Bluegrass Gospel Project making a sweet farewell
VERGENNES — Musicians are a tricky bunch. Passionate — yes. Playful — absolutely. Committed to their music — more than anything. So why is it that so many of our beloved bands break up?
In the case of the Bluegrass Gospel Project, their lead vocalist Colby Crehan is moving west for her husband’s new job at Grand Teton National Park, and the band figured it was as good a time as any to call it quits. They’re playing their last concert this Saturday evening at the Vergennes Opera House.
“It’s a bitter sweet kind of thing,” said Gene White, Jr, the BGP’s fiddler and co-founder. “I’ve been in a lot of bands where the timing of disbanding has been more difficult. When our esteemed female vocalist — Colby — realized she was moving out west for her husband’s new job it kind of struck me: after 16 years it’s pretty rare to have the opportunity to consider disbanding. Usually it turns out kind of — well, not badly necessarily — but it’s so easy to have thing go wrong along the way. We talked it over as a group and rather than retrench and revamp, and go through all that again, we figured we’d end on a high note so to speak. Everyone is good with it.”
Sixteen years ago, White was approached by Jimmy Swift, the artistic director of First Night Burlington 2002. He was looking to fill a certain musical niche that was missing in his programming that year — bluegrass.
“He knew I was recently done with Breakaway (a former band I was in),” explained White. “Jimmy asked me if I would put together a group of people to do one long bluegrass set at First Night. ‘There’s one catch,’ he said ‘I need you to give the group a name that indicates the type of music you’ll be playing.’ Hence the name Bluegrass Gospel Project.
“I probably wouldn’t have named it that had I been making longer plans,” said White. But the First Night gig on the eve of 2002 was a one-shot-deal, and the name represented the style of music.
On New Year’s Eve 16 years ago, the BGP members included Taylor Armerding on mandolin and vocals; Paul Milleron guitar and vocals; Steve Light on banjo, dobro, guitar and vocals; Gene White Jr. on fiddle, guitar, percussion and vocals; Jim DiSabito on upright bass and vocals; and Andy Green on guitar and vocals. Also joining the group that night were Armerding’s son Jake (on fiddle, guitar and vocals) and vocalist Patti Casey, who immediately became a full-time band member after the show.
Guitarist Andy Greene left the group in 2006, and then in the fall of 2007, BGP had their one and only personnel change. Casey, a native of Vergennes, decided to focus on her own singer-songwriter career, and DiSabito, of Rutland, was offered a job in Florida that he couldn’t refuse.
So the band auditioned for vocalists and bass. Kirk Lord, of Essex, joined on upright bass and singer songwriter Crehan, of Burlington, became the band’s featured female vocalist.
“There’s usually a lot more turnover,” said White, acknowledging that being a part of BGP is no small task. “It’s a big commitment, but we play good gigs. Our sort of secondary motto is ‘no lousy gigs.’”
White attributes the high retention rate to these “good gigs” — mostly high quality concert venues — and the talents of the singers. “Colby is just an amazing singer,” he said. “The three primary vocalists (Paul, Taylor and Colby) — have an extraordinary vocal blend.”
BGP plays predominately traditional southern bluegrass gospel covers. “Honestly [the name Bluegrass Gospel music] puts as many people off as it does attract them,” said White. “They assume a certain evangelist agenda.” But it’s not like that. “It’s like gospel light… It’s not superheavy duty religious; it’s spiritual songs from the southern Appalachians.”
Since their debut appearance before a full house at Burlington’s Flynn Theater for First Night 2002, the group has logged thousands of miles performing hundreds of concerts throughout the Northeast. They are especially excited to present one final concert in Vergennes where they will weave stories and memories into an evening of incredible music.
The BGP will bid those lucky enough to get tickets farewell at the Vergennes Opera House on Saturday, March 11, at 7:30 p.m. Unfortunately for the rest of us, this show is completely sold out. The theater has an occupancy limit of 300, but a capacity of about 275 “comfortably,” said Gerianne Smart, president of the Friends of the Vergennes Opera House. “We are overjoyed the Bluegrass Gospel Project chose the Vergennes Opera House as their final venue… Each year their voices have filled the hall with such life that you can feel the old bones of the building sighing with gratitude.”
“We’ve had such an extraordinarily good relationship with the people who run the Vergennes Opera House, and the acoustics of the room are superior,” said White, explaining why they chose the local venue for their last performance. “We’ve played there for at least 10 years,” he said.
The Opera House also let’s them do recordings in the space. “We’re all spread out,” said White, noting band members who live in Boston, Plattsburgh, N.Y., Woodbury, Vt., and Chittenden County. “For us, physically getting together is difficult, so when we are together, it’s a good time to do some recording or serious rehearsal.”
Speaking of recordings, BGP will be releasing their seventh and final full-length recording this weekend at the show. The new album “Delivered,” is a compilation of yet-unreleased songs performed at concerts between 2014 and 2016. Find this record and their previous six on their website www.bluegrassgospelproject.com.
So, what’s next?
Most of the band members (now in their 50s and 60s) will continue playing in other groups, but not White.
“I think I’m first taking a break,” said the 62-year-old Essex Junction resident. “I’ve been in bands continuously since I was 18. Sure I took a year off here and there, but I’m ready for a break for a little while.”
As White looks forward to a quieter schedule, that prospect is bittersweet.
“After this many years of traveling around and playing together… I’m going to miss it, that’s for sure.”
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