Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Adrian Farmer Ploughs the Fields of Grassicana

Consider Adrian Farmer a musical multi-tasker. All the evidence needed can be found on his new independently released solo album Blue Eyes, an adroit blend of bluegrass, balladry and Celtic inflection. In a sense, it’s the perfect mix — vintage Americana with an equal quotient of folk formed from its seminal roots. Consistently credible regardless of form, Farmer finds his common connection through a series of compelling and easily accessible melodies.

The fact that Farmer is British doesn’t deter from his affection for roots music of the grassicana variety. Indeed, his attachment runs deep.

“It all started with my father, who regularly listened to Johnny Cash, Jim Reeves and George Jones when I was a child,” Farmer recalls. “There was always country music on in the house, and he would play his LPs or listen to a one hour country music program that aired on the BBC each week. I first picked up a guitar at the age of seven, and I would listen to his music, trying to find where the notes were on the guitar while he sang as I played.”

He admits that at first, he didn’t find bluegrass to his liking, “Occasionally a bluegrass instrumental or song would be played on the radio, and initially I was not impressed,” he allows. “Not until I heard Flatt and Scruggs… That changed my view.” 

When he was 14, Farmer turned his affection for music into the beginnings of a lifetime pursuit. After performing at a friend’s birthday party, he was loaned an old 5 string banjo. The sound was similar to what he had heard with Flatt and Scruggs, but he had difficulty capturing the rolls, so he bought one of the duo’s LPs that he found at a local record store and played it at a slower speed so he could focus further. He spent an average of five hours a day practicing during the week, splitting his time between his music and his schoolwork. On weekends, he devoted a full 14 hrs to his musical studies in hopes of perfecting his technique.

That’s when he happened upon a local musician who lived down the road. His name was Gerry Williams and he took an interest in the budding young musician almost immediately. On the first day they met, he and his fiddle player, Roger Churchyard, invited Farmer to their flat and suggested he practice with them. 

“They got me singing baritone and tenor vocals,” he recalls. “They introduced me to Bill Monroe, Reno and Smiley, the Stanley Brothers and others like them. I was a sponge, and I really took a shine to Reno and Smiley in particular. I still think of Don Reno as the banjo player who had it all, and Red Smiley, along with Charlie Waller as two of the finest rhythm guitarists and singers ever.”

Ironically, Farmer claims he had only a single banjo lesson, lasting a total of only an hour. That was at age 15. Although he now plays nine instruments in all, he insists he never took any lessons on any of them, 

“I learned them all by ear, and with my hawk-like eyes whenever I had the opportunity to study pickers up close.” The fiddle, he says, is the next to learn on his list.

Although just a teenager, he began playing with Williams and Churchyard in local clubs and pubs, gaining the admiration of local audiences in the process. Eventually, he was able to connect with theAmerican artists who came through on tour — people like Peter Rowan, Bill Keith, Del McCoury, Mark O’Connor, and others of similar renown. 

“Being young, and being like a sponge, I absorbed as much as they could throw at me,” he says.

As he got older, he kept his connections and eventually made a trip to the States, playing festivals and venues from Vermont down to Georgia. 

In the early ‘80s, he began building his own instruments. “In 1998, I got a call from Jimmy Gaudreau saying that he, Richard Bennett, and Mike Auldridge were coming to Europe to tour,” Farmer explains. “He asked me if I would make a guitar for Richard so that he wouldn’t have to travel over here with his. That’s when a friendship with Richard and Mike really developed. I had met Richard Bennett in ’97 at the IBMA. I picked up so much by watching, listening, and playing with some of the masters.”

In the years since, Farmer says he’s played on more than 40 albums encompassing several different styles, including those recorded with a band from the Netherlands named De Stroatklinkers (translating to “Streetsounds” in English). He performs primarily with that band and notes that until recently, he’s never recorded under his own name. That, Farmer says, has been a dream 40 years in the making. 

“I had some songs, but never really pushed myself to record them, as I was looking for the right musicians to be able to put the right feelings into the songs the way I imagined them,” he recalls. “Thanks to wonderful modern technology, I had the opportunity to record nearly all the parts of my new record myself. It took me eight days to record over a two month period. Having written most of the songs on the guitar, I pushed myself to take solos on the other instruments, and as a result, about half of them were ad libbed.”

Regardless, his efforts paid off. Blue Eyes is an album that reflects Farmer’s remarkable dexterity from first note to last. Aside from his instrumental acumen, he penned most of the material, creating a set of songs that sounds as if indeed they were brewed from the American heartland. Indeed, authenticity is an attribute that Farmer excels at.

“We have an amazing following that has been gradually building up through the years,” he says while referring to his band. “We play regularly, not only in the Netherlands, but also in Germany, Switzerland and of course England. We played in Lithuania in 2000 at a festival with over 40,000 people. We have made seven CDs, and we’ve taken songs from different genres and made them our own. By playing in Dutch, it has brought bluegrass to a whole new generation of people, who before us, had not heard of bluegrass. It is amazing how many people have come up to us, and thanked us for introducing them to the genre.”

Spreading the word has not only brought Farmer a following, but also the satisfaction due a man on a musical mission. 

“Bluegrass is a music that comes truly from the heart, and I believe that is why it is loved across the world, by so many, from so many different backgrounds and cultures,” he muses. “Most songs have stories that so many of us can relate to. It allows us to be real musicians, and to be able to play from the heart, however we are feeling at any particular moment in time.”

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.