The roots rockers that make up The Grandsons have built a decades-long legacy on blending vintage Americana sounds, and it’s taken them far beyond their music’s homeland.
Just last month, the group went on a State Department-sponsored tour of El Salvador, taking a week to perform their music at venues around San Salvador, and appearing on some television and radio programs there.
“People down there were very receptive to what we did, and very friendly and welcoming,” said Grandsons singer, trumpeter and guitarist Alan MacEwen, recalling the “Ed Sullivan Show-style screaming” that came from the high schoolers at the English language immersion school the group played, and the students of an after-school program for at-risk youths who returned the musical favor, singing and dancing for the group and even performing one of its songs.
It’s the latest entry in a long history of travel abroad for the group that began in 1999 when a group of the band’s fans that had relocated with their State Department jobs to Taiwan secured them a gig in Taipei. The Arlington-based band has also stamped its passport in France and Germany, performing at festivals in Arlington’s sister cities of Reims and Aachen on an exchange program.
“For me, there’s certainly the adventure aspect of it,” MacEwen said of the appeal of playing their music abroad. “I think that my two favorite things about being a musician are live performances and the opportunity to travel, so there’s the chance for us to learn about different places and meet a lot of other people, and the chance to share what we’ve created with people that might otherwise not see us.”
Their next scheduled tour date will see the band back in their own backyard, playing at the Iota Club and Café Friday.
The band formed in 1986 when bassist Bill Hansen brought together MacEwen and Chris Watling, who all attended high school together, to create Grandsons of the Pioneers, as they were then called. Hansen left the group in 1991, but MacEwen and Watling stayed on, continuing the band’s career now past the quarter-century mark. Rounding out The Grandsons is Matt Sedgley, who has been a longtime drummer for the band, and a rotating lineup of bassists who sit in with the group.
The band released its first studio album, 1991’s Howdy from the Grandsons, to critical acclaim. Its follow-up, 1994’s It’s Hip to Flip, earned the band its first in a career-spanning set of Wammies, awards given to local musicians by the Washington Area Music Association. Studio albums Pan-American Shindig in 1999, their first as The Grandsons, and Party With the Rich, which won a Wammie for best roots rock record in 2004, followed.
The group released Live at the Barns – The Legendary Wolf Trap Recordings Volume 1 after recording it at a summer 2001 performance at The Barns at Wolf Trap. MacEwen laughed recalling the title, admitting that it was “kind of facetiously named.” When Live at the Barns – The Legendary Wolf Trap Recordings Volume 2 earned the band its second best roots rock record Wammie in 2007, it may well have bolstered the original claim.
Its most recent recording project marks a new direction for the band. Under the moniker grandson, Jr., the group released One Big Orooni this year, an album of songs intended for younger listeners.
“We had thought for maybe the last four or five years that it would be fun to do an album for kids,” MacEwen said. “Part of that was because it was getting to the point where some of the members of the band had kids, so it was something that we were more interested in.”
The album covers songs popularized by 1940s comic jazz singer Slim Gaillard, and includes a track called “Juice Box Rhythm” that let MacEwen, the group’s primary songwriter, take on writing in Gaillard’s zany style.
The band plans to continue to promote the children’s album, but record new tunes, both for The Grandsons and grandsons, Jr. MacEwen said the band is exploring new ways of getting its music out to listeners as a response to the changing music industry, potentially releasing singles digitally before putting out a full album.
“Also I’m sure, as we can, we’ll try to do some more traveling,” MacEwen said.
• For more information about The Grandsons, visit grandsons.com.