Written by Kara Smoak
Sticking true to their Appalachian roots and the bluegrass legacy of their biggest inspiration, Del McCourey, Grand ‘Ole Ditch is born. Their tunes seamlessly create the perfect blend of classic bluegrass and modern jams. Rising out of Cumberland, MD, they translate their hometown memories into tunes that are sure to leave any East Coast kid instantly filled with nostalgia. The band was formed six years ago by Craig Miller and is graced with the sounds of Lucas Mathews, Jody Mosser, Todd Hocherl, Sam Guthridge, Butch Moser.
1. How did the process of forming Grand ‘Ole Ditch come about?
The band formed around a common interest in trying out bluegrass music among local folks from Cumberland. DelFest had been in our town for a few years at that point and it was certainly a catalyst in some of the folks coming to know and appreciate the genre. There was some excitement about it all. We were all kind of testing out a new “thing” at the time. You know, a few years back when this band formed, there weren’t many people playing string band music in the region. Unless you were hanging out at open jams in the surrounding areas or attending bluegrass festivals you weren’t seeing much string band music so it really wasn’t an over-saturated scene like it is now. We were off to figure out how to put all the pieces together. We started performing out and playing various tunes, spanning many musical tastes eventually leading to exploring how to apply the instrumentation to original numbers. People liked it and it was great fun. One of the most memorable things about the beginnings of the project was the name itself, as the name “Grand Ole’ Ditch” had a direct correlation to our hometown. During the time when the C&O Canal was a relevant enterprise, prior to the introduction of the railroad, some influential legislators nicknamed the canal, “The Grand Old Ditch”. It all just made sense. Since that time, we’ve been through several lineup changes but we have always had the integrity of the music at heart as we have evolved and continue to evolve.
2. Collectively as band, what is your biggest musical influence?
Well, if it wasn’t for Del McCoury, I don’t believe this group would exist but that being said though, we’re all over the place and as the band evolves and grows so does the influences. If you take a look at the first album it was just straight up bluegrass music, but as each additional release came to be, we started to explore different ways to incorporate various feels, like what I tried to accomplish with a tune from our last album like “Copper Kettle Coal” I can tell you though that we all have a great appreciation for jazz music. I’ve been on a Ramsey Lewis kick for quite some time. Having six different brains with six different views on what music is and what it should sound like is a great thing. It provides a great tool-set for creating good musical moments when we’re in the midst of an exploratory part on stage.
3. What is the most memorable show or festival y’all have played? What made it a memorable moment?
The first time we played DelFest in 2015. That was incredible. To be on that bill with folks like Del McCoury Band, Dawg, Hot Rize, Larry Keel and others, it was quite a shot in the arm. We were playing on the Potomac Stage and some fans brought in some confetti bazookas or whatever you call it lol and they shot them off mid-set and the whole crowd went nuts. We had that area of the festival completely packed. That’s what happens when you’re the new kid. People want to see what the fuss is all about and they did. It was an amazing moment. I also have to say that being part of Sleepy Creek on the Potomac’s first couple festivals and watching that grow into what is has, is also a great moment in our evolution. Keel sat in with us on a cover of “Red Clay Halo” there and it was great fun. Danny and that whole crew do a fine job.
4. Who does majority of the song writing? What is your biggest inspiration when it comes to writing lyrics?
I do the majority of song writing for the group and most of the musical arrangements. It’s been something I’ve been doing on my own and in various types bands from various types of genres for over 20 years now. It’s been fun to apply new and old musical ideas to a band with bluegrass instruments. One of my biggest inspiration for lyrics is my great friend Nick Mohler. We’ve known each other since we were 5 years old and he just has the best perspective on life. He and I have written a lot since high school times. I used to play in a jamband called Velvet Jones and Nick and I wrote tunes for that band. I also have two solo albums and Nick wrote with me on those. I brought in some of our material for the last Ditch album and the new one that we just released. I like “Best of Us” the most, as it’s an ode to our childhood days of riding bikes through town and not wanting to ever go back home. Life goes fast. The tune tries to get that across. I think it’s a great number. I also write my own lyrics every so often and I would be remiss if I failed to identify the inspiration I find in John Hartford’s cadences and stream-of-consciousness-verbosity is something I take very kindly to when I fumble my way through a tune.
5. Congrats on six years as a band. What do you hope to accomplish in the next six years?
Thanks a lot! It’s been an interesting journey so far. I hope to continue to evolve. You know we’ve been incorporating a lot of electric guitar on the extended jams and bringing in some 6-neck slide guitar on some numbers as well. We’ve been jamming and switching instruments and just having fun and showing what we can do from a multi-instrumentalist perspective. I think that’s fun for an audience to see and it’s fun to do. Something really big on the radar for us is making sure we keep this going and get the word out there that Ditch has changed, but it hasn’t gone away and we’re not done yet. I’m looking forward to getting the guys back to some festivals next spring and summer so if you’re reading this, please keep us in mind.
6. What is your biggest challenge and how have you overcome it?
Just being in a band and keeping it all together and making everyone happy is the biggest challenge. It’s not an easy thing to navigate sometimes and sometimes what you help create can help tear apart what you helped create. What I mean by that is creating a band and nurturing the associated relationships is like bringing Frankenstein to life. You zap the heck out of this “thing” to get it to come alive and once it does, it’s hard to control. It’s best to have the science behind it all at the heart in every decision. The thing we created grew fast and evolved into something completely unexpected. Now that we’ve relaxed into our current situation, we’re getting together when we can and having fun when we do. That’s the most important part.