Hidden away in northern Vermont the band Big Spike Bluegrass plays to bluegrass fans all over New England, Connecticut, and New York State. While most people think that this genre of music is only played in the deep south, Big Spike band members, Neil Rossi and Matt Schrag, beg to differ.
Fiddler and mandolin player Neil Rossi hails from Boston, then moved to New York, and eventually landed in Vermont. Guitarist Matt Schrag, a mandolin player with other groups, was born in Virginia then moved around the country on to Oregon, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and then to Vermont.
It was interesting speaking with Neil and Matt as they explained what they loved about bluegrass music. Neil said that bluegrass, “Was invented by a single person, Bill Monroe. This is important because, for example, jazz is also an invented style of music, but there were many contributors, not a single person that invented it. Bluegrass alone has that distinction”
The music style is a combination of Irish, African, Blues, and Scottish. It was born out of the hearts of Appalachian immigrants. This is the kind of music that people play sitting home on their front porches. It brings the community together.
Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe and his band, Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys, played at the Grand Ole Opry in December of 1945. Their combination of singing and style grabbed everyone attending. It was at this event when bluegrass music was born. Before anyone knew it other bands started to play bluegrass songs.
Bluegrass may have been born in the central Appalachian states but it has a sub culture in practically every state. Fans can be found in Illinois, California, and Massachusetts. It’s also becoming popular in college campuses. So why is it hard to find in many states and why do people look oddly at those who like listening to it?
Neil and Matt said that bluegrass musicians don’t like to promote themselves too much because the music is more about the community than anything else. Matt commented, “We can sit down and play music with people just hanging out because of the common language of bluegrass music. We can all play music together. There is very little separation between the stage musicians and the fans unlike most other genres of music.”
Joining Neil and Matt in Big Spike Bluegrass are the rest of the band members: Bill Gaston, Michael Santosusso, and Freeman Corey. Each member has played bluegrass for many years and are alumni from other bluegrass bands like Smokin’ Grass, The Spark Gap Wonderboys, Three Wheel Drive, The Joint Chiefs of Bluegrass, and The David Bromberg Band.
Big Spike was formed in 2002 as an outgrowth of the group, Two Chord Jones.
When asked what was so special about Big Spike, Rossi and Schrag said that they play and sing bluegrass music the right way. With impeccable vocal harmonies, a powerful stage presence, a sense of humor, and mastery of their instruments. They bring back a sense of the “golden age” of bluegrass.
The band plays hard-driving traditional bluegrass, with an emphasis on 3 and 4-part harmonies. They feature twin fiddles and solid original material in the traditional style. Its members are long-time mainstays of the New England bluegrass scene.
The best part, explains Matt and Neil, is that they are not a full-time band and play as much or as little as they want. But, as a group, the decided not to perform in any bars because Big Spike wants to be listened to and not just be background music. The group sounds good together and the response that they’ve been getting is great.
Big Spike usually sticks to touring Vermont, Upstate New York, Canada, and New Hampshire but aren’t averse to traveling to other states.
The group is not a cover band and prefers to sing their own material. At this time Big Spike is working on their third CD which is untitled but their previous two, “Cheatin’, Lying, Leavin’, Crying” and “A New Day” can be found on CDBaby.
Many of their gigs might be bluegrass festivals but the band does perform at private parties and even weddings. The key, Rossi and Schrag explained, is to expose bluegrass music to a new class of listeners. They just want to make sure that bluegrass remains true bluegrass without the influences of other music styles.
When they aren’t touring and playing bluegrass festivals, Big Spike members write new material, sing, and enjoy their love of music.
Here’s a video of the band playing “Black Diamond Run.” Neil Rossi is on the mandolin, second from the left and Matt Schrag is second from the right playing the guitar.
Listen to this wonderful group, you just might end up becoming a fan of bluegrass.