Born in 1975 in the Shenandoah Valley near Harrisonburg, Virginia, Danny was surrounded by music from his earliest days. His grandfather, A. O. Knicely, played old time guitar, mandolin, and fiddle as leader of the Knicely Family Band. Danny's dad played bass and banjo in A.O.K.’s band; he also led his own country and bluegrass band, Dominion Express. Danny's mom had two groups: Heartland, a country and gospel band, as well as a large dance troupe, the Massanutten Mountain Cloggers.
At seven, Danny got his first instrument, a uke. Unfortunately, his father tried tuning it like a mandolin and broke half the strings. A year later, a cousin gave him a cassette that Danny treasures to this day. It was taped from old Django Reinhardt 78s played on a windup Victrola. That guitar tape ignited Danny's lifelong musical eclecticism. At 13, Danny was playing upright and electric bass in his middleschool band. Constantly jamming with family members, he soon picked up guitar playing from an uncle. By 14 he turned professional, joining his mom’s Heartland band as bassist and baritone harmony singer. They played festivals, fairs, churches and clubs throughout the Shenandoah Valley.
A great Virginia bluegrass fiddler, Spike Stroop, heard Danny and took him on as rhythm guitarist for fiddle contests and festivals. Jamming all night long at major traditional gatherings like Galax and Mt. Airy exposed Danny to the fine points of other guitar music: Oklahoma cowboy swing, Django-style picking, and even Ellington swing.
It was at Galax that Will Lee—already a much admired banjo picker around Virginia—first heard and jammed with the 15 year old Danny. Much impressed, Will and his guitarist, flat-picking virtuoso Larry Keel, started jamming every weekend with Danny on bass. That grew into Magraw Gap, a high energy threesome playing wild, creative bluegrass arrangements that folded in licks from jazz, blues, rock ‘n’ roll, and even reggae. The boys called their music “spacegrass”, years before PsychoGrass hit the scene. Within a couple of years, their jamming buddy John Flower, a fine mountain bass player and harmony singer, joined Magraw Gap. That freed Danny to play lots of on-fire mandolin. Between the high energy pickin’ and some really tight four part harmony singing, the quartet won the 1995 Telluride Bluegrass Festival band contest (and, separately, Danny won the Telluride Mandolin Championship)—propelling them into four year years of national touring with followings on both coasts.
In the meanwhile, inspired by jamming with another fine Valley fiddler, “Fiddlin' Dave” VanDeventer, Danny's Irish music skills were growing. By 2000, he, John Flower and Fiddlin’ Dave joined David Via, the extraordinary award-winning alt-bluegrass singer-songwriter, to form their current band, Corn Tornado (a corn tornado is the mini-whirlpool you form by twirling a big tumbler of moonshine). With three CDs under their belt—and joined by Curtis Burch, the legendary “Dr. Dobro”—they continue to tour festivals, concerts and clubs nationally.
In 2002, Danny got a call from one of his earliest bass playing heroes, Mark Schatz, bassist for Tony Rice’s pioneering new grass band and three time National Bluegrass Player of the Year. Mark was looking for a guitarist for Footworks, the country's leading dance company focused on Southern Appalachian traditional dance. (Mark, as music director, headed the Footworks band.) He asked Danny to play him a couple of tunes over the phone—and was convinced on the spot. Danny joined Footworks’ 2002 full-scale theater production, Soulmates. He's been touring with Footworks ever since—as mandolinist, guitarist, singer, and, recently, as acting music director.
In between Corn Tornado and Footworks engagements, Danny is also touring Europe, Canada and the US with the widely-acclaimed Virginia mountain music singer-songwriter-fiddler James Leva. And, of course, Danny and Will have been playing and appearing together as a duo ever since the Magraw Gap touring days.
With all that going on, Danny is still expanding and deepening his exploration of other musics. He has just returned from his third extended Asian trip, where he performed his own music and studied Indian, Tibetan and Nepalese instruments with local masters. Deeply absorbed by the fascinating connections between Himalayan and Appalachian music, he has given lecture-demonstrations on the subject at both Columbia University and the University of South Carolina.
|Danny Knicely and Will Lee: Murders, Drownings and Lost Loves (#11052)|