The Rheinstetten-based band, 4-Star Grass, epitomizes what it means to hold international stature. Founded ten years ago, its members hail not only from Germany, but France and Switzerland as well. That’s evidenced in the group’s current line-up, which consists of Joel Espesset (bass, mandolin, vocals), Daniel Frey (fiddle), Arne Maier, (guitar, mandolin, vocals), and Soenke Maier (banjo, guitar, vocals).
In fact, the band’s origins can be traced to earlier outfits that found the Maier brothers performing together in earlier incarnations. After they enlisted Espesset, who they had met at various jam sessions, and long-time friend and fellow bluegrass enthusiast Wolfgang Striebinger, who played mandolin and vocals, the original incarnation of the 4-Star Grass band was born. That was in 2012.
“The love for traditional — or what we call classic bluegrass of the ’50s and ’60s — kept the guys together,” Arne says. “After Wolfgang left the band, fiddler Daniel Frey, who is well known and in high demand in the Swiss and German bluegrass scene, was more than happy to join the band.”
The common thread that binds the band together is a shared inspiration drawn from the seminal sounds of early bluegrass, in this case the Stanley Brothers in particular, but also Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, and other icons of that era. The sound is driven by Soenke Maier’s archtop 5-String banjo, Frey’s relentless fiddling, Espesset’s rock solid bass, and Arne Maier’s tendency to occasionally toss in some classic George Shuffler-style cross-picking guitar licks. In addition, the band draws on classic old school harmonies.
In recent years, 4-Star Grass has had the opportunity to perform in southern Germany, France, and Switzerland. They’ve also made a name for themselves on the European festival circuit, where the band found themselves sharing stages with several other top bluegrass acts.
“We have also performed a few times as the opening act for the Bluegrass Jamboree, an annual festival presenting up to three US bands,” Arne recalls. “We were part of the closing stage jam with Jeff Scroggins & Colorado and the Lonely Heartstring Band, amongst others.”
Nevertheless, even though the band has been around for ten years, they’ve yet to tour extensively outside their own realms. In addition, they’ve yet to release their initial album.
On the other hand, Arne notes that the group has recorded some “kitchen tapes,” which they intend to use for promotional purposes. Those can currently be viewed on YouTube.
There’s also a live recording of the initial line-up of the band.
Asked his opinion of the current European bluegrass scene, Arne sums matters up succinctly. “It consists of bands mainly playing contemporary or progressive bluegrass,” he suggests. “That makes the audience appreciative, even if only one band in a festival line-up plays down-to-earth classic bluegrass. 4-Star Grass tries to fulfill that role.”
He also has a decided opinion as to why bluegrass enjoys such widespread popularity, well beyond any pre-conceived borders.
“Both audiences and musicians outside the US have a desire to promote and protect a form of traditional acoustic music which is direct, harmonious and honest,” he says. “At the same time, it’s also demanding as far as the instrumental acumen and vocal techniques are concerned.”
4-Star Grass serves those sentiments well.