By Art Edelstein
A band that originally formed for a single concert but then went on to a 16-year career, including seven albums, is calling it quits. The Bluegrass Gospel Project, conceived in 2001 as a band that would bring bluegrass music to the 2001 First Night Burlington celebration, is ending its run at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Vergennes Opera House, for its final concert. (The concert is already sold out.)
BGP decided to disband after singer Colby Crehan, a member since 2008, announced that her husband, Ryan Crehan, had accepted a job in Wyoming and they would be leaving Vermont. Both Crehans were also members of another bluegrass band, Possum Haw, which has also decided to retire.
“When we learned Colby was leaving, it gave pause to think about what to do next,” said BGP fiddler and band organizer Gene White. “Going through another personnel change and revamping the repertoire is difficult. The consensus was that this was as good a time as any to take a break.”
White said several of the members are in other bands or have other musical commitments.
“So we decided to end the band, and we’re ending on a high note, at the top of our game,” he said.
The Bluegrass Gospel Project has seen few personnel changes during its run. White said the band was put together in 2001 and began rehearsals in the summer for what was to be a single performance. The original six members included White on fiddle, Paul Miller on guitar and lead vocals, Jim DiSabito on bass, Andy Greene on guitar, Steve Light on banjo, and Taylor Armerding on mandolin. Singer Patti Casey was originally brought in as a guest for the performance but was quickly added as a full member of the band.
Greene, Casey and DiSabito left in the ensuing years, to be replaced by Crehan and bassist Kirk Lord. Casey sang on the band’s first four albums.
White reflected on the band’s run. He estimated that they performed about 350 concerts in the 16 years, which is not a tremendous amount. With band members spread out across Vermont and Massachusetts (Armerding) and New York (Light), rehearsals were difficult, and scheduling concerts were also tough. But the concerts they did play, he said, “brought a lot of solace and listening pleasure to a lot of folks throughout the northeast.”
“Our audience demographic is a bit older — being a perceptive audience, our repertoire addresses them, and they seem to find our songs have meaning for them,” said White.
While the band is called the Bluegrass Gospel Project, White said, “We are really a gospel-light band, but address life-and-death issues, and audiences appreciate that.”
Singer/guitarist Miller, from Cabot, said the band enjoyed great fan support. “Every time we hit the stage we had an appreciative audience.”
On a professional level, he said, “One of the things I’m most proud of is we were always 100 percent. It’s hard to stay ready for the moment, but I never doubted for a minute whether any of the players were ready to play.”
“We really took the band seriously with arrangements and harmony; we tried to nail every moment if we could,” said Miller. “We had a good time on stage, but worked really hard getting it right.”
Miller, who will continue performing as East Hill Road with California-based singer Willa Mamet, said BGP’s busiest year had no more than 40 gigs, and its slowest year just a dozen. “They vary; we had a lot of juice when we played a lot of Congregational churches in New England, which had community orientation.”
The band changed after its initial concert, Miller explained. “We weren’t a religious band. We were there originally to emulate a particular sound, the “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” (the movie starring George Clooney) sound. We had a narrow target musically.”
After that first concert, as country and bluegrass players, the music evolved, and the group began performing some original Casey and Armerding songs and “what touched us in a spiritual rather than a religious nature.” An audience and band favorite over the years has been the 1960s song “Get Together,” written by Dino Valenti and recorded in 1967 by the folk-rock band the Youngbloods, The song, Miller said, “expressed what we were like as a band.”
Most bands will tell you they had at least one memorable concert. BGP certainly did. According to Miller, their most interesting gig was in the summer of 2010, when they performed for an audience of perhaps 30 people near Paul Smith’s College in Paul Smiths, N.Y. at the estate of Texas billionaire Harlan Crowe. The stage was an enormous fireplace, and in the audience were former President George W. Bush and his wife Laura; Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and his wife; and Brian Dubie, who was at the time a candidate for governor of Vermont.
Miller said the band had not been told who the audience would be. “We were booked but didn’t know who we were playing for. It was worth playing, it was so interesting to see people in that context,” he said. “Bush was personable, like you’d expect him to be. We had a long personal conversation with the former president about playing music and what our lives were like.”
Miller, too, has mixed feelings about the band’s retirement. “I’m going to miss these folks, but won’t miss some of the travel. I really value the group personally and professionally.”
Of Crehan, to whom we gave Tammie Awards for her song “Road to Mora” and Vermont Vocalist of the Year, Miller has nothing but praise. “Colby is the finest bandmate I’ve had in 40-plus years. She’s a fine singer and a truly fine person and consistent as the day is long. It takes a lot of work and commitment to replace someone. It seemed OK after 16 years to end it and do it honorably.”
According to Miller, “We are looking forward to the Vergennes show; it’s a great place to play and feels like family there. We hope the audience gets as much out of it as we do.”
The band’s seventh and final CD, “Delivered,” was just released and will be reviewed in an upcoming issue of Invite.
Vergennes Opera House
The Bluegrass Gospel Project’s “Farewell Concert” at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 11, at the Vergennes Opera House is sold out. For information, go online to www.vergennesoperahouse.org.