Making it BIG
By Mark Bennett /Tribune-Star
Almost every time Jimmy Mattingly tucks a fiddle under his chin, he learns something.
It happened when he first played violin in the Benjamin Franklin Elementary School orchestra in Terre Haute more than 30 years ago. And it happened last month, when Mattingly fiddled alongside Garth Brooks on stage in Times Square.
Mattingly is 43 years old now. But he's still a student of his craft, on stage and off, watching and listening as he tours and records with a long list of country music greats.
"Playing is just such a small part in the big picture," Mattingly said. "It's also making the right decisions, doing the right thing. It's almost like a chess game. You have to think about what you do and how it's going to affect the band - your look, what you do, what you say."
And now, all of that homework done during road trips and Nashville sessions with Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, and Brooks and Dunn is paying off. Mattingly has his own band The Grascals. And though they just received a Grammy nomination less than two weeks ago as one of the hottest new acts in bluegrass music, Mattingly can draw on years of on-the-job training in handling fame.
"It's priceless," he explained. "It's just like going to school, learning from Garth, and Brooks and Dunn, and Dolly."
While witnessing their success first hand, Mattingly has been around Nashville long enough to see others fail.
"I've definitely seen that happen, more times than the other," he said by telephone from his home in Music City.
Artists who don't think before they act might be making career-breaking decisions.
"It's not the business it used to be," Mattingly explained. "It was a lot looser. People had a good time and liked to party and get crazy. And it's not like that at all now. There's too much money wrapped up in it. A perfect example of that is the Dixie Chicks - sometimes you don't say exactly what you think."
In March of 2003, Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines told a London audience the group was ashamed that President Bush came from their home state of Texas. Though she later explained her remarks were made out of frustration that the president was alienating people in the U.S. and abroad with his Iraq war policies, the backlash in country music's fan base included boycotts of the Chicks' then-chart-topping songs.
With Garth Brooks and Dolly Parton, Mattingly said, "It's all about the music. And pretty much everything else, they just leave that out."
Acclaim came fast
The music gives Mattingly plenty to talk about right now.
Take that Times Square gig with Garth Brooks, for example. The country superstar emerged from semi-retirement to play that outdoor show on Nov. 15 as part of the festivities surrounding the 39th annual Country Music Association Awards, which were moved for the first time ever this year to New York City. "Everywhere you looked, there were people," Mattingly said.
In fact, the city had to block off a segment of traffic to accommodate the stage.
"It was real exciting. It was fun," Mattingly said. "It's always fun with Garth. He's such a huge artist. It's like doing something with your buddies - The Grascals - only huger."
Actually, The Grascals got a piece of the Big Apple market last month too, opening for country duo Brooks and Dunn in advance of the nationally televised CMA Awards show. And then on Dec. 8 came big news from the West Coast, when Mattingly's group received a Grammy Awards nomination for their debut CD "The Grascals" in the Best Bluegrass Album of the Year category. The winners will be announced on Feb. 8 in Los Angeles.
They've already received awards from the 2005 International Bluegrass Music Association for Emerging Artist of the Year, and Song of the Year for "Me and John and Paul" - the bittersweet tale of three lifelong buddies reunited one last time at one the trio's funeral.
Mattingly calls it "a potential career-making song." The Grascals have filmed a video to be released next month.
The acclaim came fast for a group of Nashville veterans who decided to form their own band in 2004.
"It was just one thing after another," Mattingly said.
He's accustomed to that pace. He began touring with bluegrass band Spectrum in 1981, the same year he won the U.S. Grand Masters Fiddle Championship. Later, he backed the Forrester Sisters and Steve Wariner, before serving in Parton's tour band from 1989-93. Then he landed a spot in Garth Brooks' backup group, Stillwater, and toured with him from 1995 until Brooks' retirement in 2001. Mattingly was prominently featured in Brooks' 2003 national Dr Pepper commercial. And his fiddling can be heard on albums by Brooks, Rascal Flatts, Parton, Chris LeDoux, Ricky Van Shelton, Wariner, Janie Fricke and Susan Ashton and others.
Some publications, according to his brother Chuck Mattingly, insist Jimmy has played in front of more people than any fiddle player on the planet.
"In my opinion," said Chuck, "he's one of the
top three fiddle players in the world. Period."
Of course, Chuck - who at 57 is Jimmy's elder by 14 years - remembers when his brother was just learning to play as a youngster growing up in Terre Haute. Their father, Edward, and most of his sons played some sort of country or bluegrass instrument. At first, Chuck remembered, Jimmy didn't sound that good.
"Then one day, it was kind of like, 'What happened? Damn, who's that back there playing?'" recalled Chuck, who now owns the Mattingly Collision Centers in Terre Haute.
The family moved to Terre Haute from Danville when Jimmy was 2 years old, and lived here until they relocated in Leitchfield, Ky., when he was 10. In those eight years, Jimmy learned to play fiddle, watching his dad play the same instrument at picnics and family gatherings around Terre Haute.
"So I was around it all my life," he said. "And
the fifth grade [at Ben Franklin Elementary] was the first time
I could take strings [class]. I'd go to school, and I would learn
Oddly enough, he and another future Grascals member, Terry Eldredge, wound up at the same concert by bluegrass greats Lester Flatt and Marty Stuart in the Terre Haute South High School auditorium.
"We were both at the same show and didn't even know it," Mattingly said of Eldredge, The Grascals' lead vocalist and rhythm guitarist. "And I wouldn't meet him for almost another 30 years."
"That's really weird," Eldredge acknowledge in another telephone interview last month. Eldredge is a native of West Terre Haute and lived there until moving to Nashville after his senior year of high school.
Just naturally appealing
But Mattingly and Eldredge did indeed meet eventually, performing together with the famed Osborne Brothers, at weekly jam sessions in Nashville bluegrass hotspot The Station Inn, and on Dolly Parton's 2002 "Halos and Horns" album. Two years later, they formed The Grascals along with vocalist Jamie Johnson (of Milan), banjo player David Talbot, Danny Roberts on mandolin and Terry Smith on bass. Their big break came when Parton asked them to both serve as her backing band and opening act on her 2004 tour.
Though all six have bluegrass roots, the sound isn't restrictive
to one genre, Mattingly said.
The Grascals' press clippings quote bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs saying, "It is great to hear such talented musicians together."
They've crafted music that Mattingly calls "high energy." And he knows what that means. During his six years with Garth Brooks, Mattingly was flamboyant on stage, and usually tossed his fiddle bow to the crowd at the end of the concerts.
"He told Garth, 'Hey buddy, you need to start buying
my bows,'" Chuck Mattingly said, laughing.
"It's just non-stop, go out and work, and come home and then kick into gear on all that," Mattingly said. "You just have to take every moment. But it's all good."
Mark Bennett can be reached by telephone at 1-800-783-8742, Option 6, Ext. 377, by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org