Fertile Soil brings gospel, bluegrass to Miller House
When Dicky DeGrange, 58, was younger, he watched “Hee Haw,” which starred renowned banjo picker Roy Clark.
“I saw that and said, ‘I’m going to learn how to play that,’” said DeGrange, of Hagerstown.
He was 20 when he walked into Carpenter’s World of Music, which was then in Valley Mall in Halfway, and bought a banjo for $140. But he needed someone to teach him how to play the string instrument.
“And I got one of the best teachers around, Bill Davis,” DeGrange recalled.
For three hours a day, DeGrange practiced, and he continued his lessons with Davis for nine years.
It seems what Davis taught DeGrange all those years ago stuck because he still plays banjo, now is a member of the bluegrass-gospel band Fertile Soil.
Fertile Soil will perform Saturday, Jan. 29, at Bluegrass and Blue Jeans at the Miller House in downtown Hagerstown. The event is from 2 to 4 p.m., and the cost to attend is $5.
Planting the seed
In addition to DeGrange, Fertile Soil includes Pat Ricker on bass; Brian Bonham on guitar; and Paul Beard on resonator guitar.
The band started about 18 years ago, a few years after DeGrange moved to Hagerstown. He was looking for others with whom to play gospel music.
“I grew up in the church,” he said. “I had a really close connection to gospel music.”
He also wanted to start a band. He met Ricker and Beard, who shared a common interest in music, and they came over to his house for a pickin’ session or two.
“We started jamming at my house on Wednesday nights,” DeGrange said.
They decided that they needed to play a gig.
“We got one gig, and then it turned into another gig, and we kept going,” he said.
In the beginning, they played mostly country music, but DeGrange said they found more and more of the churches at which they performed wanted to hear old-time gospel favorites like “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”
That’s when they started playing more bluegrass, but DeGrange was quick to point out, “it’s more upbeat than old-time whiny bluegrass; more of a modern bluegrass.”
Fertile Soil plays a mixture of originals and covers with their own spin.
Although DeGrange played French horn and trumpet in high school, he doesn’t read music for the banjo, so he plays by ear.
When band members decided to do their own cover of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” DeGrange said they listened to the song and decided to make the banjo take the lead that was meant to be a guitar solo.
Looking back, DeGrange said that was the path he was meant to be on because he had an early opportunity to play on open stages, but was never asked to play in any bands.
“The saving grace was that it never drew me into that lifestyle,” he said. “Because when I became saved, I was supposed to play music within light. A month after me coming to the Lord, a man approached me to be in their gospel group.”
Band of brothers
What has made the group survive all these years is respect for one another, DeGrange said.
“We became really, really good friends,” he said. “We kind of let each other play what we want to play.”
Sure, they “squabble like brothers, but it never gets to where we don’t want to see each other.”
He said there is more to the friendship than making music. The members hang out with each other and their families, and go out to dinner.
“We’ve talked about how a lot of musicians fight and the bands break up,” he said. “We don’t think that’s important. We put our friendship first.”
DeGrange said the group is looking forward to returning to Bluegrass and Blue Jeans this year.
“I really liked that it was a select group of people who wanted to come to listen to music,” he said.
DeGrange promised that just because Fertile Soil plays bluegrass, it won’t perform music just from bluegrass artists. The guys also perform tunes by Cheap Trick in the band’s signature sound.
He’s hoping for a crowd as responsive as the one at last year’s event.
“I hope they’ll leave and they take with them a fond memory,” he said.