Merle Monroe: Go Back to the Country

Accomplished Duo Do Right by Their Namesakes and More

By Stephen Pitalo



Tim Raybon and Daniel Grindstaff are a unique duo, not just as musicians, but in life.

Basing their sounds from collective experiences as professionals in the music business, their band delivers a varied bag of presents, from vocally centered hard-driving bluegrass to a ballad of life and pain in the mountains. The band Merle Monroe – consisting of Raybon and Grindstaff along with bassist Eli Johnston and fiddler Derek Deakens — believes bluegrass, gospel, and traditional country music reflects the story of America, the stories of the common man through the sounds of the mountains. With heartfelt vocals, a ballad, a hard-driving banjo, or an upbeat song, Merle Monroe concocts a powerful brew of modern energy with traditional songwriting, in tribute to the band’s
namesakes, Merle Haggard and Bill Monroe. “I met Daniel Grindstaff at an IBMA event in Nashville about 11 years ago,” Tim Raybon said. “He, at the time, was playing with Marty Raybon’s band ‘Full Circle’. Marty called and asked if I could fill in for that show and sing tenor for him. I really thought he was the absolute best banjo player I had maybe ever heard if not then one of the best. He found out that I was a huge Osborne Bro fan and he had played banjo for them when Sonny Osborne had surgery on his shoulder and couldn’t play. From that time forward we have remained friends. Daniel also played with Rhonda Vincent and Jim and Jesse at the Grand Ole Opry a lot!


merle monroe bluegrass standard

After he left Marty, Daniel became a businessman in the insurance field and stopped playing for a while. Tim Raybon was working in the Real Estate business in Nashville. Neither one had played for a long time. The two would talk several times a year since 2009, about putting something together as far as a band.

“Back in 2017, we finally decided to record a few songs at Mike Rogers’ Studio (Former lead man with Doyle Lawson). We “thought” we had a different sound than all the great bands that are out there. We wanted to sound different in a familiar way. We obviously both loved Bluegrass but loved the older traditional country too — George Jones, Don Williams, Vern Gosdin, Randy Travis and of course Merle Haggard. Out of all country singers whose music goes so well with bluegrass, it’s Merle Haggard! back in the late ’60s and the early ’70s with the help of Bonnie Owens and Ronnie Reno, Haggard had the best high harmony act ever in country. And so many bluegrass acts recorded his music.

“So, we decided with a bluegrass band and at times a country ballad song like ‘Mama’s Hungry Eyes,’ ‘Diana,’ etc. If we could incorporate the two styles into a name, that would be a good way to go. I called Daniel and said I have a name: Merle Monroe. He thought about it for a few days and called back and said, ‘Let’s go with that!’”

As much as Raybon’s stint with the renowned band Shenandoah was brief, it connects with the rest of his career, including Merle Monroe.

“I was on the road with them in the early ’90s after moving to Nashville from Florida selling that band’s merchandise for 3 years. Every once in a while, if the guitar player was off, fiddle or bass player, I would fill in. Most of the time until 2001, I was a demo singer through the week. By 1997 Marty decided to leave the group and he and I had worked very hard and got a record deal with MCA. We had a gold-selling song “Butterfly Kisses” and a few more singles, but by the time the 2000s rolled around, I wanted to do different things in life. Also, Marty decided to record his first solo Bluegrass CD. I, along with Paul Brewster, sang backup on the CD! So, that put an itch back in my soul for bluegrass.

Raybon said that recording Merle Monroe’s “Back to the Country” was a blast since the songwriting all seemed to fall into right in places. Raybon feels that putting together a band of top-notch players from the bluegrass world really helped.

“We recorded it with Stephen Burwell, the fiddle player with Doyle Lawson, who is an incredible recording engineer too. Our first recording session we did with him ‘Oh the Joy of Christmas’ back in October 2018, and that song charted pretty high on the bluegrass charts! We were shocked that a Christmas song would even chart at all much less a new act no one had ever heard of. Very impressed with Stephen Burwell, Daniel and I were able to sit down with him and explore different styles and come up with something very special. So far, we feel, our hard work has paid off.

The band loves performing, especially songs like “Take me back to Tulsa,” “Moving On,” “Ruby,” “Cotton Fields,” and even “Roots of My Raisin’.”

“I love reaching people with a song. Maybe it’s a current situation they are going through where the song makes them really feel something for 3 minutes. A song can hurt in a good way. ‘He stopped loving her today’ is a prime example.  However, the song ‘Diana’ is my favorite, and it’s also the most challenging vocally. Either you nail it, or you bomb! Interestingly enough, we are finding out after our shows, people will come up to us and say, that’s my favorite song.  It’s a little more obscure song from Haggard. We had no idea people would remember it. We just loved the song.”


2 thoughts on “Merle Monroe: Go Back to the Country

  • February 1, 2020 at 5:43 pm

    Love the band Merle Monroe ! There harmony’s and there style of doing the old songs as well as original are wonderful !!

  • February 4, 2020 at 2:01 pm

    Really funny–I thought Merle Monroe was A person. Reading this article was great AND informative, lol!


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