Nothin' Fancy is a bluegrass band based in Buena Vista, VA and was formed in September 1994. The band's history is traceable to its parent band called East Coast Bluegrass Band, which was formed in Summer of 1985 with the purpose of competing in the East Coast Bluegrass Championship in Crimora, Virginia.
East Coast Bluegrass Band:
The East Coast Bluegrass Band, the group which would evolve into Nothin' Fancy, had its roots firmly planted in Virginia musical traditions. After winning the eponymous contest for which they were both formed and named intentionally--the East Coast Bluegrass Championship in Crimora, Virginia--it seemed counterproductive to change the name of the band, which continued to play together at local functions. In 1986 the group won the Virginia Folk Music Society State Bluegrass Band Championship. The members of the band began to try their hands at producing original material but remained true to the traditional sounds of the great bluegrass bands of the 1940s and 1950s.
The line-up of the band at the time of "Life's Mysteries" 1998 release was Buster Sexton on banjo, Mike Andes on mandolin, Frankie Hawkins on guitar, Darin Lawrence on rhythm guitar, Bill Ledbetter on bass, and Buster's son Chris Sexton on fiddle. The younger Sexton joined the group at the last minute as a replacement for Mitchell Davis, who left the group in May 1997.
A new group had been formed in 1994 called Nothin' Fancy. Mike Andes and Mitchell Davis (now on banjo) joined forces with Justin Tomlin on guitar, Tony Shorter on bass, and Guy Carawan on fiddle to play the same East Coast Bluegrass Championship in September 1994 that East Coast Bluegrass Band had once played almost a decade earlier. Nothin' Fancy released their first project "Bluegrass in a Plain Brown Wrapper" shortly afterwards, but Carawan left the group shortly after the release, and the group continued as a quartet.
Nothin' Fancy and East Coast Bluegrass Band continued to coexist until 2000 when East Coast Bluegrass Band's members drifted apart and had to reorganize. Andes had been doing double-duty with both groups and eventually chose to work with Nothin' Fancy solely. Chris Sexton, who had appeared with Nothin' Fancy for their first-place victory in the band competition at the Maury River Fiddler's Convention in 1998 and recorded as a guest fiddler on the band's second and third releases ("Earn Your Ticket" and "Field of Dreams," respectively), officially became the newest member of Nothin' Fancy in 2000. The fourth project, "Now and Then" is the first album to feature the five-piece group as it is today.
Shorter departed from the group in 2005, and was replaced by Eli Johnston of Branson, MO. Nothin' Fancy released "Album No. 7" under Pinecastle with Johnston and featured him as the lead vocal on the song "Tupelo County Jail," but Johnston only stayed with the group for 13 months. Citing artistic differences, he left the group and joined the band Pine Mountain Railroad. Nothin' Fancy's members called Shorter back into service in time for the 6th Annual Nothin' Fancy Bluegrass Festival. Shorter, who at the time was playing bass for country star Keith Bryant, happily agreed and the band was re-united with its original cast and has stayed as such since.
Gary Ferris also departed the group in July 2012 and was replaced by Justin Tomlin.
East Coast Bluegrass Band released four self-produced albums. They then contracted Tim Austin of Doobie Shea Studios to produce and record the project. Recording began in February 1996. Later that spring, lightning struck and destroyed the studio and all the recorded sessions. Once it was up and running again they were one of the first acts to record in the new studio. After four albums, thirteen years, and hundreds of performances, the band released their first nationally-distributed recording project, Life's Mysteries on Copper Creek Records.
The group, now appearing as Nothin' Fancy, was approached by Pinecastle Records and signed to the label in 2002. They recorded their fifth project, "Once Upon a Road" with the title song written for the band by Tom T. Hall and his wife Dixie. "Once Upon a Road" rose to number 10 on the Bluegrass Charts as posted by Bluegrass Unlimited. Their bluegrass gospel song "When the Angels Take My Hand" rose to the Number 1 spot on the Bluegrass Gospel charts as posted by (the now-defunct) Bluegrass Now magazine. The album also earned them a showcase at the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) Convention in October 2002 and a nomination for the IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year Award.
Their sixth album, "Reflections," was a much more personal album, with Andes penning 10 of the 13 songs. It featured the novelty single "I Met My Baby in the Porta-John Line" as a bonus track, also by Andes. "Reflections" was not as commercially successful as "Once Upon a Road," but it was from these two albums and the performances from this period that Nothin' Fancy had found its highly unique voice, which paid homage to bands such as the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene. The late Charlie Waller, a founding member of the Country Gentlemen who went on to lead that group until his death in 2004, met with Andes at the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America annual convention and learned the song "Heaven Got an Angel" from Andes (that was recorded originally on "Field of Dreams") and recorded it on the Country Gentlemen album "Cryin' in the Chapel."
Their eighth album, Lord Bless This House, the first all-gospel recording for the group, was officially released January 27, 2009 through Pinecastle. Co-produced by Grammy-nominated bluegrass artist Rhonda Vincent and her brother Darrin Vincent (of Dailey and Vincent fame) with guest appearances from the both of them, it is frequently played on Sirius XM Radio's Bluegrass Junction station, along with other selections from their discography.
East Coast Bluegrass Band paid their dues at lawn parties and bars in and around the Harrisonburg, Virginia area and the Charlottesville, Virginia area for many years. In years since, the band has played the Grand Ole Opry at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, and with the "Bluegrass Series with Rhonda Vincent & Nothin' Fancy". They have played such other major venues as Lincoln Center in New York City, and The Birchmere in Alexandria, Virginia. Nothin' Fancy plays about 140 shows a year and is a staple on the bluegrass festival circuit. The band has been known to take fans on bus trips to festivals and accompanying them on bluegrass cruises aboard the Royal Caribbean and Carnival cruises. Nothin' Fancy performed in June 2010 at the Tottenhan Bluegrass Festival in Ontario, Canada, and the band toured as part of the 2012 Bluegrass Sundays Winter Concert series organized by the Northern Bluegrass Committee in Scarborough, Ontario.
Musical style and sound:
The band seeks to remain "true to the traditional sounds of the great bluegrass bands of the 1940s and '50s", while also performing and recording original songs by their prolific songwriter, lead singer Mike Andes. Classic bluegrass material draws from Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley, the Country Gentlemen, and the Seldom Scene; but song selection ranges from original material to gospel classics to covers of pop artists such as Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen, Bill Withers, Bob Dylan, and Creedence Clearwater Revival.
In live performance Nothin' Fancy has been noted for its strong vocals, five-part arrangements, and its high-energy shows well-seasoned with humor. The quintet gathers around one microphone, employing a shell-game choreography for solos and back-up which keeps the show visually active as well as aurally pleasing. Andes' clear singing style is attributed to the unique stylings of Charlie Waller, whose earthy bass-baritone voice sang with clear enunciation. Farris sings a bold tenor harmony remarkable for its projection; his powerful delivery has been likened to the late John Duffey of the Seldom Scene. Shorter occasionally sings baritone harmonies an octave higher, while Davis lends a rumbly bass to the mix, especially on gospel songs.
Nothin' Fancy Bluegrass Festival:
In 2001, a Rockbridge County entrepreneur, Morris O'Shields, created a bluegrass festival at the Glen Maury Park, the site of the Maury River Fiddler's Convention where Nothin' Fancy won its victory three years before. The festival was named for Nothin' Fancy, who have served as the host act in years since. Just as the band originally named itself after the first music festival in which it competed--subsequently winning the prize--it then had a music festival, whose competition it had also won, subsequently named for it.
The so-named festival has become a much-loved annual event that brings scores of bluegrass fans to the Shenandoah Valley and to the little town of Buena Vista, VA, where Farris calls home (and from which the band operates). Held each year at the Glen Maury Park in Buena Vista, Virginia, the festival has perennially played host to major bluegrass bands. The 2008 festival, for example, included such names as Rhonda Vincent, Michelle Nixon, Blue Mountain Sunrise, The Deer Creek Boys, Randy Waller & the Country Gentlemen, Blue Moon Rising, and the Gary Waldrep Band. It has also hosted bands and artists such as IIIrd Tyme Out, the Lonesome River Band, Missy Raines, Marty Raybon, The Dillards, the Lewis Family, Goldwing Express, Larry Stephenson, Mark Newton, and Charlie Sizemore.