Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Aussie Stetson Family returns

It’s been nine years since The Stetson Family released their last album, True North, which makes their new release, The Stars, If You Look Closely, nothing less than a welcome return. It’s the fourth effort thus far in this Aussie outfit’s sixteen year collective career, and features all original songs  written by lead vocalist Nadine Budge, and guitarist and harmony singer John Bartholomeusz, as well as two songs that were left unfinished by founding member and mandolin player Andy Carswell, who passed away in 2016.

The Stetson Family — which currently includes Budge, Bartholomeuszhail, Colin Swan on banjo and harmonies, Greg Field on fiddle, mandolin, and harmonies, and Luke Richardson on double bass and harmonies — hail from Melbourne, Australia, although Budge currently resides in Adelaide, South Australia so that she could live by the ocean. 

“Melbourne was one of the most locked-down cities in the world during the COVID pandemic,” she said. “So when it finished, we decided to move to where we could be surrounded by nature — and the ocean was calling us!”

The band formed in 2008, when Budge, Bartholomeusz, and Swan, all members of an ’80s synth pop band called Schizo Scherzo. “We toured with and opened for some big acts, including The Eurythmics, The Monkees, Fergal Sharkey, and John Farnham,” Budge explains. “We enjoyed some radio success, but as the sounds of the ’80s changed, the band folded and we gradually drifted apart. I didn’t see John nor Colin for about 15 years, and then we met up at a party of a mutual friend. The movie, Oh Brother, Where Art Thou, had just come out and we all loved it, so instruments came out, voices harmonized, and we all decided to catch up again a couple of weeks later.  We sang for hours, then we kept catching up, songs started being written, and within nine months we’d produced our first record, an EP titled Hey, Sister Mary, Where’d You Get That Gun.”

After changing direction, they enlisted Bartholomeusz’ childhood friend Andy Carswell and began writing original music in the bluegrass vernacular. 

“Whilst The Stetson Family are not traditional bluegrass, nor strictly bluegrass, we hope we bring, and strive to bring, something enjoyable and fresh to people’s ears,” Budge insists.

“Bluegrass and string bands are not traditional here in Australia, and when the movie came out, there was a lot of love for it. I guess that was because the music is just so darn good and has a broad reach.

We all come from different music backgrounds. I really love artists such as Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, whereas John has much more of history with the more traditional roots of The Stanley Brothers, The Carter Family, Doc Watson, etc, so I think our original songs really blend our tastes.”

Budge says that overall, their sound is somewhat eclectic. “It doesn’t fit into any one particular genre, drawing together parts of bluegrass, Americana, and alt-country,” she suggests. “We all have broad tastes in music, and we blend aspects of all our tastes into our sound. One thing we all love is soaring harmonies, so our writing tends towards being harmony-driven.”

Aside from the occasional cover, the band tends to play all original music. The new album, The Stars, If You Look Closely, features eleven new songs, including a mixture of up-tempo tracks, ballads, and an instrumental. It was co-produced by Budge and Ern Rose, a well-respected Australian engineer and producer who’s been at the helm of many of Australia’s iconic albums over the past five decades, including those by The Little River Band, Renee Geyer, and Daddy Cool, among the many. These days, the band continues to tour throughout the country.

“The Stetson Family frequently play Australia’s national festival circuit, including folk festivals, mainstream music, and bluegrass festivals,” Budge continues. “We’ve played in all states of Australia, except the Northern Territory. Australia is a large continent with huge areas of desert, so there’s no real north-south or east-west touring circuit, like there is in the US. It’s mostly along the east coast. Melbourne has a very vibrant music scene — one of the best in the world, I think — and we’ve carved out a spot for ourselves over the past 16 years, playing in all kinds of venues there, as well as playing many gigs in regional areas.”

In addition, they’ve performed at any number of major festivals in their native Australia, including such major gatherings as Gympie Music Muster (Queensland), Cygnet Folk Festival (Tasmania), Nannup Music Festival (Western Australia), and The National Folk Festival (Canberra). “We also cross into the non-folk genres,” Budge added. “We play more mainstream festivals, including Out on the Weekend, Queenscliff Music Festival, and Broadbeach.”

Nevertheless, there efforts have brought them farther afield. “John and myself came to Nashville in 2012, as one of my songs, O Winding River, was chosen for the Songwriter Showcase at IBMA,” Budge notes. “We travelled around 30,000 kilometres to play one song – and loved it!”

Nevertheless, the band is pleased with the reception they’ve received back home. “We get a lot of support from radio — mainly independent — but also from our national broadcaster, the ABC. It’s always great to be driving along and hear a song of ours on the radio!”

So too, Budge readily replies when asked her opinion on why bluegrass seems to draw an international audience. 

“Great question,” she muses. “I think it’s because bluegrass form and instrumentation are rooted in traditions of immigration.  As people emigrated from different parts of the world to settle in the US, traditional instruments blended with other instrumentation and root chord structures, bringing about different forms, but still having the sentiment of music ‘from home.'” 

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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.