he revival of bluegrass music that blossomed in the early 1980's wasn't just about young bands striving to keep the traditional sound and songs of the genre alive. New bands sprouted up across the country stocked with phenomenal musicians who, while well schooled in the Monroe and Stanley styles, were also determined to place their own, contemporary stamp on bluegrass.
Far from the East Coast festival scene, two of the most influential bands among this new breed took root in the Denver area. Hot Rize served as a springboard for Tim O'Brien's now well-established career, but each member of the quartet (Pete "Dr. Banjo" Wernick, bassist Nick Forster and the late guitarist Charles Sawtelle) made integral contributions to the band's distinctive style before breaking up in the early '90's.
Beginning in the mid-'80's, another Denver-based band, Front Range, developed their own national reputation on the strength of the singing and songwriting talents of Bob Amos and others.
Watching all this happen, usually from front row seats, were the Chapmans - Bill and Patti and their three young sons, John (now 23), Jeremy (22) and Jason (18) - who just released their second Pinecastle album, "Follow Me."
Bluegrass musicians being somewhat more accessible than, say, the average arena-rock band, it didn't take the family long to make lasting connections and friendships.
"We knew those guys real well," says John Chapman from the family's current home in Ozark, Mo. "In fact, we knew all the Hot Rize guys extremely well. The Front Range guys, Our first album was recorded at Bob's (Amos) house...he had a small studio there, and that was our first band recording that we'd ever done."
As young as the Chapman brothers still are, Chapman speaks with the ease and authority of a veteran bluegrass stage and studio performer - which they all are. As lead singer and guitarist, he may tend to be in the spotlight a bit more, but The Chapmans are very much a family band, and music has become their full-time occupation.
Chapman acknowledges that unlike other well-known bluegrass families like the McCourys, Parmleys, Renos and others, his family doesn't have a musical tradition that reaches back through the generations.
"This is kind of the first generation in our family that I really know about...Dad, when he was in his early twenties, was kind of a keyboard person - organ and piano, stuff like that. Quite a few years later, he started playing the banjo, and a few years after that I started playing the fiddle and played that for quite a few years, then switched to the guitar. Jeremy joined in playing the mandolin, and originally Mom started playing bass about the time Jeremy started. Then, just about two years ago, Mom stepped down, and Jason took over as the bass player. He had just learned how to play, and we wanted him to be involved."
After their initial studio experience with Amos and Front Range, studio work became nearly as great a family passion as performing. Bill Chapman set up a home studio, and his sons spent much of their teenage years on both sides of the glass.
"We ran a studio in the house for quite a few years," says John, "and kind of quit doing a bunch of that this last year. So, we're not doing quite as much of the studio stuff as we used to, but we're talking about revamping that and maybe starting in again, just some more local stuff around here."
For their debut on Pinecastle, "Notes From Home," they enlisted the services of IIIrd Tyme Out bassist and singer Ray Deaton as producer, and the reaction to that album was encouraging enough to make Deaton the choice for the new disc as well. While they demonstrate their firm grasp of bluegrass fundamentals on such bedrock, straight-ahead tunes as "Follow Me To Tennessee" and Bill Monroe's "I'm Going Back To Old Kentucky," Deaton wisely gives them room to explore other territory as well, highlighted by their treatments of a pair of classic, vintage country tunes from the 40's and 50's: George Morgan's "Candy Kisses" and "Don't Let Me Cross Over (Love's Cheating Line)," a big hit for Carl and Pearl Butler.
Perhaps the most arresting track, though, is their version of the Sam Cooke R&B standard "You Send Me." Anyone who's heard IIIrd Tyme Out's signature version of another early R&B gem, The Platters' "Only You," will likely assume that this is Deaton's influence at work (and Deaton sings the bass part), but John Chapman is quick to say that it's actually the other way around.
"We recorded that ('You Send Me') quite a long time ago on one of our older projects called 'Love's Gonna Live Here,' and we've been doing it for years. We played that song, and Ray had heard it a long time ago. This is actually before they cut 'Only You,' and they heard us do it a long, long time ago," he says.
"We kept getting requests to record it again on our Pinecastle deals...we actually had to approach the folks at Pinecastle, who had heard that we were doing it and had recorded it years ago, and everybody kept wanting us to do it again. So we redid it, re-recorded it, changed it up quite a bit. It kind of starts out the way we originally recorded it. Then, we decided that if we were going to record it again, we wanted to do some new stuff. So, that's when we added the bass vocal part at the end, and a lot of that kind of stuff."