off to Nashville, Tenn. Three decades later, he’s coming back to his hometown to sing and strum on stage with his world-popular, Grammy-nominated band, The Grascals. The concert — at 8 p.m. Feb. 8, in Union Christian Church on Terre Haute’s east side — marks Eldredge’s first local show in more than 25 years.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said in a telephone interview from Nashville last week.
That said, Eldredge couldn’t help but look back a bit, too. He grew up across the street from West Vigo High School in a house full of musicians, from his Aunt Vera — a former Illinois radio show singer — to his immediate family.
Popejoy, who’s been teaching kids and adults to play almost any instrument with strings for 50 years, gave Eldredge’s brother, Grady, lessons, and they eventually rehearsed together with a group at the Eldredges’ house.
“And then we’d hear something coming out of the back bedroom, and it was Terry, beating on his guitar and singing along,” Popejoy said.
Terry took a few mandolin lessons from Popejoy, but grew more interested in the upright bass that Terry’s brother, Payton, played. Those bass-playing skills led Eldredge to pursue a career in Nashville. Just an 18-year-old high school senior, he landed a job as bassist for the veteran Grand Ole Opry act Lonzo and Oscar. The job involved sacrifice. Eldredge had to miss his West Vigo graduation ceremony to play the Opry that same day, but he did indeed earn his diploma.
Eldredge delivered guitar, bass and vocals as a band member for a string of notable artists as the years passed in Nashville, from the Osborne Brothers to Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time, Benny Martin, Josh Graves and Chubby Wise. Eldredge released two solo albums in 1992 and ’94, impressing critics with the second. Amid a 2003 International Bluegrass Music Association Awards (IBMA) nomination for Bass Player of the Year and his work as a member of Dolly Parton’s Blue-niques, a prime opportunity opened.
In 2004, Eldredge and some fellow Nashville musicians decided to form a bluegrass band that could bring the niche genre to wider audiences. Having passed his 40th birthday, Eldredge also wanted his cohorts to understand he intended the group to last. “I wanted this to be the band I retired with,” he said. They agreed, formed The Grascals, and — fueled by Parton’s outspoken support — became the hottest bluegrass outfit in America.
Parton and the exposure generated by genre-specific Sirius XM satellite radio stations has solidified The Grascals’ staying power that Eldredge sought.
“I think we’ve got a good foundation,” he said. “We just need to keep building on it.”
The structure includes three Grammy Award nominations spawned from the seven albums they’ve recorded in the past nine years. They’re up for Bluegrass Album of the Year in the 2013 Grammys for their “Life Finds a Way” disc released last year. They’ve won numerous bluegrass awards, but not a Grammy, yet. They’ll learn the outcome on Feb. 10, two days after they play Terre Haute.
“That is very flattering,” Eldredge said of the nomination, “but it can be very humbling, too, especially if you don’t win.”
The lineup has changed slightly since The Grascals’ first two Grammy nominations in 2006 and 2007. Fiddle player Jimmy Mattingly, who grew up in Terre Haute, left to tour full-time with Parton, and Jeremy Abshire now handles that role. The band’s first female member, Kristin Scott Benson, plays banjo, flanked by original members Eldredge on lead vocals and guitar, fellow Hoosier Jamie Johnson on co-lead vocals and guitar, Terry Smith on bass, and Danny Roberts on mandolin.
They lean on a mix of old-time music standards, gospel, originals, and improbable covers of tunes of almost any style, ranging from The Monkees to Elvis, Waylon Jennings and James Taylor. “There’s nothing in a genre we won’t try,” Eldredge said emphatically.
They’re also uninhibited about instrumentation. While their core arrangement remains traditional, all acoustic, The Grascals have included occasional drums, electric guitars and non-bluegrass instruments. “If there was something we were recording and wanted to put an oboe on it, and it fits, we’d do it. I don’t know what that would be. Maybe ‘I Am the Walrus,’ coo-coo-ca-joob,” he said, laughing.
The band is also experimenting with its workload. They are attempting to record two albums simultaneously — one conventional, and the other all gospel. “It’s gonna be a task, but we’re gonna try to do them both at once,” Eldredge said. Add to that their current tour, and life as a Grascal is busy. They enjoyed time at home over the holidays, a special treat for Eldredge, who married his longtime girlfriend, Catherine, on June 9, 2011. Still, he hasn’t lost the joy for making music on the road.
A show in Terre Haute, though, has remained a void on his resume. Mark Grayless, pastor at Union Christian Church in Terre Haute — the site of the Feb. 8 concert — wanted to correct that, and sought to host a Grascals gig. “Somebody did well, and they deserved to play in their own hometown,” Grayless said of Eldredge’s success.
One of The Grascals’ most high-profile gigs in years will happen Monday night, when the band performs in Washington, D.C., during celebrations surrounding President Obama’s inauguration. They’ll play at 7 that night at the Native Nations Inaugural Ball at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. Eldredge’s co-lead singer, Johnson, is a member of the Chippewa First Nation of Sarnia, Ontario. It will mark their first concert in the nation’s capital since a going-away party for President George W. Bush.
Eldredge, now 49, admits he remains awed by the places and people he — a guy from West Terre Haute — encounters. “All I know is that I’m glad to be here, thank the Lord,” he said.
See the Grascals
What: A concert, featuring Grammy-nominated bluegrass recording artists The Grascals, with an opening-act performance by a local bluegrass band led by Louis Popejoy. It’s billed as a homecoming for Grascals lead singer-guitarist Terry Eldredge, a West Terre Haute native.
When: Feb. 8. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. The Popejoy group begins at 7:30, followed by The Grascals at 8 p.m.
Where: Union Christian Church, 5350 E. Hulman Drive, Terre Haute.
Cost: Tickets are $15 each, and are available online at Eventbrite.com, or at the church office during regular hours. Seating is limited.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or email@example.com.