The common thread found with all the bands that create Bluegrass Beyond Borders lies not only in the fact that they pluck their influences from the American heartland, but also in the way they tie those traditions to their homeland heritage. For the Dutch band that refers to itself as the Blue Grass Boogiemen, their music was first honed while busking on the streets of Utrecht in The Netherlands in the late ‘80s.
At the time, the present members of the group — Robert Jan Kanis (guitar and vocals), Arnold Lasseur (mandolin, fiddle and vocals), Aart Schroevers (upright bass and vocals) and Bart van Strien (banjo, bluesharp, fiddle and vocals) — were all playing in different bands. Neverthless, they quickly became acquainted.
“We all shared a love for 1950s bluegrass, rockabilly and country music,” Lasseur recalls. “So we decided to form a band together, and that was in 1990. Soon, we got a lot of offers for gigs in Holland and abroad. A few years later, we got offers from the US as well, and the first time we came over as a band for a tour of the States was in 1998. Byron Berline booked us for his festival in Guthrie, Oklahoma, and our friend Steve Dean, from Austin, Texas, booked a whole tour around it. We did about eight tours in the US after that, and we’ve continued to play all over Europe as well, but mostly in our native Holland. We were playing professionally as soon as we got started and then we decided to see how long it all would last. We’re still going strong today.”
Happily, the influences they digested also resonated with their audiences. Lasseur lists Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Flatt & Scruggs, Jim & Jesse, the Osborne Brothers, Reno & Smiley, and the Stanley Brothers as chief among the bluegrass bands that left them with the greatest impression. Classic country entered the mix as well, and they count Hank Williams, Sr, George Jones, Lefty Frizzell, and Roy Acuff as among the archival artists that rank high on their list of favorites.
“In addition, we all love the early rockabilly musicians like Charlie Feathers, Carl Perkins, Johnny Horton, Elvis, and so on,” Lasseur adds. “We generally listen to a lot of different kinds of music. There’s also the love we share for old-timey music. We usually feature a fiddle and a banjo tune or two in our sets.”
Lasseur says that they were fortunate enough to meet some of their heroes early on. “We paid visits to Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, and Earl Scruggs during the ’90s, and we’ve shared stages with other big names as well, including the Osborne Brothers, Jim & Jesse, Del McCoury, JD Crowe, and Johnson Mountain Boys. We even got the honor of backing up Rose Maddox in 1993, and Chris Hillman & Herb Pederson a couple of times, too.”
Lasseur says that their eagerness and enthusiasm have rubbed off on the audiences they perform for. “We get a great reaction everywhere we play,” he insists. “When we started out, most people who came to see us had never heard of bluegrass music. We were happy to inform them and share the history. There were always a few young folks who were interested in banjo or mandolin lessons, or who wanted us to suggests some names for them to explore after they saw us play.”
He adds that some musicians were so inspired by what they heard that they started bands of their own. That in turn has enhanced the love of bluegrass felt back home.
“I wouldn’t say it’s big, but there are a lot of lovers of so-called roots music in general over here, and they tend to like bluegrass,” Lasseur maintains. “It has been growing over the years though, due to the whole O Brother thing, and visits by Steve Earle, the Del McCoury Band, and Hayseed Dixie, a group that has something of a following over here. But with all humbleness, I must confess that we ourselves have had a lot to do with the growing attention to and general popularity of bluegrass here in the last 30 years.”
It’s not that the music existed in a vacuum. There was a small scene that had already been established.
“There already were bluegrass bands playing here in Holland before us, but they never got around much outside of the small bluegrass scene like we did back then, and like we still do now. We often appeared on national television and radio shows over here, and we also got booked at some of the biggest music festivals in Holland. That got the music a lot of attention. We even made it into the national album charts a while ago with an album we recorded to celebrate our 25th anniversary.
In fact, Blue Grass Boogiemen have several albums to their credit, five under their own name, two under the aegis of the Hillbilly Boogiemen (an offshoot featuring the same lineup but leaning more towards country and rockabilly), and one due out momentarily that was recorded with Tim Knol, an artist that Lasseur says is a significant name in The Netherlands music scene.
“He grew up on bluegrass, and has always wanted to record a bluegrass album,” Lasseur explains. “We became friends before he got big, so he decided to record his bluegrass album with us. I wrote a bunch of songs with him and the album will be released on his own label.”
In addition, the Boogiemen have a full slate of festival dates on tap, as well as a large club tour they’ll undertake alongside their friend Knol. “We’ve got TV and radio lined up over the next couple of weeks, and we already have gotten a little bluegrass buzz going,” Lasseur adds. “There are very exciting times ahead of us.”
Asked why he thinks bluegrass has such universal appeal, Lasseur offers a ready answer. “I think it’s because of the sincerity of it,” he replies. “It’s the ‘what you see is what you get’ factor. It’s very direct, and many music lovers look for that. Although it’s not very easy to play or sing, it’s still quite easy to ‘get.’ Many of the topics are timeless, like in folk music in general. It can easily speak to anyone, wherever they come from. And the musical skills speak for themselves.”
Lasseur has another theory as well. “The music can be very energetic, which always attracts lovers of all genres,” he muses. “We’ve played at a lot of different kinds of festivals, even apart from the bluegrass festivals where we’ve performed. Believe it or not, we even played at a Hardcore punk rock/speed metal festival! And the folks loved it.”