Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Banjo Lounge 4

The Scottish quartet that calls itself The Banjo Lounge 4 was, in a very real sense, born of necessity. “We came together when I moved to Scotland in 2007,” says the band’s vocalist, banjo player, and musical mainstay, Pat McGarvey. “My wife is Scottish, and we’d met at a bluegrass banjo tuition camp in England called Sore Fingers. When she was pregnant with our son Johnny, we left London to start our family in her home town of Edinburgh.”

Naturally then, with a child on the way, McGarvey knew that the responsible thing to do was to find the means to support his blossoming family. “As a self-employed musician, I knew I’d need to start doing the kind of club/bar/wedding/corporate/festival gigs that actually pay the bills,” he recalls. “My original bluegrass band, Southern Tenant Folk Union, was two albums in and keeping busy, but I knew the new baby would need shoes and other basics, so I started The Banjo Lounge 4 with a friend of my wife’s, Barney Strachen.”

The group currently consists of McGarvey, Strachan on acoustic guitar and vocals, Richard Kass on drums, and Paul Gilbody on double bass. 

“We went through some different double bassists and drummers until we finally settled into the band we are now,” explains McGarvey. “There’s a great little music scene here in Edinburgh, and we met Rich and Paul through playing in various other bands over the years.”

McGarvey describe’s the band’s decidedly different sound as filtered through bluegrass basics. “It’s akin to a live band deejay at a fun party, where each track comes as an unexpected delight to the audience,” he maintains. “We often hear people say, ‘I can’t believe you guys played xxxx.’ We do a lot of well-known RnB, hip hop, metal, and pop tracks in an acoustic style, so it’s an eclectic sound with something for everyone.”

That said, McGarvey’s list of influences clearly lean towards a more traditional motif. “For me, as far as banjo is concerned, it’s Ralph Stanley and Don Reno, although mostly Don,” he says. “I bought and absorbed some homemade ‘how to play Reno Style’ DVDs about 18 years ago – having been introduced to the single string style by an amazing banjo player in England named Leon Hunt – and, combined with my background as a bass player, came up with a simple rhythmic style that suits what The Banjo Lounge 4 do so well. As a band, everyone has a very wide range of musical tastes, and we can make sure we’re doing stuff that we dig personally, as well as music that’s ‘in the public consciousness,’ and goes over well.”

The Banjo Lounge 4 mostly limits its performances to Scotland, although McGarvey says they do venture down to England or across to Ireland from time to time. “We’ve even played a pool party in Ibiza,” he adds. “There’s been some little bits of touring, but that’s something I mostly did with the original bands I was in, like Southern Tenant Folk Union, The Coal Porters, and The Arlenes. I’ve certainly got great memories of coming to play with The Coal Porters at IBMA when it was in Louisville in 2004, plus we did a bunch of other little gigs and festivals over there at the same time. Touring got a bit more difficult a few years ago with the change from CD sales to streaming, as it hurt the merch sales here in the UK and kind of killed it off for me.”

Nevertheless, the band are ongoing regulars at some of the leading gatherings Scotland has to offer. “We’ve done a lot of the best festivals in Scotland,” McGarvey mentions. “It’s a great country for a summer festival as long as the midges stay away and don’t start biting. Ones we have coming up are Fynefest, a big beer and music festival in one of the most beautiful Scottish glens I’ve ever been to, and the famous Tall Ships Festival, which will be in the Shetland Isles in July.”

To date, The Banjo Lounge 4 can claim an album, appropriately dubbed Get ur Tweed On, as it references the fact that the musicians tend to wear tweed jackets onstage. The Banjo Lounge 4’s offerings lean towards covers, although Southern Tenant Folk Union mostly favors original music. “The Banjo Lounge 4 is all about entertainment, and for that we need to take those tracks people know and love, and then do our own thing with them,” he explains. “As for the specific tracks, we do rock stuff like Led Zeppelin or System of a Down, right through to dance tracks like Get Busy by Sean Paul or Mundian To Bach Ke by Punjabi MC. Plus, there’s also some Johnny Cash, of course.”

Given their emphasis on entertainment, McGarvey can speak to the popularity of bluegrass with astute authority. “It’s music that makes people dance, makes them smile and just get lost in the moment,” he suggests. “We live in a big strange world that often seems overwhelming, and we all need times with friends and families in order to forget about all that for a few hours and simply relax. Bluegrass, and our bluegrass-influenced music, provides a perfect template for getting to the essence of what a great bit of music is really about – whether it’s a lyric, a melody or whatever. If you strip something back into that acoustic format, it has to be good to work.”

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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.