The Kay Brothers, a Columbia-based family band, has found their place as an ever-evolving group of family members and friends who seek to keep traditional folk songs alive by way of what they call “stompgrass”—bluegrass with a kick.
Interviewer: Can you talk to me about how you guys got together?
Kay: I sort of got into playing this kind of music with the Hat Trick and that band was started by Sean Canan and myself and that was kind of—I was a full-time musician—and that was kind of the daily provider at that point. Then Sean moved from here to St. Louis and performing together was kind of challenging just due to the distance.
My brother had always played music, too. For as long as I can remember, both of us had. We each had our own bands and kind of did our own thing, but I arrived at that place in life where I really wanted to have a project with him and play music with him and share in that experience with him. I sort of set out to build another band, basically.
Michael Schembre—the first fiddle player the band had—I met him at an open mic night and he was great, right from the downbeat of the first song we played together. And he and I had never played together. I remember walking back to the bar after that and basically sitting down and being like, “Alright, here’s what we’re gonna do.” I called my brother and was like, “Do you want to do this?” And he was like, “Yeah, yeah, sure, what am I going to play?” I said, “How about upright bass?” And he had never played bass before that. He played electric guitar in a hard rock band.
We had one rehearsal. It may have been the only real rehearsal we ever had as a band. I found a bass for him to play that I’d gotten as a backup upright bass for the bass player in the Hat Trick and I had it at the house and I said, “I have a bass for you and everything.” And he drove back from work that day and watched YouTube videos all the way from work to my house, which was about a thirty-minute drive, about how to play the upright bass, and he walked in my door and I handed it to him, and we just basically played the entire set. [He] didn’t miss a lick.
Since then, the band has had a lot of people [who] have sort of come and gone. But Bryan [Kay] and I have been there from the very beginning. And it’s been really neat to see people from previous projects enter into the fold again.
Interviewer: How would you would define the band’s sound?
Kay: I have always called it “stompgrass.” I’m pretty sure we coined that term. I think it was sort of a latent concept that kind of began with the Hat Trick. Traditional bluegrass music has a very specific equation to it. There are very narrow guardrails for how you arrange songs, how you present them, and I never fully bought into that. Typically, percussion, like drums and things like that, are widely understood in a traditional sense to have no place in bluegrass music. To me, the percussion elements feel precisely what bluegrass lacks. I always thought bluegrass was the core of what I was pursuing musically and creatively and it wasn’t until 2017 or 2016 when Roger Netherton—fantastic fiddle player, probably the best fiddle player I’ll ever witness play, let alone share the stage with—he joined the band.
[Netherton helped lead Kay to the conclusion that the music he is drawn to is not bluegrass, but old-time fiddle music.] I had no idea that old-time fiddle music was a thing, that it existed, that it was a different genre. And it was one of the biggest turning points musically for this band because all of a sudden, we had a guy in the family that knew a thousand old-time fiddle songs off the top of his head. He could play them on command. And I realized that that was the music I really, really, really loved. That was the music I identified with. The only real difference therein was that I had added the kick drum, which I play with my right foot, and the tambourine that I play with my left foot. And it just completely burst the doors open creatively. We recorded an album—a self-titled album that we released in 2018—that you can basically see the lineage between those two points. It became the defining sound of the band. At that point I realized we really weren’t ever a bluegrass band. We were almost always an old-time band.
It took off after that. We went from having one hundred people at a show to selling out a sequence of ten or twelve shows. And we just kept moving to a bigger space and kept moving to a bigger space. We sold out The Blue Note, which was a lifelong dream of ours. And then we moved back into the park and had even more—had a thousand people. It’s been an incredible ride. A lot of people have put their thumbprint on the sound of that band over the years.
Interviewer: What are you guys working on now? Aside from the festival, what do you guys have coming up with shows, with touring, with albums, anything like that?
Kay: The core [goal] of this band has been to keep the tradition of the family band alive. The songs that we play, most of them are traditional songs that we’ve rearranged. These songs were born hundreds of years ago. And they have an incredible history, most of which started overseas and they were carried over here with immigrants and when they landed here they continued to change and develop as they moved west across the frontier and by the time they got here to Missouri, they were fresh and new. From the time that my family settled here in 1816, these songs have become a part of our Missouri heritage. They have been played in the barns on Friday and Saturday nights. They’ve been played in the churches on Sunday morning. And keeping the spirit of that tradition alive for our children has been, by and large, the mission statement of this band. And that is something that I am committed to upholding and pursuing. Music is such a wonderful and wholesome thing. Or at least, it can be. I want to create a positive musical experience that our children can grow up with. And this band, among a multitude of other reasons, was conceived to create that opportunity for my children, for all of our kids. Our future isn’t so much about what more we can accomplish, but how successful we are in maintaining that tradition. We don’t need to take it all over the country, we just need to keep it alive here.
To see The Kay Brothers live on Friday, October 7th at Stephens Lake Park in Columbia, Missouri, purchase your weekend or single-day passes here: https://rootsnbluesfestival.frontgatetickets.com