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Greg Blake tuned his guitar skills in Kansas City. Now he's a global bluegrass star.

A man wearing a blue print shirt, plays a guitar in a small room. There are other players in the foreground, out of focus.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Greg Blake rehearses with his band at Blue Ridge Boulevard Methodist Church on Jan. 6, 2023. They performed with the Kansas City Area Bluegrass Music Club.

Kansas City’s 5-time bluegrass ‘Guitarist of the Year,’ Greg Blake, is in demand around the country and abroad. In 2022, the International Bluegrass Music Association nominated him for ‘Male Vocalist of the Year.’

Though Greg Blake is based in Kansas City, he rarely plays here. He’s often on tour, playing gigs around the country and in the U.K. and Ireland.

But on the first Friday of January, Blake stopped into a bluegrass night in Kansas City. He says sometimes people have preconceptions about bluegrass music.

“You know,” Blake says, “before they make any conclusions about bluegrass music, find a place where you can see it and experience it live.”

Blake’s passion for music began at an early age in West Virginia. He grew up living with his grandparents and his grandmother had an extensive collection of country music records.

“And I would just sit with my Tonka trucks and Matchbox and Hot Wheels cars, play with them, and listen to the music. And I found myself singing along,” he says. “As people would come and visit my grandmother from time to time they would say, you know, ‘Do you realize he's actually carrying a tune?’”

When Blake was 7 years old he asked for a guitar for Christmas, so that when he sang, he could play along. There was no looking back, he says.

A man wearing a blue print shirt pulls his acoustic guitar out of a worn, blue guitar case. The guitar case is covered with stickers. The one in foreground reads, "Do good, do what is kind, do what is just."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Greg Blake prepares to rehearse with his band at Blue Ridge Boulevard Methodist Church on Jan. 6, 2023, where they performed with the Kansas City Area Bluegrass Music Club.

After high school, Blake moved to the Kansas City area to train for the ministry. He got married and raised two kids. The family spent a decade in Colorado and returned to Kansas City.

In Kansas City, in Colorado, and back again, Blake continued playing music in different genres.

“I kind of like to weave in and out of them,” he says. “I'd say bluegrass and country are definitely a primary. And then I also did a lot of gospel music.”

Blake played for nearly 15 years with The Bluegrass Missourians, who kicked off the First Friday show at The Ridge, a United Methodist congregation near east 51st Street and Blue Ridge Boulevard.

Bluegrass jams like this started up again in October after a two-year pandemic hiatus. They provide a place to meet other pickers and hear new music — and anyone can bring an instrument.

An audience sitting in folding chairs is seen in the foreground. They are watching a bluegrass band play on a small stage. Behind the band is a banner that reads "Kansas City Area Bluegrass Music Club."
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
The Bluegrass Missourians perform for a small, but enthusiastic, crowd in the basement of Blue Ridge Boulevard Methodist Church on Jan. 6, 2023.

The Kansas City Bluegrass Club, previously known as the Kansas City Area Bluegrass Music Club, organizes these events, which run through May.

Banjo and mandolin player Jim McGreevy says the club has been around for about 50 years.

“It’s been defined before as folk music in overdrive,” McGreevy says about bluegrass. “It just has a certain power about it, you know? More drive and emotion, I think, in it.”

Focusing on music leads to more national attention

2015 marked a turning point in Greg Blake’s bluegrass career. Until then, he’d juggled his ministry and his music, but he decided to focus on music full-time.

He released a debut solo album, “Songs of Heart & Home,” and says that’s when he started to get more national attention.

“So if I'm recognized, that's always, you know, a real tip of the hat,” he says. “And I really appreciate that.”

A man wearing a blue print shirt, at far right, plays guitar with other men forming a semi-circle. They are playing different instruments including a fiddle, stand-up bass, mandolin, and banjo.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Greg Blake rehearses with his band Hometown at Blue Ridge Boulevard Methodist Church on Jan. 6, 2023, where they were performing with the Kansas City Area Bluegrass Music Club.

Blake now travels a lot — for solo performances and playing with the Grammy-nominated bluegrass band The Special Consensus. The band has gigs this month in the U.S. and the U.K.

With such a packed schedule, he has little time to perform in Kansas City. So his band called Hometown, which includes a few other former members of The Bluegrass Missourians, is a nod to that.

Blake plays guitar and sings lead vocals with Grant Cochran on upright bass, Brian McCarty on mandolin, Todd Davis on banjo, and, on this night at The Ridge, Jaron Bryant on fiddle.

After this gig, the closest Greg Blake & Hometown will come for a performance this year is at Silver Dollar City in Branson in May. His second solo album, “People, Places, and Songs” is expected soon on Turnberry Records.

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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