It’s a credit to bluegrass’ international popularity, that Abalone, a band from the Czech Republic would come to embrace the style as its own. Founded in 2010 as an offshoot of a previous band, P.O. Ruby, its original three members — Josef Plecitý (upright bass), Lukáš Mayer (banjo) and Darek Houška (dobro) — had tired of playing traditional material and chosen instead to perform songs that were more contemporary by nature.
“We started the band with intention of playing bluegrass music focused on harmony singing,” Houška recalls. “We loved the sound and style of the Blue Highway band, which was very popular in the Czech Republic in those days, but we were probably the most influenced by Front Range. Their original songs, with precise harmony singing, were exactly the style we decided to follow.”
Jirka Bok joined as the band’s guitarist shortly thereafter, followed by Michal Kosik on mandolin. Kosik was eventually replaced by Miloš Andrt. That line-up of the band lasted two more years, and recorded the group’s first CD, the seven-track set Bluegrass & Gospel in 2014. Nevertheless, other personnel changes would soon follow. Today’s line-up consists of Houška, Plecitý, Miloš Andrt on mandolin and vocals, and Matthew Whitten on guitar and shared vocals.
The band’s current repertoire consists mainly of covers of songs made popular by American bluegrass bands — Front Range, Quicksilver, Blue Highway, and the like, as well as a cappella takes on traditional Gospel songs.
“We currently prefer playing covers of the songs we love,” Houška insists. “There were a couple of original songs composed by former band members, but now we prefer to focus our efforts on improving harmony singing and perfecting our arrangements. Why compose new bluegrass Gospel songs when there are a multitude of them that have already been composed, and those songs are so great?”
It’s little wonder then that in its relatively short career, the band has been quite active, performing at any number of festivals in their home country as well as in nearby Slovakia. They’ve reaped various honors as well. “Our biggest achievement so far is the first place we won in the contest part of the oldest bluegrass festival in Europe, Banjo Jamboree in Čáslav,” Houška says proudly.
“We mostly play along with great Czech and Slovak bands, but occasionally we meet bands from the rest of Europe (Netherlands, Norway, etc.) and sometimes even from the USA.,” he continued. “For example, we had an opportunity to play a jam session with Frank Solivan and his band Dirty Kitchen. In 2014, Sierra Hull performed in Prague. We extremely enjoyed her concert. It was awesome. The next evening, our band played a gig in a small club in the center of Prague, and Sierra and Justin Moses came to watch our performance. We had an opportunity to talk with them, which was a great experience. Sierra got a present from out banjo player – a nice knitted cap —and she looked very pleased. She indicated that she likes those kinds of caps a lot.”
With Abalone’s tenth anniversary at hand, the band is in the final stages of producing a new album which will be the long-awaited follow-up to Bluegrass & Gospel. “Currently, we’re in the final phase of mixing and mastering,” Houška noted, “We’re looking forward to the feedback from our fans.”
Houška says that Abalone has, in fact, found a devoted following at home. “The audience in the Czech Republic is diverse,” he explains. “At some festivals, listeners prefer the bands who sing in English, at others, the Czech language is preferred. We are glad that our band can satisfy most people who attend bluegrass festivals, probably thanks to our varied repertoire and our main speciality, which is bluegrass Gospel songs.”
Asked why bluegrass seems to have such universal appeal, Houška seems to have an easy answer. “Bluegrass is generally very melodic, easy-to-listen kind of music with its roots in blues and folk music,” he suggests. “And the skills and virtuosity of musicians must amaze anyone who has at least a minimal relation to the music. Seeing fast fingers flying above the fingerboard, listening to slow ballads with rich harmony vocals — all of this is a great experience for sensitive listener.”