Blount native Jesse Gregory prepares to open a bluegrass ‘Faultline’ with new CD
By Steve Wildsmith (email@example.com)
It wasn’t that long ago that Jesse Gregory claimed her diploma from William Blount High School and went out into the world to pursue her dream.
She hoped that she might one day return, for she’s a small-town girl, to see old teachers and perhaps inspire a younger generation of students to aim for the stars as she has. She just never thought she’d be going back so soon.
“I had always wished that one day the school would call me and say, ‘You’re a William Blount alumna; would you like to come play for our students?’” Gregory told The Daily Times over a recent lunch interview at Tomato Head. “But I never imagined I would make a CD this soon, or that I would come back to the high school to have my release show.
“We looked at a lot of music venues — The Palace Theater, the Capitol — and I love those places, but they didn’t have enough seats, or they didn’t fit my budget. The one place I knew of was my old high school. There’s a great auditorium there, and it’s a great, central place only five minutes from my house. It’s a great place to have it.”
“It” is the performance and official release of “Faultline,” an album that’s been years in the making. It’s bluegrass through and through, but Gregory’s experience as a musician and in the bluegrass world gives it a heft a lot of other local performers might lack. After all, what other Blount County bluegrass pickers can say heralded star of the genre Alison Krauss sang harmony vocals on one of their songs?
Gregory can. More importantly, she can hold up “Faultline” as evidence that not all great bluegrass comes out of Nashville or Kentucky, and she can point to a heritage of love from friends and family as the launching pad for her record. After all, they were the ones who encouraged her to sing for the first time in public, when she was just 23 months old.
She doesn’t remember it, but she’s heard the story often enough: How she crooned “Amazing Grace” at Friendship Baptist Church, which she still attends today. What she does remember is how her parents, Jeff and Lisa Gregory, recruited her into the family’s bluegrass band.
“My dad decided I needed to play something, and I thought, ‘That mandolin is little; I’ll play that!’” she said.
With her parents and brother Joseph, Jesse made an impact on local audiences as part of the Gregory Family band; from the first time she played to a Greenback audience until she was 16, when her parents decided to “retire” from constant performance, she dazzled local fans with her abilities as both a picker and a singer. It wasn’t always easy; at first, she said, she was insufferably shy, at least until watching her idols perform convinced her she couldn’t be both shy and famous.
And while her family may have been ready to step out of the spotlight, Jesse wasn’t. By the same token, neither were fans who had fallen in love with her honey-sweet voice, one with just the right amount of character and huskiness to give it heft. Deciding to forge ahead as a solo performer, she switched to guitar, and she started focusing more on writing original songs.
“People would call up and say, ‘Ya’ll aren’t playing anymore? Well we want Jesse to come and sing!’” she said. “That’s when everything started for me. It was bittersweet; I was sad that the family band was stopping, but I was very happy to keep going on my own.”
But she’s maintained a level head about it: After graduating from WBHS in 2009, she opted to attend East Tennessee State University, where she’s majored in bluegrass. Her studies entail constant practicing of her craft, so she’s gotten better as a musician and as a songwriter, and her ties to the bluegrass community have helped out as well: Justin Moses, her former mandolin instructor who now plays banjo for Ricky Skaggs, introduced her to Sierra Hull, a young star in the bluegrass world who in turn introduced Gregory to Alison Krauss.
When it came time to make “Faultine,” Gregory reached out to Krauss, who readily agreed to provide harmonies on the title track. She cut it with Randy Kohrs and Clay Hess, and now she’s ready to release it to fans. It’s been a long time coming, and a lot of work involved, but the end result is a spectacular effort as good as anything in the genre released on a major label in recent years.
“I’ve been consumed by it,” Gregory said. “It’s pretty much taken over my life, because I haven’t hired anybody to do the work for me. The design, all the work for it — I’ve had to do it all myself, and I’ve just figured everything out as I went along. It’s been a lot of hard work, but I’ve always thought that if you can’t be as good as or better than someone else out there, you might as well not do it. And I’ve got a strong drive to work hard and get better.”