Reggae music was born out of suffering and rebellion and has long been an agent for social commentary and change, but even warriors for progress and equality need to take a break from fighting the good fight every now and then. Society has seemed exponentially contentious over the past few political administrations and sometimes we just need to chill out, sip a cold drink on a hot day and listen to something sunny and lighthearted. The sentiments put forth by the five songs on the Walk A Mile EP released recently by Austin Grimm deliver the sweetness of an Arnold Palmer, and are sure to turn frowns upside down.
Full disclosure: I first heard Grimm’s EP without knowing anything about the music and I was immediately struck by the cleverness and creativity of the lyrics. Well, I soon came to learn that the songs were all covers of classic country songs, so I can’t give Grimm credit for the lyrics, but I can give him hearty props for the song curation and the execution of a perfect blend of reggae and country.
Some people might believe these two genres to be quite disparate, but in reality, there has long been a connection between reggae and country music. As Grimm points out, “Country music is one of the most popular genres of music in Jamaica and I personally believe it is because it contains common themes of morality, adversity and humility—all woven together through beautiful storytelling, catchy melodies and humble yet powerful accompaniment.”
Country songs in a reggae style and reggae music with a country flavor make perfect sense if you know Austin Grimm. Raised on country and folk music in St. Louis, at the age of seven he began studying piano, drums and classical/fingerstyle guitar. “Music has always been a massive part of my life, and my family’s celebrations were where I first started ‘performing’ and enjoying the communal aspect of singing songs around the piano,” he said.
Then, after high school, with country music running through his blood and a rudimentary familiarity with reggae, he moved to Tennessee to attend college. In fact, it was as a freshman at Belmont University in Nashville that Grimm truly fell in love with reggae music after friends introduced him to American reggae bands like Rebelution and Slightly Stoopid as well as roots reggae legends like Dennis Brown, Gregory Isaacs, Jimmy Cliff and Steel Pulse. Grimm recalls, “I was immediately attracted to the heavy rhythms, infectious melodies and positive lyrics.”
Those friends along with Grimm came to form the highly regarded reggae band, Roots of a Rebellion. After they graduated from Belmont in 2012, the band began touring the U.S. extensively, playing over 120 shows a year, which helped to build a national following. Since their inception, ROAR has released four studio albums, two live albums and a live/dub album. Their most recent studio album from 2019, Shapes of a Soul reached #1 on the Billboard Reggae chart.
Recently, the road-weary band finally decided to take a break from the road, allowing members to work on their own projects. Grimm’s former bandmate, Marco Martinez, has been steadily putting out a ton of music under the moniker Mellodose, collaborating with a continually growing list of artists, creating a signature sound and really making a name for himself in the modern reggae scene.
Meanwhile, Grimm has been doing his thang. Walk a Mile follows the cleverly titled Dank Williams, Vol. 1, Grimm’s 2020 LP of a similar nature, i.e. reggae renditions of country songs. Grimm recorded the Dank Williams album in January of 2017 in the former home of Hank Williams, Sr., where he lived at the time, with his longtime friend, Jordan Reed, who engineered and produced the album. Grimm’s best friends and founding members of Roots of a Rebellion played on the record as well: Troy Wiggins on drums, Alec Newman on bass, Jeremyck Smith on organ, Dylan Fitch on guitar, Sam Polatsek on Trombone.
“It was unreal recording vocals in the former bedroom of Hank,” Grimm recalled, and then, laughing, added “And, given the style change, I was a little nervous his ghost wouldn’t approve to be honest!”
Grimm relates the unlikely story of how he came to live in the country music icon’s former residence: “I first rented Hank’s place back in college and the energy and vibes of the house were eminent from the first time I walked in and saw the bullet holes in the ceiling and read the newspaper article taped inside the door, where Ray Price was interviewed about a night ‘Hank got all stoned and shot up the ceiling.’
“Thankfully, Ray wasn’t in his bedroom upstairs at the time,” he quipped. “I obviously knew of the name Hank Williams but not much beyond that, so this was an amazing opportunity as an aspiring singer/songwriter to dive into the incredible ‘hillbilly Shakespeare genius’ of Hank Williams, Sr.”
Years later, in 2017, right after Grimm had recorded the Dank Williams album as a “sentimental goodbye” before he moved out, he had the “divine opportunity” to purchase the home after Judy, his friend, “Nashville grandma” and landlady, suffered a stroke and offered the house to him well below its value. “Thanks to a small family bank in St. Louis and the love and support of my parents, I was able to purchase the home. Touring non-stop with ROAR gave me the opportunity to share Hank’s Place via AirBnB, which I still do to this day when my wife Taylor and I are out of town.”
Grimm said that he recorded Dank Williams and Walk a Mile “to have fun shining light on two musical worlds that appear at odds but are actually more related and connected than they appear.”
He cites three albums that he “absolutely loves” that served as inspiration: Modern Sounds in Country & Western Music by Ray Charles (1962), Meta-Modern Sounds in Country Music by Sturgill Simpson (2014) and Soul of Cash by Brian Owens (2017; and also recorded at Hank’s place).
While an extension of the theme Grimm has seemed to perfect, Walk a Mile differs slightly from Dank, leaning a little heavier on the country feel, or as Grimm said “a different shade of the same sound.” Rather than naming the collection, Vol. 2, he decided to give it a “more palatable title” to appeal to “the average listener.”
As far as the song selection, Grimm detailed what makes the five songs he carefully chose to record special to him. Grimm said he had always loved the message of “Walk A Mile (In My Shoes),” which he had actually discovered on the Trojan Country Reggae box set performed by Jamaican legend Bob Andy. (The original was written by Joe South.)
“‘Forever and Ever, Amen’ has always been a special song for me,” he said, adding, “but even more so as my parents celebrated their 50th anniversary back in 2020 and my mom has been struggling with some memory issues recently.
Grimm said that “I Remember Everything” had been shared with him by his longtime guitar student Jamey and that he has always loved John Prine’s writing.
As for “‘Gentle On My Mind,” he discovered the song through some friends who used to have bluegrass jams at their house. “I first heard of John Hartford around this time,” Grimm recalled. “What a genius that guy was. If you haven’t seen the live version of him tap dancing while playing banjo and singing this song, you’re missing out.”
Grimm said the last song, Kacey Musgraves’ “Rainbow,” was kind of last-minute decision as he was searching for a more modern country song to cover, “which is very difficult to find these days (for me personally), but I’ve always loved the message of this song and thought it landed itself well to the project’s mission.”
In terms of the personnel on the Walk A Mile EP, as producer Grimm recruited his friend Craig Welsch (of 10 Ft. Ganja Plant), who produced the last few ROAR albums as well his friend Jordan Reid to once again engineer. The album was recorded at Castle Recording Studios in Franklin, TN.
“We had Nate Felty on drums, Alec Newnam on upright bass, Kent Toalson on piano/organ, John McNally on pedal steel, Dylan Fitch on electric guitar, and Melanie Dewey on background vocals,” Grimm related. “We recorded this one straight to tape which gave it a very warm feeling from the start.”
Continuing, he lauded the work of his friends who contributed. “I’ve always loved pedal steel and my friend John really helped bring that sound to this EP. The dynamic rhythm section of Nate Felty and Alec Newnam added a unique and solid foundation. The virtuoso Kent Toalson simply soared on these tracks. The Delta Saints’ guitarist Dylan Fitch (founding member of ROAR) brought his swanky, swampy, wah-wah wonders to ‘Rainbow’ and ‘Walk A Mile’ and my friend Melanie Dewey of the band MELD added some super smooth vocals that were just icing on the cake!”
Looking ahead, Grimm has some songs with his former ROAR bandmate, Marco Martinez aka Mellodose, ready to release and he is also recording a bunch of original songs that he has been wanting to release and perform with a band.
Additionally, he revealed that he’s been working on some more country-reggae songs with his good friend, Cas Haley, in addition to playing guitar and singing in Haley’s band. “Cas has been pursuing a similar project with his Boots Rock Reggae album that he’s releasing this year — building a bridge between two of our favorite genres, country and reggae! It’s been so fun seeing the crowds react to these familiar songs re-imagined in our own style.”
With the talent of Grimm and Haley behind it, this forthcoming Boots Rock Reggae release, together with Grimm’s Walk a Mile and Dank Williams albums, should provide plenty of southern comfort while also likely destined for plenty of airplay on Kenny Chesney’s No Shoes Radio. Pour yourself that Arnold Palmer, kick back and enjoy!