Banjos and Brushes
By Jon Bross, Colorado Springs and East Denver LIVING WELL Magazines
For over 30 years now, Jim Marsh has been playing bluegrass, booking bluegrass and promoting bluegrass in Anniston, Alabama. His passion for roots music and fast pickin’ has been balanced with raising a family, owning an automotive pinstriping business and creating unique folk art. So what is a renaissance man to do when the nest empties?
Folk Music Roots
Born in West Virginia, Marsh grew up in Birmingham, one of four children (one of his brothers is Alabama State Senator Del Marsh). Music was his first love. He was introduced to the banjo when the rock radio stations he listened to started playing “Dueling Banjos” in 1972. Marsh liked what he heard. “I mowed some grass and got me a banjo.” That banjo instigated much of what Marsh represented then and now – a passion for free mind and spirit.
Upon high school graduation in 1976, Marsh and some friends went on a 4,300-mile cross-country bicycle tour. They chose an adventurous route through Oregon, Canada, and The Great Lakes and back through Virginia. They dipped their bike tires in the Pacific and the Atlantic. The bikers took $450, and came home with change. “We spent $1.11 a meal each,” Marsh says. “We never paid to camp. We never got a room. We ate macaroni-and-cheese, tuna and milk. I’ve hardly ever gotten on a bicycle since.”
Soon after, Marsh settled into pinstriping cars, moving around the country, playing in bluegrass bands. In 1981, he followed his brother, Del, to Anniston and put an ad in the paper looking for other bluegrass musicians.
In 1982, the band Distant Cousins was formed. “Bluegrass is jazz – country jazz,” Marsh says. He doesn’t play straight-up bluegrass. “I didn’t grow up taking water to the well,” he says. “I grew up on Steve Miller.” So his style of bluegrass includes Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix, along with Bill Monroe. He opened a store called Mountain Music. He performed frequently on the radio and TV with Distant Cousins.
He bought an old farmhouse on 80 acres that back up on the Talladega National Forest. “It was a beautiful place to raise my son and daughter.” Alabama has a lot of rain however, and he could never draw the sustainable crowds he needed. “I never could get it going,” he says. He sold the amphitheater to some folks who have since turned the stage into a house. After 28 years, the Distant Cousins are still around.
Folk Art Can-Do
“When a banjo is past its prime, it makes for a great canvas,” Marsh says. He has entered visual arts into the mix, painting boldly colored scenes of country life and wildlife, as well as crafting a variety of homemade instruments that qualify as their own genre of folk art.
He has painted discarded guitars and turned them into clocks. He has made banjos and painted them in the colors of the American flag. He has turned old metal tins into “can-jos” and old drums into “bass-jos,” one of which wound up in a Zac Brown Band video. “It’s fun to make something out of nothing,” Marsh says. Capturing the soul of the source, for Marsh, defines his folk art.
Marsh has always wanted to live in the mountains. His kids are grown. (His son, Skyler, 21, plays bass with Distant Cousins.) “I was getting bored.” Marsh says. “I need to get out and do some more playing now while I can.”
In 2004, two musician friends, David Jeffrey and Shannon Carr (formerly of Distant Cousins) had grown new roots in Colorado Springs. Together with a Wisconsin native, Jon Bross, they started a bluegrass band called Grass It Up, a power trio that has crossed genres in style and audiences in appeal. “I called the boys and told them I’m movin’ out there!” Marsh says. He became the sixth and final member of Grass It Up in June of 2010. “I can play two to three times a week in Colorado Springs,” Marsh says. “The art market is better and Grass It Up has earned favorable credibility in the Colorado music scene.”
Since his move to Colorado, he misses his family and friends, but has found a warm welcoming in Colorado. He has several co-op galleries to market his artwork, and the hardworking band to keep him busy. “I bought a 110-year-old miner’s house on the west side of Colorado Springs and I can make a living here just fine. If times get tight, well, I’ve had practice at living on $1.11 a meal.”
For more information on Jim Marsh and his band, Grass It Up, visit www.grassitup.com.