Highland Profiles is a series that aims to highlight West Virginia’s exemplary outdoor adventurers, business owners, and community innovators. If you’ve got someone in mind worthy of a profile, drop me a line: email@example.com.
Some say music is life, others say water is life. For Groundhog Gravy, a four-piece rock band from Fayetteville, both are deemed appropriate. By day, the band members guide rafts down whitewater rapids. By night, they guide the Gravy Boat down the stream of east coast music venues.
Known as the Gravy Boys, the band consists of Matt Harrison (vocals and bass), Scott Ferris (drums), Berry Rainwater (guitar), and Ed Lehrter (vocals and rhythm guitar). The members met in 2016 while working as raft guides on the New and Gauley rivers and attribute the band’s success to the vibrant West Virginia whitewater community that brought them together. What started as fireside acoustic jams musically morphed into a collection of refined renditions on their 2017 debut album, Insignificant. Their first tour on the road was a grand adventure with little turbulence and great success. The Gravy Boys returned to West Virginia in April of 2018 to begin recording their second studio album, Pillow Rock, and to prepare for another wild and wonderful season on the New and Gauley rivers.
I met up with the boys in Roanoke, VA for their first show on the road in 2019 where they proudly introduced me to their tour bus, Jon Etta, whose side door had just broken off the day before. Pulling from their raft guide handbooks to improvise and innovate, Jon Etta looked better than ever by the time their second gig rolled around two days later. For the members of Groundhog Gravy, many aspects of being a river rat have helped them prepare for life on the road as musicians, and they believe that their love for the river will help them stay afloat in years to come. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did all four of you begin playing music together?
EL: We all lived at a guide camp, which is a bit of a Hooverville or shanty town, with lots of campers and porches and were just picking around, which is how Matt and I started playing music together. Playing on various porches and around various fires—that’s how Berry got into it. If it hadn’t been winter, you’d bet we would’ve been picking on a porch when Scott joined the band, but it was cold, so we were inside. That’s the one exception.
How has your music evolved from when you first started playing together to now?
EL: We used to do a real hippy thing, where there were banjos and hand drums, now we’ve kind of evolved to a more electric sound.
MH: Everyone used to kind of bounce around, playing different instruments as well, and now we’re solidified in those instruments on stage.
When did that musical solidification really come about?
BR: In early 2017. It was still mix-matched in 2016 between mandolin, bass, banjo, hand drum, acoustic guitars, but everyone kind of gravitated to one instrument at the that start of that year.
You guys recorded your first album, Insignificant, in the fall of 2017. How has producing an album affected the band?
EL: I think it was instrumental in teaching us a lot of things about how to orchestrate songs, how songs should be put things together, what’s entertaining, and what’s not. It was really good, it kind of set a standard of quality in our musicianship and, at a certain point in time, kind of a benchmark. That was the first time we recorded on anything of that quality. It was cool recording our sound as it was right then; it’s a standard we can look back on and judge ourselves by.
You guys describe yourself as a “Rock and roll band with deep funk fusion and blues roots.” What exactly does that mean?
BR: It’s tough deciding what we are. The genre name-game label is hard to define, and as cliché as that might sound, we are confused as well. Recently, riding on the bus from a venue, Scott mentioned how we have ADGD.
SF: ADGD, yeah: Attention Deficit Genre Disorder.
BR: We play a little bit of everything because we like hearing a little bit of everything.
Do you think it’s hard to decide on a genre because you’re all very eclectic in what you can play?
MH: I think so. We all have different influences. We all like different things and we try to bring those things we like to the table, so we end up having a lot of different sounding material that is fun to play.
BR: I think if you listen enough, you can figure out the base elements of a certain song and how we went from there. One person will have this influence and we develop it as a group.
What songs from Insignificant best represent your sound?
SF: “Park City Blues” and “Mojo” come to mind, just because it’s where we came from at the time. “Time Waits” was a song Berry brought to the table and we built that up. The live performance is quite different than the recorded sound, but I think the variety on the album best encapsulates us and how diverse a live Groundhog Gravy show is.
Your band name is unique, what brought you to that name?
EL: It’s an old bluegrass line that Doc Watson made pretty famous with the tune “Groundhog.” ‘Here comes Sally with a snicker and a grin / groundhog gravy all over her chin.’
Ed and Matt, you write songs for the band based on personal experiences. Have your travels on the road inspired any new material so far?
MH: A couple verses, but no full songs. We just recently had a few things go down with the bus, which is named Jon Etta after a very unique individual. We were down two doors very quick and a window shattered. Any situation like that is inspiring.
What makes you stand apart from other bands?
EL: Our smell.
MH: I was going to say Scott’s mullet.
BR: The river. I think that aspect of our lives has made us a tighter group.
EL: We were river guides together and we were friends before we were a band so having that base to come to is nice.
You all met due to your love for whitewater. Do you see yourselves growing together in the music scene, or do you hope to prioritize river seasons and stay small as a band?
EL: I never want to lose touch with whitewater. You know, I think we can all say that’s a big part of who we are, it’s something that we’re passionate about—about as passionate as we are about music. Whitewater is how we ended up on stage together. I think that’s one of our greatest strengths as a band is our river family. The river family is very tight-knit, a lot of the connections that we have are connections that we made on the river. I think we’ll plan tours around good whitewater runs.
You are playing at Gauley Fest 2019. How does it feel knowing your audience will be whitewater enthusiasts like yourself?
MH: It’s a lot of fun. It’s good to know that. When we played at the Russel Fork Rendezvous, that was very exciting just because we knew the type of people we were playing music and catering to. It was our people. Like Ed had mentioned before, a tight-knit river family, so with that common ground being shared and us being able to play music for whitewater enthusiasts it’s a lot of fun.
BR: It’s pretty awesome to be the medium between music and the river community, because other musicians were brought in and they don’t boat, then boaters come in and they don’t play music, so it’s pretty cool to be able to hop from the river to the stage and from the stage to the river.
If you’re a fan of upbeat music and soulful outdoor communities, be sure to add Groundhog Gravy to your playlist. They’ll be rocking Summersville at Gauley Fest 2019 on Saturday, September 20.