Music News & Reviews

The Kingston Trio brings iconic folk music to Arroyo Grande

From left, Rick Dougherty, Bill Zorn and George Grove of The Kingston Trio.
From left, Rick Dougherty, Bill Zorn and George Grove of The Kingston Trio.

Like many music fans of his generation, young George Grove idolized the iconic folk group The Kingston Trio.

“They were tremendous stars,” Grove recalled, adding that the trio, known for its tight harmonies, lush vocals and masterful arrangements, opened the doors for artists including Bob Dylan, the Eagles and Peter, Paul and Mary. “The influence that the Kingston Trio had on popular music at the time was enormous.”

So when he received an invitation to join the Grammy Award-winning group, Grove jumped at the chance. He’ll join bandmates Bill Zorn and Rick Dougherty in concert Nov. 20 at the Clark Center for the Performing Arts in Arroyo Grande.

“This is the best-sounding Kingston Trio ever,” Grove, 68, said, adding that they still draw a huge demographic base.

Founded by Dave Guard, Bob Shane and Nick Reynolds, the Kingston Trio first found fame via a series of nightclub gigs in 1957. The San Francisco-based group cemented its reputation as one of folk music’s most popular acts with the release of its self-titled debut album — featuring the trio’s popular take on the classic ballad “Tom Dooley,” which won a Grammy for best country and western recording — a year later.

“Young kids in the ’50s were looking for something they could call their own … something iconic,” Grove said, “and then came these three good-looking college guys, and they had an incredible energy.”

Grove, who grew up in North Carolina and now lives in Las Vegas, credits his older sister with introducing him to the Kingston Trio via their first live album, 1959’s “… from the Hungry i.”

“As soon as she put it on the record player, I was absolutely fascinated,” Grove recalled. “I grabbed the album cover out of her hands and said, ‘That’s my album now. I’m going to be a folk singer.’” He vowed to become part of the trio.

Grove stayed true to that vision, performing with folk groups in high school and college and playing piano and trumpet in a U.S. Army band. He was working as a studio musician in Nashville when he heard the Kingston Trio was looking for a banjo player.

Grove, then 29, flew to Atlanta to audition for the group in person.

“I was sitting there having barbecue and a couple of beers” with founding member Shane, “this effervescent personality with this enormous voice,” Grove recalled. “He immediately put me to ease. He said, ‘OK, let’s get the instruments out.”

Grove, Shane and another Kingston Trio member began playing “Early Morning Rain.” “We fit like a glove instrumentally,” said Grove, who officially joined the group in October 1976.

Although the Kingston Trio lineup has changed many times over the decades, Grove said all of the members have shared “that X factor.”

“We’re all accomplished vocalists and instrumentalists,” he said. “You put me and Bill and Rick together vocally, and it’s three singers that sound great together. … That’s what makes this group so good.”

Another factor that makes the Kingston Trio stand apart from the rest is its vast repertoire: 400 recorded songs and counting. A typical concert might feature about 20 percent of those songs, Grove said, including signature tunes such as “Scotch and Soda” and “Where Have all the Flowers Gone?” and lesser-known favorites such as “Coast of California,” “Desert Pete,” “Frankie and Johnny” and “The Tijuana Jail.”

Audiences might also hear a couple of tracks from the trio’s 2012 album “Born at the Right Time,” which featured songs never before recorded by the group. Another album of new material is in the works.

“We have so many songs to draw on it’s a problem and a gift wrapped up into the same package,” joked Grove, noting that Shane still selects the set lists. (However, the 81-year-old, who remains the group’s official leader, only performs with the Kingston Trio on special occasions.)

Asked if he ever tires of singing those time-honored tunes, Grove said, “It’s never been a chore. It’s never been boring.”

For instance, he thinks of “Tom Dooley” as “a paint-by-numbers (illustration) where the lines have already been drawn but I can use a different color every night.”

For Grove, belonging to the Kingston Trio has proven “magnificently rewarding,” he said.

“When I was a kid, it became the music of my heart,” the performer said. “There’s no difference now. It’s still the music of my heart.”

The Kingston Trio

8 p.m. Friday

Clark Center for the Performing Arts, 487 Fair Oaks Ave., Arroyo Grande

$40 to $48

489-9444 or http://clarkcenter.org

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