By Drew Lyon
Special to The Free Press
---- — An hour-long interview with revered musician and former Mankatoan Steve Grams began with an unexpected but welcomed literary discussion. He was reading a Richard Price novel when the call from The Free Press beckoned, and mutually admired authors were bandied about.
"Can I tell you my Elmore Leonard story?" Grams said, citing the acclaimed novelist who'd died a few days earlier.
He received no objections.
"Well, every year for the last 14 years when Elmore Leonard would get a book finished," Grams said, "he'd send a manuscript to his youngest son, Chris. And when Chris got done with it — he's a very good friend of mine — I'd read it. Elmore's my favorite writer of all time."
That's Steve Grams, the man and hall of fame bassist. He seems to find himself among the right company in the right place and time. Except when the time arrived to meet his literary idol.
"You want to know the really (crappy) part?" Grams said from his home in Tucson, Ariz. "Every time Elmore was in town, I was on tour somewhere. Every single time."
It’s 10 minutes into the interview before we plumb the depths of Grams' trade, a music career spanning many idioms, bands and instruments, decades and time zones.
Born in Huron, S.D., and a Sioux City, Iowa, high school graduate, Grams grew accustomed to the traveling life at a young age.
"It was like every five years you were either going up or down the ladder," he said. "But by golly you were going to move."
He first took piano lessons in second grade, then dabbled with the trombone and guitar.
"When my sister got a guitar for Christmas one year," he said, "she came down to my room a couple days later, and said, 'You really want this guitar, don't you?' I said yes. She said, 'Well, I don't.'"
As a teenager, Grams absorbed music on the radio. He was drawn to bass-heavy Southern soul music from Wilson Pickett and the Stax Records roster; Elvis Presley and 1960s California surf-rock were also key inspirations.
"I heard a lot of different music," he said. "My folks liked big band stuff, and whenever I went to my mom's parent’s dairy farm outside Lake Osakis, Minn., grandpa always had polka and country music playing in the barn."
By 1964, Grams found his true instrumental love: the bass guitar. First the electric bass, and later, the upright double bass.
"I was in a band and they already had two guitar players," Grams said. "I figured they didn't need a third, so I went out and bought my first bass and amp."
Grams attended the University of North Dakota, primarily "to avoid the (Vietnam) draft,” he said. Grams spent nearly four years in Grand Forks and was a year shy of graduating pre-law before he flunked his physical and moved to Minneapolis in 1969.
"I crammed a four-year college program into 10 years," Grams, 64, said in his customary deadpan delivery.
Sweeping changes in musical tastes led him back to academia and, eventually, Mankato.
"Honestly, disco is the reason I went back to school," he said. "I had a band for two years. We played six nights a week, 50 weeks a year. Disco came along, and all of the sudden, we didn't have our circuit anymore. As soon as people quit listening to music and started watching it, it all changed. But I wasn't about to quit music."
In 1968, Grams' parents settled in St. Peter. By the mid-'70s, south central Minnesota supplied all the ingredients a 20-something Grams desired — family nearby, higher education, a body of water and bustling music community.
"I had played in Mankato on occasion, liked it and I always loved river towns," he said. "Mankato State seemed like a logical fit."
It didn't Grams long to start networking. During his Minneapolis years, he'd become acquainted with members of Mankato’s City Mouse. On his second night in town, Grams recalled attending a City Mouse performance in the basement of the now-defunct Cellar Hotel. Grams soon formed a local trio, Tennisshoe Ernie, with Tom "Foote" Husting and Ron Arsenault.
"I've had the great fortune of playing with several top-notch bass players," said Husting, who branded his buddy "Mr. Pocket" on account of Grams' loyalty to musical rhythm and time. "He is among the best I know."
After Husting moved to Nashville, Grams and Arsenault founded the Blitz Boys, a bluegrass-western swing hybrid. Grams graduated from Mankato State in 1976, left the Blitz Boys and moved to Tucson in 1979.
He lived in Mankato for only two years, but Grams' influence is still felt almost four decades later.
"(City Mouse/Blitz Boys bassist) Dave Pengra called me up when the Blitz Boys did a reunion show up there a few years back," Grams said. "And he said, 'The funny thing is, they're still doing your arrangements.'"
Grams' parents now live in New Ulm, affording their son annual reunions with his friends and former bandmates. This week, he sets forth on a Midwest working vacation with his collaborator, slide guitarist Danny Krieger, for a bundle of gigs. Wednesday night, the duo played at Grams' parent's apartment cooperative in New Ulm. The tour continued Thursday at the Wine Cafe and closes Sunday night with a post-Rock Bend Folk Festival show at Patrick's in St. Peter.
"We are all really close," he said. "With musicians, there's a real strong sense of camaraderie and love here in Tucson, too. But Mankato is the only place that I've been to that comes close to down here in terms of how close everyone is and everyone helps everyone out. Everybody's like, 'You're my favorite.' 'No, you're my favorite!'"
On Aug. 31, Grams was back in Iowa for another occasion: He was inducted into Iowa's Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. He's already in the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame. The awards are flattering, Grams said, and they add prestige to concert posters. But he "doesn't have the slightest idea" where his Arizona award is; and Krieger unknowingly left his plaque on the roof of his car the night of the ceremony.
"Yeah, I got a couple of nice honors,” Grams said, “but if I wanted to play for accolades, I'd be a guitar player. When I play, I get a kick out of doing a gig with somebody. I'm playing to the players."
Grams has recorded five albums with Krieger; their latest, aptly titled "5," features Grams and Krieger originals, underscored by Grams' relaxed vocals, Krieger's fluid bottleneck fills and their reading of Bob Dylan's "Watching the River Flow."
"Danny and I had an instant connection," Grams said. "As a slide player, he's one of the best. Only thing is, I don't get to play with him as much as I'd like to."
Grams is also a member of the Bad News Blues Band and performs with an Arizona theater production company while juggling side projects as an in-demand studio sessionman.His musical philosophy parallels Elmore Leonard's writing mantra: "Keep it simple." Have fun, serve the song and get out of the way; leave the showboating and pandering to the self-indulgent.
"I never liked that 30-minute Cream jam B.S.," Grams said. "I never liked Jimi Hendrix or any of that crap. I liked the song — the 2-, 3-, 4-minute song. I thought anyone who had to stand there and solo for 15 minutes had a real ego. But that was just me."
Grams eschews any label constrictions on his music. "Let's just say (they) play roots music and leave it at that," states the bio on gramsandkrieger.com.
"We play country, we play rock and roll, we play everything," he said. "It's American music, for crying out loud. It's not that complicated."
If You Go What Rock Bend Folk Festival When Saturday and Sunday; music begins at 11:30 a.m. Where Minnesota Square Park in St. Peter Admission Free More info For full lineup and other details, visit www.rockbend.org Note Steve Grams will also be performing 7:30 p.m. today at the Grand Kabaret in New Ulm and 7-9 p.m. at Patrick's in St. Peter