Seems like it was just meant to be.
When the Arizona Theatre Company presents the folk group the Kingston Trio next week as part of its nascent Temple Spotlight Series, George Grove will be there, just as he has been for 36 years, with his banjo, his guitar and his serious passion for the folk-music tradition, and for the Kingston Trio in particular.
Grove, who hails from the hills of western North Carolina, was 9 years old when his older sister brought home an album—you remember those—and the minute he saw it, he grabbed it from her hands.
"I said, 'What in the world is this?' It was The Kingston Trio's ... From the 'Hungry i,' and I remember specifically looking at that unique art work on the cover. It was this beautiful pen-and-ink drawing of San Francisco—the Coit Tower and the Golden Gate Bridge and all these places I knew nothing about. That album did not remain my sister's for very long. She says I grabbed it and said, 'That's my album, and I'm gonna be one of that group.'"
It wasn't just the music that gripped Grove. "It was the entire approach of that album. ... What Dave Guard was saying in between songs was not only the intro to the next song, but it was also insouciant and intelligent about what was taking place in the world. It was almost an intangible thing that caught my attention and caught my heart, and I've never been able to let go of it."
Not everyone derives the special inspiration that filled Grove, of course. But there have been plenty of folks who not only enjoy the beautiful simplicity of folk music, but also have been led to pick up the guitar and learn to strum the three or four chords, which open the doors to their own participation.
'Tom Dooley' has two chords," Grove says of the accessibility of folk music. "So I taught myself to play the guitar. I had been taking piano lessons since I was 4, so music was not new to me."
Grove's musical path has taken him far beyond two chords. He studied piano and trumpet at Wake Forest University and then played in the U.S. Army Band.
"When I finished my Army service, I thought, at the ripe old age of 23, 'Well, I've had a good career with this music thing so far,' so I moved to Nashville.
"Even though I grew up in an area with a rich musical heritage, I really wasn't turned on to it until I heard that Kingston Trio album. So here I was in Nashville, and I got a job at Opryland, which was a music-themed amusement park. The Grand Ole Opry had just moved from the Ryman Auditorium to its new theater at Opryland—a great facility—so I was invited to hang out backstage with Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn and Roy Acuff—all the old guard. I learned a lot from watching and listening and playing with them."
In 1976, Grove heard the Trio was looking for a banjo player, so he went to audition in Atlanta on his 29th birthday. "I played all the songs, and knew them backward and forward, both instrumentally and vocally. We got along musically and socially—that's very important when you're touring 35 to 40 weeks out of the year. I got the job, and I've been with them ever since."
The Kingston Trio has been around since 1957. The original members were Bob Shane, Nick Reynolds and Dave Guard. They disbanded in 1967, and Shane resurrected the group as the New Kingston Trio, and teamed with Bill Zorn and Roger Gambill in 1973. The Trio has changed personnel over the years—but not as much as you might think.
"We've actually kept it in the family—at least in the folk family. After Roger Gambill died of a heart attack, Bob Haworth, who had been with the Brothers Four, joined the trio, then left but later returned," Grove said. "Bill Zorn, from the New Christy Minstrels, played from 1973 to 1976. I replaced him, but then Bob Shane had a heart attack and thought it was God's way of telling him to retire, so Bill rejoined the group. Rick Dougherty, formerly of the Limeliters, joined us in 2005."
Some years ago, Grove went back to school to study jazz composition, and the skills he learned there have opened up new opportunities for the group. With Grove's orchestrations, the trio has played with most of the major symphonies in the country.
"The Atlanta Symphony called and asked if we could perform with them, but we'd never done anything like that," Grove says.
Their agent scheduled them anyway. "So, we had a booking in Las Vegas, and the rest of the guys were downstairs having a good time, and I was up in my room writing orchestral arrangements. I guess I've never grown out of being the geek."
The Kingston Trio's version of "Tom Dooley" is in the Grammy Hall of Fame, and the group received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy in 2011. Their contributions to the development of popular music in the latter half of the 20th century are immeasurable.
"The Trio really opened the doors for Peter, Paul and Mary, Bob Dylan and Joan Baez," Grove says. "And many rockers started out as folk singers. The Association, Lindsey Buckingham of Fleetwood Mac, and Joe Walsh and Glenn Frey of the Eagles—they all started out as folkies. I think the Kingston Trio showed that it was viable for a recording company to take a chance on a folk singer."
Grove now lives in Las Vegas and co-produces albums for other artists, and does session work as a musician and vocalist. The Kingston Trio's new CD, Born at the Right Time, will be released any day.
Undeniably, Grove found his groove. "I think I was born to do this."