Elizabethton man wins Grammy with Snarky Puppy

Tony Casey • Jan 28, 2014 at 1:59 PM

Just minutes after it was announced that Snarky Puppy won the Grammy Award for Best R&B Performance on Sunday night, Elizabethton’s Justin Stanton, a horn player in the band, noticed his phone battery died from an overload of congratulatory calls and texts.

“Everyone leaped out of their seats,” Stanton said of him and his bandmates who went to the awards show. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

Snarky Puppy was seen as somewhat of an underdog going into the show, probably because it was the band’s first nomination. Stanton said the band never really discussed the possibility of winning, due to the heavy hitters also nominated in their category, which included Miguel and Kendrick Lamar’s “How Many Drinks?” Hiatus Kaiyote and Q-Tip’s, “Nakamarra,” Anthony Hamilton’s “Best Of Me” and Tamar Braxton’s “Love And War.”

Q-Tip and Hamilton by themselves have a combined 23 Grammy nominations, which might have added to the band’s feeling that they weren’t the favorites.

“We honestly had no idea that we were going to win,” Stanton said. “There were people in our category much more well-known.”

But just like that, Stanton’s band, along with singer Lalah Hathaway, won the night for their performance of Hathaway’s song “Something.” The after-party, Stanton said, was mind-blowing.

He shook hands with music legend Quincy Jones, met composer-arranger Maria Schneider, someone who he holds in the highest regard, hung with “How I Met Your Mother” star Neil Patrick Harris and generally enjoyed the spoils of all his hard work. He said the open-bar gala affair included a performance by Boys II Men, which was highly enjoyable for Stanton.

How did Stanton arrive at the point where he was winning one of the most notable music awards imaginable? He credits the tutelage of Rick Simerly, who taught him when he was in his formative years in Elizabethton, and then learning how to perform while getting a bachelor’s degree in music from East Tennessee State University.

He said he had great teachers at ETSU, and performing so much in the area really prepared him for a pursuit of his dream career. After graduating in 2005, Stanton said he moved on to the University of North Texas — a jazz musician’s hotbed — in pursuit of a master’s degree in music. While attending school, Stanton said he went to a bar one night where he saw a well-established band really rock his world. It was the kind of music he loved, and he struck up conversation with members afterward.

Offering his services if they were ever interested, Stanton said, was the ice-breaking. Soon enough they took him up on his offer, and he began playing and touring the South and Southeast with the group, which went by Snarky Puppy. Stanton said it’s hard to define the musical genre to which they belong, but “world music” and “instrumental-infused music” might apply best.

Stanton said it wasn’t easy in the beginning, but things clearly got better over time.

“We were touring and not making any money. I mean, we were losing a lot of money, lots of money,” Stanton said. Sticking it out proved fruitful, though.

The band slowly grew until the past year, when things really broke loose for them. Stanton said they did about 180 shows, and show no signs of slowing down in 2014, with a small U.S. tour in February and trips to Indonesia and South Africa planned.

The group and Stanton hail out of Brooklyn, N.Y., which is where Stanton was heading after his Grammy experience.

Stanton and Snarky Puppy will be playing shows in the area as part of the group’s February tour: A Feb. 14 date is scheduled at the Boone (N.C.) Saloon with a Feb. 15 date at the Asheville (N.C.) Music Hal.

For more on the band and its performances, go to www.snarkypuppy.com.

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