Last May, Sara Watkins, Sarah Jarosz and Aoife O’Donovan, among other artists, appeared at the Blues & Ritmes Festival in Badalona (city next to Barcelona), These are three young representatives and symbols of the new American bluegrass.
Let’s remember that Sara Watkins is a founding member, alongside her brother Sean, and mandolinist Chris Thile, of the San Diego trio, Nickel Creek, considered one of the forerunners who modernized this genre. Aoife O’Donovan is the lead singer of the Boston quintet Crooked Still, while Texas artist Sarah Jarosz, from Wimberley, has been the great sensation of this genre in recent years. The New York-based musician has won several important performance, composition and recording awards.
Finally, a golden opportunity to see live these three divas or queens of the new bluegrass. In my view, all we would have needed would have been to add Nashville singer and multi-instrumentalist, Sierra Hull, and we could have completed this potential and exceptionally good young female quartet.
No, it is not frequent that one is able to attend a concert of this genuine American musical “bluegrass” genre in the southern part of Europe, particularly in the Mediterranean area. It’s not that people don’t like it, simply the problem is, firstly, the total disinformation and general knowledge about this style, where most of the public and media call it “country music.” Secondly, because there is no tour circuit or because the many “world music” festivals existing in this area, do not consider it world music and therefore do not include it in its programming, although there are tiny and strange exceptions.
It is a grave error to think, for example, that the folk or bluegrass of the North American region (USA and Canada) should not be considered world music, that world music is only exclusive to artists from Africa, Asia, Latin America, or from some parts of Europe. For me personally, all roots music, regardless of where it comes from, ancestral or contemporary, is “world music”.
Of the few fans of this genre in the Eurozone, it should be noted that we are earnest, firm, unconditional and diehard fans of this gene that comes from North America. We can only wait for the opportunity of a concert by an artist to appear, as a miracle out of the sky, in a theater, bar or festival in the southern part of Europe.
So in order to get a deeper knowledge of everything we have previously written about “bluegrass” in this area of the Mediterranean, we contacted two leading experts in the subject, Maria Ricart and Heribert Ródenas from Barcelona; they both are members of the EBMA Association (European Bluegrass Music Association).
The first question we asked them, is: What are the main reasons for the very few “bluegrass” concerts made in the European Mediterranean area?
The traditional “pure” bluegrass is aimed at a very specific audience and is relatively limited to certain areas and specific audiences in the USA; they make a living from the many festivals and live concerts. In Europe, this kind of bluegrass has arrived occasionally, but the most popular is progressive bluegrass or Newgrass which is open to a wider audience, incorporating elements of jazz and rock that make it more attractive and can reach a younger audience, always within a frame of acoustic music.
In Europe we find some festivals with a somewhat high profile in France, Holland, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland among others and especially in the Czech Republic, where there are a large number of bluegrass fans and musicians.
Not so in the Mediterranean area, although there are a few followers. It is likely to happen because this is an area rich in musical folklore and also the Latin “language” family has a different musicality. It also doesn’t help much that bluegrass is sometimes confused with commercial country music. Bluegrass has more Celtic and African roots, versus Roman roots.
How could we solve this?
Basically, like most things, investing money. You would need to have concert presenters take more risks, booking American groups that often make small format European tours. The way things are now, it is difficult to be profitable and this leaves the task to sponsors, but is definitely the way to experience this fantastic live music. Current European festivals who book leading American artists help find new audiences. Bluegras/Newgrass music is very participative, in the sense that around the festival, there are instrumental and vocal workshops, “jams” for all levels, and luthier exhibitions. This educates and makes it better known. A bluegrass festival is a big party for all ages.
What specific work does your EBMA association do?
Report the events made in the US and specifically in Europe, promoting European artists, serving as a network, publishing a magazine about different issues: new CDs, articles, comments, festivals programmers and concerts. It works as a permanent link with the American organization International Bluegrass Music Association ((IBMA). Supports new festival sites to expand the network.
Finally. What is your opinion about this concert with the “three divas” of the new bluegrass?
We liked it; we would classify it as a concert of sophisticated acoustic music, exquisite and smooth, without being spectacular. It was not actually a bluegrass concert; there was just one piece that could be described as such. Yes we enjoyed the way the vocal harmonies worked and were able to convey the personality of each performer. The three have high profiles in their usual bands. In this concert they performed songs they like to do when they step out of this context. The vocal lead role is shared, each with her unique register. Instrumentally, there is no doubt about the great work by Sara Watkins and Sarah Jarosz. In short, it is a tour of three friends who deeply enjoy music and take to the stage to show what they like to do. The audience enjoyed it, most of us were part of the “guild”, knowledgeable of this type of music and we took advantage of this time to attend the concert in our country instead of having to travel to listen to the music we love.
With these specific and particular answers, we said goodbye to Maria and Herbert. Notwithstanding, our personal opinion about this concert is that we would have liked more instrumentals and vocal pieces to fill the atmosphere with the peculiar “bluegrass” (new or nearly pure) rhythm as the repertoire performed only featured one bluegrass piece, while the rest were nice, soft melodies and ballads.
I’d like to add that I was glad to speak with Sara Watkins, because as I told her, I had the privilege of being in a showcase of first timers Nickel Creek (then still with bassist Scott Thile), organized by their record label at the time, Sugar Hill Records which presented the band’s first CD on this label. This happened in a hotel concert hall where the Folk Alliance congress took place in Cleveland (Ohio), in 2000, and where I also had the opportunity to chat and meet another of the great performers on the same label, John Cowan, who was in the same venue, supporting the quartet.
Finally, from here, I encourage the Blues & Rhythms Festival in Badalona, to continue delighting us by bringing North-American “bluegrass” artists like what happened in April 2004, with the unforgettable concert given by Chris Hillman, Herb Pedersen & Al Perkins.
In short, let’s try to have more musicians of this peculiar genre land in these beautiful and sunny European areas, our “Mare Nostrum” Mediterranean Sea.
Crossing Muddy Waters (single)
Be My Husband (single)