A House Band Like This: The Travelin’ McCourys and Bill Nershi

Travelin’ McCourys w/ Bill Nershi

Horseshoes and Hand Grenades


The Majestic

Madison, WI


P1030436Horseshoes and Hand Grenades aren’t from Madison, WI, but one would have to assume they consider it a second home. They are the consummate Madison opening band; they get the crowd ready for nearly every major bluegrass group and string band who work their way through town. On Friday night, they played  at the Majestic Theatre to warm up the crowd for the Travelin’ McCourys with Bill Nershi. They were excited to be playing in town and it was clear why. Despite it being an early show time, the place was packed before the old-timey string band from Stevens Point, WI first took the stage.


While adding elements of funk, rock and jazz to a bluegrass sound is nothing new, Horseshoes is really doing something special. Their base is not bluegrass, its old-time. And a new take on old-time is not a common approach, but watching these guys makes one wonder why not.


They played original and traditional music with their strong three part harmonies, claw-hammer banjo, rollicking harmonica and fiddle licks that never seemed to end. And the not-quite-local-for-them crowd was singing along throughout the set. They opened with the raging “Everybody’s Drinking Water From My Still,” and never looked back. Their brand of new-time, old-time was particularly prevalent as they jammed flawlessly between “Rock of Ages,” and “Cluck Ol’ Hen,” opening up the theme of the former and working themselves to a screamin’ old-time version of the latter. The transition was Bonnaroo, the tunes all Telluride.


They closed out their set with “Whiskey,” a fiddle-driven song about every string band’s favorite spirit. It was certainly fitting; the band collectively finished off a bottle by the close of their hour-long set.


During the break people were speculating whether tonight would be a Travelin’ McCoury show, with special guest Bill Nershi, or a Bill Nershi show with the McCourys backing him up. Everyone agreed that they would be happy with either and assumed that it would, of course, be some combination of the two. This was the first of a three night run for the group, so the crowd was about to see their collaboration take shape in real time.


The stage set up gave the first clue: there were multiple mics set up across the stage, as opposed to the single mic that would have been expected if Del had been on the bill. As the band came out, another clue was offered: no suits! (Although both of the McCoury boys were looking sharp in their dapper sport coats.) They opened instrumentally, with Ronnie and Robbie [McCoury] trading leads and feeding brilliantly off of each other. Then Ronnie sang “A Deeper Shade of Blue,” sounding every bit a McCoury, with that old crying fiddle work from Jason Carter, recently crowned IBMA’s fiddler of the year (not his first such trophy).


At this point in the evening, Bill Nershi, of the String Cheese Incident and the Emmitt-Nershi Band, pulled out his Wisconsin cheese hat, too much applause from a very proud Wisconsin crowd. He sang the Stanley Brothers “Think of What You’ve Done.” One wonders what the Stanley Brothers would have thought, seeing Bill in his cheese hat, tearing through one of their traditional tunes. As the night went on, the hat made its way across the stage and eventually into the audience.


Over all, the collaboration made for an interesting song selection. Throughout the set, they blazed through “Dark Hollow” and “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” as well as a few other familiar tunes, but most of the set was slightly more obscure. It was fun to watch the McCoury boys doing their thing on a whole new set of songs, each with the precision and mastery that any fan of bluegrass knows to expect from Nashville’s House Band.


Over the last few years, The Travelin’ McCourys have become to bluegrass what the Funk Brothers were to Motown. They are the band that can step in with anyone without missing a beat. They lend their perfect harmonies, brilliant solos and an endless passion for traditional bluegrass to any world class musician in need. They are never short on surprises; more than comfortable stepping out of the bluegrass box when called upon, happily exploring new musical terrain when the moment strikes.


A few years ago, The Travelin’ McCourys played backup band for Keller Williams and they released the album Pick. Bassist and vocalist Alan Bartram wrote a song for that album called “Messed Up Just Right,” about going out on the town with his lady. It’s a sweet song with a sense of humor that fit in great with the night. Later they did Nershi’s “Johnny Cash,” a train song with some silly lyrics about Johnny Cash not smoking hash.


Bill Nershi took the stage with some of the best musicians in bluegrass. This makes for an exciting night, but also bestows a lot of responsibility upon him. Bill more than held his own throughout the show. His flatpicking has come leaps and bounds since his time with Cheese. I suppose that is what happens after you spend years on the road with Newgrass master Drew Emmitt.


They opened up their encore with a truly epic version of John Hartford’s “Vamp in the Middle,” with Carter at the helm. Vassar Clements was alive and well at the Majestic on this night, and he had a smile on his face. They then segued into the endlessly silly (and endlessly beloved) “Jellyfish,” a String Cheese fan favorite about calling into work hungover, when necessary. The audience knew every word. They closed out the night with Ronnie, sounding eerily like his dad, singing “Walk out in the rain.”


Throughout the night Bill Nershi shined and The Travelin’ McCourys proved yet again just how fresh and exciting they can keep a tradition that they have been playing nonstop for all of these years. With a house band like this, the future of bluegrass looks bright.