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Keepers of the Flame: The Legacy of the Groah Dynasty in Virginia: Part II

Click here for part I of Keepers of the Flame

What Happened Next…

For Danny, those trips were laying the groundwork on the path to his heart’s desire, which had been building from his earliest memories. “…when you move on up to say, four, I started wanting to perform. I’d use a broom for my guitar and at my aunt’s house, where I used to stay, she had these built-in benches out by her flower beds; I’d stand up on them like a stage and sing Buck Owens songs. They all still talk about that–I did it every day. I’m thinking that’s when I knew what I wanted to do. I first started trying to fit into their little group here with a snare drum. I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to go with it at that age, I just loved the sound of the music. I guess I just knew that’s all I ever wanted to do.”

Lu recalls his first guitar, “We got him this little ol’ white plastic guitar that had some black on it. He liked Flatt and Scruggs–we’d put the record on and he’d be in there playing right along, saying, ‘come in there, boys!’ That’s when Lenny said, ‘we’re gonna get him a real, good guitar–he’s a musician.'”

The seeds were sown. Lenny and Lu continued to write and Danny played guitar. “I started making chords on the guitar [when I was] around six or seven years old—Mom taught me some stuff. Then a couple years later I got an electric guitar and started playing some by ear. Some of the guys around showed me different things. Jerry McKee, who played lead guitar for the local band The Versatile Keys, introduced me to theory and taught me my first solo, “Stranger on a Shore.” In fact, the guitar I play today belonged to Jerry McKee. I took some lessons from Buddy Thomas and that really helped me out. So, with what I picked up from them, and playing by ear, I was able to play in some little rock bands around the neighborhood—basement bands. That was when I was eleven, twelve, thirteen years old.

By the time I was fifteen, I’d been playing in these rock bands for a dance here and there, but there just weren’t many jobs and the ones we got didn’t pay well. Then Mom and some of the women she worked with got together and started a band and I listened–they sounded pretty good. So I sat in with them and we thought, ‘hey, we might be able to go out and play some places.’ 

That’s how all that started. The jobs came and they paid well; there was more interest in country around here than rock at that time, in the 70s. We built a band, Music & Then Some, into a pretty good band (Lu sang lead and played rhythm guitar, Danny played lead guitar, and Lenny ran the show.) At one point we were working three nights a week. It lasted 6 or 7 years.”

The Groahs enjoyed their successes, together and individually. The band was a family affair that was booked often and took a lot of everyone’s of time and energy. They each did what they did best; Lu wrote and sang songs, Danny played guitar, and Lennie took care of business. But things were changing. The trips to Nashville were less frequent. Danny was matriculating through high school, towards a future that held the possibility of very different paths.

Even though Danny knew what he wanted to do on some level, when dreams are large they can seem too grand to take seriously—especially if you live in a small town. Like most kids, he changed his mind along the way. In high school he considered becoming a tool and dye maker. Then he thought about joining the forest service.

Danny recounts, “When I was in college and most of my earlier life, music had been a way to make some extra money, and I loved doing it, but I didn’t know where I’d ever go with it. I guess I was in college thinking I’d get a business degree, even though I’d known lots of people with degrees that they didn’t use.

Then, when I was a senior in college, we went to Nashville–your parents went along. And that’s all it took for me. I’d been there a lot over the years and always loved it, but at that point in my life, when I got there and heard what was going on, I just had to do it. I was so knocked out by the sound down there I wanted it in our band here. I came home and we decided to change our sound to make it more country. A couple of the members dropped out and we put together another band called High Country. After about a year, I decided that’s what I wanted to do.”

I have a profoundly deep memory of Lynwood–he’ll  always be Lynwood to me–sitting at my parents’ kitchen table recounting the trip. He poured a drink from his bottle of Jack (always Green, never Black) and settled back in the chair. “You shoulda been there–Eloise (my mom) was up front with me and George (my dad), Lu, and Danny were back there pickin’ up a storm. All the way down the road. Didn’t matter what was going on, they picked. Stopping for gas, driving through rush hour traffic in Knoxville, they just kept on pickin’. Hit Nashville, they were still pickin’. Though it was issued as a curmudgeonly remark, he didn’t bother to keep the pride out of his voice.

Lynwood was a smart man; by this point, he felt the turning of the musical tide. The music and the business were changing  and the sound of country music was shifting. He and Lu continued to pitch songs in a less receptive environment–their generation of country music was giving way to the next. You might say nature was taking its course. Danny’s decision to take his guitar and follow his heart was also a perfect opportunity for his seasoned parents to use their resources and experience to support him in realizing his dream. Which, of course, was to move to Nashville and play with the big boys.

This is where I come in again. It was 1982; I won’t say I was a woman of leisure at the time, but I was a woman of leisure at the time. I got a call from Lynwood, who said, “well, the boys are moving to Nashville–we’ve rented them an apartment. I’m gonna need you to help me drive and get ’em settled. Be gone two or three days.”

The “boys” were Danny and another home boy, Rocky Thacker. Rocky had been playing bass in the band my dad played in, The (aforementioned) Versatile Keys. Danny and Rocky were the rising young stars in their respective Staunton-based bands, that often went head to head in friendly competitions, swapping First Place trophies in various categories through the years. 

So, off I went on my maiden voyage to Nashville. Let me also point out this trip, thanks to Lynwood, included my first Cracker Barrel experience. This was long before there was one off every Interstate exit. Nashville and Cracker Barrel became inexorably entwined in my mind; you never forget your first Cracker Barrel. Or show at the Station Inn, or walk down 16th Avenue, or drive down Broadway past Ernest Tubb Record Shop, or lunch at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge right next door to the then-defunct Ryman Auditorium. History wasn’t as old then as it is now and I felt in close proximity to the stars who were well on their way to the legendary status they would ultimately achieve. I was thrilled to my bones to be part of history that was then unfolding .

Danny recalls, “Rocky and I moved to Nashville thinking we had jobs. A guy from around here worked for Sylvia and got us auditions, telling us, ‘she’ll love ya’ll.’ So we thought that was it, that would be our job. We showed up the day of the audition and found ourselves standing in line with fifty or sixty other people,” Danny laughs. “That’s when reality hit. I found out pretty quickly most people don’t get jobs from auditions, There’s always an inside connection.”

They knew about a little place there owned by a couple of hometown fellows, called “Gabe’s Lounge,” which turned out to be the hang-out for road musicians. It was the home of a big jam session, with a constantly rotating group of top notch pickers and two separate house bands. This was a musician’s haven; this is where friendships developed and often served as an informal audition venue. In fact, that’s how Danny got his first real gig.

“In those days, I guess most jobs came through Gabe’s Lounge, most all the touring musicians went there—that’s where connections were made,” says Danny. “I met a guy at Gabe’s–Randy Hardison, who was working with Cal Smith–and he told me their guitar player was leaving. He got their band leader to come and listen to me play with the house bands there as sort of an audition.” He got the job.

“When I left [home], I didn’t know what would happen. I’d been working a lot, practicing. When I left here, I was very hopeful I could fit in because I just loved what was going on there. When I got there, I realized how much more there was for me to learn and do. I didn’t know whether I’d work in clubs or go on the road with artists. My ultimate goal was to work in the studio. As time went by, I figured out I didn’t want to play clubs. I found out I liked the road.

“And I was really fortunate; that town is so full of talented people, nice people with good attitudes, and it just really depends on the breaks you get—the friends you make, the timing of getting heard in the right place by the right people. Most anything that happened came about from knowing people.

“At that time, the up and coming “best” guitar players were Sid Hudson and Brent Mason. I got to know Brent, who was playing down at the Stagecoach, where Rocky was working. He introduced us to his little brother who was in town and didn’t have a place to stay. We invited him to stay with us for a couple of weeks and that was the start of a big friendship.”

I’ll say. Brent called Danny one day and said, “Look, I don’t usually do this, but a guy is going to call you and offer you a job—take it.” Brent’s session work with Alan Jackson had positioned him perfectly to recommend Danny when Alan had an opening in his band. Fifteen minutes later, Alan called and offered Danny a job playing lead guitar in his road band, heading out in ten days. Danny was working with Jimmy C. Newman at the time and explained to Alan he wanted to give Jimmy two weeks notice. Alan understood, but also made the point that Danny was his first choice for the job.

“I love Jimmy, we’re great friends to this day—but I had been thinking I wanted to grow in music. I called Jimmy and he was supportive,” Danny explains, “I called Alan back an hour later and accepted the position.”

At a time when Nashville was churning out cookie-cutter artists with slicked up, polished up, and industrialized material, Alan Jackson hit the charts with an authentic, traditional sound that (forgive me here) rocked the jukebox. Alan’s music reflects his rural Georgia roots and the twang in his music is straight out of the same Buck Owens songs Danny Groah sang on his aunt’s flower bed stage.

“It all ties in; Alan likes the same things I used to like—the James Burton licks, the Buck Owens licks—that’s what he wants to hear. It’s all Telecaster music. Alan created his own sound and I’m part of that. “Don’t Rock the Jukebox” and “Chattahoochee”—I’ve been there for it all. He built his sound around what he wanted,” Danny points out.

“From the beginning with Alan, I watched him capture the audience. I never saw Hank Williams, but Alan has what I’ve always heard Hank had. Alan interacts with his audience in a way a lot of performers don’t. He has fans that have seen the show hundreds of times. It’s like the audience can live their lives through his songs. All the artists I’ve worked with are good entertainers, but I’ve never seen anyone captivate an audience like Alan,” Danny declares. “When I got with Alan it was like riding a rocket ship. You never knew what would happen next. Then things started leveling off and after a few years I felt like I had a pretty good job that would last.

Stay tuned for part III, coming soon.

Alan Jackson & The Strayhorns – What Kind of Man

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