L.A.-Based The Storytellers Deliver Jam Grass in the Spirit of The Dead
by Kara M. Bachman
Guitarist Scott Diehl describes the evolution of his Los Angeles-based progressive bluegrass band, The Storytellers. When he tells the story, the sound of this group focused on a complementary blend of traditional bluegrass, jamgrass, roots-rock, Americana, country-blues, and folk makes it clear this outfit is as steeped in values of the past as they are keen on keeping things fresh for today’s listening ear.
One thing’s for sure: This cross-genre openness and penchant for improvisation could never be boring.
“I had found the Grateful Dead…it’s happy, joyous music. I became one of the traditional Deadheads,” Diehl said, of the band’s major influence.
Then, he started getting into “Old & In the Way,” the groundbreaking record by the band of the same name, featuring heavy hitters such as the Dead’s Jerry Garcia and guitarist Peter Rowan.
The way Diehl describes it, that record was a kind of awakening to the possibilities of bluegrass that strays willingly from the strictly traditional vibe.
“That’s the kind of joy I wanted to create in my own life,” Diehl said, of how the record influenced not only his outlook but the evolution of The Storytellers’ sound.
“People sometimes call us Deadgrass,” he explained, which kinda says it all.
The band will begin work on an album soon, hopefully entering the studio in May. While they’ve had a great three years since the band formed, they’ve spent much of the past year as most performers have: Doing virtual festivals and writing new material.
In addition to Diehl, The Storytellers includes Jonathan Sheldon (fiddle); Lance Frantzich (bass); Steve Stelmach (drums, percussion); David Ryan (mandolin); and Dave Burns (banjo). Each brings a different level of experience and skill set, and according to Diehl, this lineup works.
“I took up the clarinet in 4th grade, and by that time, I had already played piano,” Diehl said. It wasn’t until much later that he was struck by the guitar. Those early experiences, though, taught him big lessons and whetted an appetite for music. “The beauty of that [early] experience is it really taught me about the level of effort that is required [to make good music].” He said he learned early on that not only does a musician give his or her time, but the real gift delivered is a piece of one’s soul, found in the emotions of a song.
That topic — of the emotions of a song — seems important to Diehl…and rightfully so. He said there’s a kind of richness in both the improvisation and storytelling that are hallmarks of bluegrass. These are also hallmarks of several other valuable roots genres indigenous to the U.S.
“My grandparents fostered in me a deep love and respect for jazz,” Diehl reminisced. He said they had witnessed live performances of many old-time jazz greats. “They told me that was their experience of seeing something profound and spiritual.”
“I could never get there… but I can support these guys [bandmates] when they reach out into the ether and pull down something profound.”
Although he’s humble about his role in the band, Diehl has a keen understanding of how even his role as a guitarist with only five years’ experience can add real value to a group housing musician such as 30-year banjo veteran, Dave Burns. With that comes a reverence for his bandmates that’s almost palpable, a kind of respect that underlies a melding of different paradigms and experience levels. This sum is greater than its parts, resulting in a cohesive unit that jams well together and slides often into an easy flow.
Diehl said that ability — to grasp what each bandmate is up to — is one of the best things about The Storytellers.
“It’s almost like we all become synchronized, and lock into what each other is doing,” he said, of those times when the improvisation clicks with precision and feeling. As a rhythm guitarist, he admitted: “I don’t drive those times myself, but I can support them as they occur.”
Diehl said the other element that’s so important that the band is named after it — storytelling — gives more depth to the music. He sees a bit of a resurgence of bluegrass happening there in California, a place not often associated in the popular culture with a big bluegrass scene.
“Back in the ‘80s in southern California, there was a vibrant folk music scene,” he said. “People kinda got away from that for a while, but now people are craving depth, and we are seeing more people attracted to the [bluegrass] music.”
Diehl is quite thoughtful about it all and seems interested in parsing the cultural and spiritual role of music and perhaps deconstructing it. There’s nothing wrong with this kind of analysis, and it perhaps resounds with those who might want to look beyond the obvious and search for what lies beneath the surface of things.
Diehl said what’s missing from most genres of music is “engagement of the head,” and The Storytellers strives to get all the wheels turning and pistons firing, whether they be intellectual or emotional. The best way to do that, in his estimate, is by telling a good story.
“I remember back in high school, learning that all of history was once oral history,” he said. “Those are the roots of a lot of traditional folk music. It’s just people telling a tale.”
And what tales interest this band the most? What tales do these storytellers strive to relay?
“It’s gonna be about the human experience,” Diehl assured.