As Ballydehob gets ready for its Heart and Home festival, visiting musician Reuben Agnew tells Ed Power about the leading lights of an American genre that has its roots in Ireland
The origins of American roots music can be traced back to Ireland and centuries of migration. But now the influence is flowing in the opposite direction with a new festival, Heart and Home – A Celebration of Old Time, Good Times and Bluegrass, taking place at Ballydehob in West Cork this weekend.
The ambition is to celebrate the distinctive Appalachian banjo sound synthesised out of more ancient traditions by Bill Monroe in the late 1930s, with performers attending from across Ireland and the United States. Among those travelling to Ballydehob are the Petersen Family Blue Grass Band from Missouri, and acclaimed Irish ensemble Well Enough Alone.
But approaching bluegrass with only a basic knowledge of its traditions can be intimidating. Where to start? As a guiding light, Reuben Agnew, of all-sibling Northern Ireland bluegrass group Cup O’Joe — also bound for Ballydehob — discusses the artists that influenced him and those he recommends to newcomers to the genre.
Krauss grew up in small-town Illinois and gave up a career as a classical violinist to become a bluegrass musician. Leading her band, Union Station, she became the face of a new generation of bluegrass players and had mainstream success with Raising Sand, a collaboration with Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and winner of album of the year at the 2009 Grammys.
“Together with her band Union Station she was a real passage for us into the bluegrass scene,” says Agnew.
Regarded as perhaps the most influential living bluegrass guitarist, Rice (67) grew up in Los Angeles but such was his love of roots music he moved to Kentucky as a teenager and would go on to collaborate with bluegrass great Ricky Skaggs as well as with Ry Cooder and Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia.
“He’s a blue-grass guitarist and he has an album called Native American, which is really, really good. It’s really about attuning yourself to the music. It’s the same with Irish traditional music in a way. I didn’t really like traditional music growing up. Then this new progressive style came along with people such as The Gloaming. Then I went back and realised I could appreciate the earlier stuff. That’s what is really going on with bluegrass.”
Part of a wave of “newgrass” outfits, the Southern California band was founded by Chris Thile and siblings Sara and Sean Watkins. Purists were initially suspicious of their blend of roots music with rock ’n roll. But with established artists such as the aforementioned Alison Krauss among their cheerleaders they were soon one of the biggest names in the American traditional scene.
“Why Should The Fire Die? was one of my favourite albums. A lot of the traditional bluegrass stuff is pretty raw. The newer stuff contains a great deal of cross-pollination. So it’s more appealing when you’re starting off. You begin there and then you start to appreciate the older stuff.”
Fleck is one of the foremost innovators in America roots music. Raised in New York, he had an epiphany when hearing bluegrass master Earl Scruggs on the radio as a teenager and, by 15, was learning banjo. As the leader of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones he has blended old timey music, jazz and progressive rock.
Another New Yorker who fell in love with the sounds of the American heartland. She received Grammy best folk album nominations for 1996 debut Revival and 2001’s Time (The Revelator) and for 2011’s The Harrow and the Harvest, and reached a wider audience when she performed two songs on the soundtrack to the Coen brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou?
“We’d been aware of her before encountering her on the O Brother soundtrack. But at the same time, hearing her there was a big moment for us. We knew a lot of voices on that record. But this brought it all together and put it in a movie. That was cool— it made it trendier. Suddenly it was okay to like this stuff.”
A winner of seven Grammy awards, the North Carolina native is regarded as one of the most influential American roots musicians of the 20th century. Such is his influence, a statue in his honour sits on a bench in Boone, North Carolina, bearing the legend “Just one of the people”.
Sruggs’ three-finger banjo playing — the “Scruggs style” — is a signature component of bluegrass music. He was hired aged 21 to play in the band of Bill Monroe, the Blue Grass Boys. They would go on to essentially create an entirely new genre.
The two achieved mainstream popularity in the 1960s when their instrumental, ‘The Ballad of Jed Clampett’, was used as the theme for The Beverly Hillbillies TV series.
“Scruggs’s Foggy Mountain Special was one of the first proper bluegrass records we got into. It’s on Spotify and it is fascinating. He was on the O Brother soundtrack.
"After that we listened to him a lot. He really was one of our gateways into the genre.”
After Nickel Creek, Chris Thile carried on with a new project that blended bluegrass, classical music and rock. Of the project’s origins, Thile stated: “I didn’t know if it would be a rock ensemble, an ambitious acoustic classical thing or a bluegrass group… I knew I wanted to put together a bluegrass band — one with a lot of range, but aesthetically a bluegrass band.”
Agnew says: “This is Chris Tile’s new band. It’s funky with bluegrass instruments. They have a name for this scene which is the new grass revival.”
Known as the father of bluegrass, Monroe founded the Blue Grass Boys in 1938 — named after the “blue grass” state of Kentucky. Their music was characterised by fast-tempos and a distinctive banjo playing style. Bluegrass has been born. “Monroe took these old tunes that had originally come over from Ireland and updated them. To him bluegrass was a modern thing. I don’t know if you would say that he perfected them. It wasn’t as if they were sloppy. He brought more precision.”
From Switzerland, the all-sibling trio were raised on Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs and were soon having success as buskers across the continent. In the late 1990s they relocated to the US and were embraced by the roots music scene there as authentic carriers of the torch. “The Kruger Brothers are just about as fine a band as I’ve ever played with,” said Doc Watson. “I love to play music with them.”
Agnew says: “They’re originally from Europe and they went over to the States. Jens Kruger is one of the top banjo players in the world. He played with Bill Monroe — he went over to the US and work on Bill Monroe’s farm. He played the banjo and got into the scene. He’s living in North Carolina and in a sense has become American.”
- Heart & Home, A Celebration of Old Time, Good Times & Bluegrass runs across Ballydehob, Co Cork, Friday to Sunday.