Brewing Up Bluegrass
Family band Gary Brewer & The Kentucky Ramblers talk about their own brand of brewgrass, topping the Billboard charts and pouring heart into their music
Gary Brewer & The Kentucky Ramblers are nearly impossible to miss. Their customized multi-colored glitter suit jackets, dark-shaded sunglasses and towering heights make them stand out in any crowd. When they take the getup off, though, they’re just your typical outgoing, talkative and kind-hearted Kentucky natives.
After 42 years in the business, Brewer is just as amped up to make new music as he was the first day he sat down with a guitar. Last year, without a record label backing the band, Gary Brewer & The Kentucky Ramblers (a band that includes two of his sons—Gary “Wayne” Brewer Jr. and Mason Brewer—and other touring musicians) hit No. 1 on the Billboard Bluegrass Albums chart with their album 40th Anniversary Celebration.
“The chart manager at Billboard said he’d never seen a top No. 1 Billboard album for a 40th anniversary celebration,” Wayne says.
Sitting on a couch, relaxing and sipping bottles of root beer before their Thursday, Sept. 15, performance at Bourbon & Beyond in Louisville, Kentucky, Brewer and his two sons bantered in familial harmony. The family band embraces their roots in West Point, Kentucky, and East Tennessee by delivering their own version of bluegrass. Melding bluegrass with genres like old time mountain music, country and rock, the Brewers have created their own sound: Brewgrass.
“It’s what sets us apart,” Gary says. “You won’t see many straightforward bluegrass bands wearing the attire we wear, having the bus that we have—it’s an upscale situation.”
But it’s not all about appearances. “We pride ourselves on entertaining people, instead of just being four or five guys standing up there singing in front of a microphone,” Gary continues. “If I see somebody in the audience playing on their phone, I’m not doing my job.”
Gary noted bands like KISS, who focus on giving fans a show—a visual experience on top of a listening experience—and how hard it is to do that while living on the road.
“A lot of people don’t understand that aspect of it until they can live it. Just imagine the production of a KISS show,” he says. “We’d actually love to collaborate with KISS. It would be the biggest thing ever. I can promise you that if you brought out a banjo at a KISS concert that people would go nuts.”
The Brewers noted how much the industry has changed over the years, and how Gary has remained true to recording his music live and in one take. Gary says he plays, sings and does the solos all at once.
“All the pressure is on me,” he notes. “If anybody else messes up, they can re-record. But I can’t. I get more feeling that way. And I’m not much into doctoring the recording, sound-wise. In other words, what you hear is what you get. And I think there’s a lot to be said about that.”
The band’s latest single, Pass Along The Good, was born out of one of those natural moments. The Brewers host a free music festival in Shepherdsville, Kentucky, called Shin-Dig in the Park, where Jim Lauderdale played last fall. “We were in the bus just randomly talking about how different the [music industry is today], and Jim said, ‘You know, there’s enough bad in the world. You gotta just pass along the good occasionally,’” Wayne says.
Gary instantly knew it’d make a good song, and they met the next day—the rest of the song was written and recorded in one day, aside from The Kentucky Ramblers’ layers.
The Brewers have been impressed by the success of independent artists in Americana and are following the same path now. For them, it’s a family matter, and they wouldn’t do anything else—because they whole-heartedly enjoy it. When they’re not touring as a family, with their significant others also going along for the ride, they’re writing and recording together on their farm. All of their families live on the same property.
“It’s just a zoo,” Gary says sarcastically with a wink. “We’re all together all the time, so we often agree to disagree. But we all get along great. We have good chemistry and love each other, and I think that’s something that sets us apart from a lot of other bands.”
Start with the band’s latest single, Pass Along The Good. It’s a soft, uplifting tune and an easy listen.
Pay attention to the flow of the song. To listen to is feels as though you’re lying in the grass on a nice, breezy day without a care in the world.
Kendall Polidori is The Rockhound, Luckbox’s resident rock critic. Follow her reviews on Instagram and Twitter @rockhoundlb.