Photo courtesy of Tony Grant

From lawnmower man to musician, a Ballardite picks up his guitar once more

By Karen Law

If you saw Tony Grant mowing lawns around Ballard in the early 80s, you might have given him a wide berth. Back then, he had a face that showed the ravages of drink and disappointment – a face grizzled before its time, looking out with the eyes of a man who knew he was missing part of himself.

You would never have guessed that underneath his hard-bitten exterior was the soul of a first-rate music-making artist. Today he sports a cleaned-up image and three CDs in his name,. He performs gigs from Seattle to Monroe wherever the doors are open.

For the time being, he still mows lawns for a fair price, minus the lost expression and tough-as-nails appearance. If you’re lucky, you have already hired him and got the chance to hear one of his CDs, a collection of blues, folk rock, funk and soul that is spare and clean in arrangement and stirringly reflective in lyrics. Tony Grant today is a songwriter/composer reborn, a prodigy of several instruments who is in the process of leaving the grass and lawnmower behind and returning full time to the roots of his musical past.

Music has always been the saving grace of Grant’s life. He was born to talented but troubled parents who worked as theater actors (his father made it to Broadway playing Falstaff). Grant's early years were marked by his father's alcoholism and his mother's schizophrenia. He was shuffled from Lake Forest Park to Chicago to Green Lake, Rochester (NY), Skykomish and Vashon. Raised mostly by a schoolteacher aunt in Vashon, he took a few piano lessons and learned chords. Then a band teacher taught him to play the mellophone before putting him on the bass drum because he had good rhythm. Elvis was king, Beatlemania had just arrived, and Grant, naturally gifted, began finding a wholeness in music that was missing from his fragmented life. When he got a guitar in the ninth grade, he started writing songs right away and playing gigs around town.

“There's no underestimating the influence of the Beatles on me,” he said of his beginnings. “Then I listened to Bob Dylan and his influence was exponential compared to that.”

He hit the road with his music when he turned 17, hitchhiking and playing his way to Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and back to Seattle.

“I played at soup and salad restaurants at Pike Place and got my bread and butter playing at taverns,” Grant said. He played with the likes of Jim Page and other folk artists of the 1970s folk music scene in Seattle. By then he was renting a cabin in Burien for only $25 a month and getting “ridiculously cheap beer” for performing.

“Getting five gigs for five nights, I could drink all day. I got drunk and stayed drunk for 7 to 8 years,” Grant said. “I got too big for my britches. Went to Europe in 1975 and took a trip to Amsterdam, the one place you can't play on the street. The customs guy wouldn't let me in so I tried getting in on my own and got busted. They took away my guitar and put me in jail.”

Today, Grant has 30 years of sobriety under his belt and credits the birth of his daughter in 1979 for helping him achieve part of that journey. The other part involved putting away his performing life for family life and making fewer of the wrong kinds of friends. For years, he was just a lawnmower man.

“Then the Gulf War broke out and it was so wrong [to me],” Grant said. He dusted off his guitar, built a studio in his garage, got a set of drums, met up again with fellow musicians and began writing. Now his fire was fueled by maturity and the drive to make real meaning and impact with his music – a motivation that is just as strong today.

“What's happening right now with where this country is at, this is really bad,” he said. “It's time to start playing and start fighting. I'm a revolutionary.”

Grant and his band will be playing from 4-6 p.m. on Sundays through July at the Couth Buzzard (8310 Greenwood Ave. N.) and at West Seattle's Pogie Tavern (4717 SW California Avenue) on July 20. His CDs, “Thought About It,” “The War Years” and “Plain and Simple,” along with booking information, can be obtained by contacting the artist directly at grantsband@hotmail.com.