Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Blue Mountain Boys and their unique Swedish sound

Sweden’s Blue Mountain Boys describe their sound as “rooted in traditional and neo-traditional American bluegrass music with hints of old time music, western swing and early country music.” Even so, they don’t negate the musical influences inherent in their own identity as well. As singer, guitarist, mandolinist, and dobro player Fredrik Mårtensson explains, “One unique feature of ours is that we’re doing most of our songs in Swedish, which works out just great playing for a Swedish audience. They connect to that in a different way. We also do some bluegrass Gospel, which isn’t that common over here. We feel it’s an important part of the genre.”

The band — which also includes Pedro Blom (vocals, upright bass), Peter Danielsson (vocals, banjo, guitar), and Peter Roos (vocals, fiddle, mandolin) — originally began as a side project of sorts. Danielsson and Mårtensson were both trained as classical guitarists, and the two initially played together as a guitar duo. “We listened to music during our breaks, and soon we gravitated towards bluegrass music,” Mårtensson recalls. “Eventually I bought a dreadnought guitar and Peter bought a cheap and really noisy banjo. We then contacted our mutual friend Peter Roos, who’s a great fiddler with a background in classical music, Swedish folk music, and Irish music. Pedro plays bass in a legendary Swedish folk rock band, Hoven Droven, and was, in fact, the only one of us who had any background in bluegrass music.”

Mårtensson cites the the Johnson Mountain Boys as the band’s first and most indelible influence, and their live albums in particular. “Apart from western swing and AC/DC, Live at the Old School House is still unbeatable as far as our preferred listening when we’re on the road,” he insists. The Johnson Mountain Boys’ live records got us spinning and made us wanna play and be diverse within that tradition. Then of course, there were all the major first and second generation bands, followed by lesser known acts, and even some that were obscure. It’s acquired taste stuff. You can find yourself some really good tunes out there on the fringe. Overall, I’d say most of our influences are decidedly traditional.”

Thus far, the band has recorded two full length albums and a Christmas EP, all in Swedish. “We’re lazy,” Mårtensson admits. “We’ve been planning for a new release for quite some time now… waiting for the stars to align or something, I guess….it’s coming, some old day, as Lester Flatt would say.”

That said, the bulk of their original material comes courtesy of the fiddle and banjo tunes that Danielsson and Roos provide. “We find it harder to compose new material in the traditional vein, but sometimes we manage,” Mårtensson  explains. “Peter Danielsson is a good song writer, but more often, we pen our own translations of classic bluegrass and country songs. We keep the Swedish versions close to the original lyrics. We’ve covered songs like In the Pines, So Blue, and I’ve Endured. Some of our songs that were pop hits over here in the ’50s and ’60s and were, in fact, American songs — I Gotta Travel On and Beautiful Brown Eyes, to name but two. So, we use those and ‘reclaim’ them back into bluegrass versions.”

Mårtensson also notes that much of their material is of a religious origin. “We also turn to the Swedish Book of Hymns as a source of Gospel songs,” he explains. “Some of those hymns can be turned  into credible bluegrass Gospel songs — songs like Amazing Grace and Give Me Flowers While I’m Living have long since been translated and readied for use.”

Prior to the pandemic, Blue Mountain Boys frequently performed throughout Scandinavia, including Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Holland. “Some venues have been high profile places for traditional music,” Mårtensson notes. “We learned the ropes at a pretty rough pizza place that was a real honky tonk. We’ll play anywhere that they’ll let us, from churches to concert halls to outdoor festivals. However our favorite venues tend to be small local community houses.”

He goes on to say that the group has been well received at home. “People here in Sweden love American roots music, and bluegrass is no exception,” he maintains. “The reception has always been good. People seem to like the music and to enjoy us as a live act. We’re a live band, no doubt. Some people may be ticked off by us singing in Swedish, but that’s a calculated risk of ours. More often than not, people really like it, and expect us to keep doing it.”

Mårtensson adds that they’ve played at all the major Swedish bluegrass festivals, and some Swedish and Norwegian country music festivals as well. The band represented their country at the European World Of Bluegrass festival in Voorthuizen, Holland and they were also invited to play the Rotterdam Bluegrass Festival.

“We’re still waiting to hear from the IBMA, by the way,” Mårtensson says with a smile. “We’d love to play in the US and learn more about the music.”

In the meantime, The Blue Mountain Boys relish the role they play in their local music scene. “There’s not an abundance of bluegrass heavyweights in Sweden, but there is a nice bluegrass community here with great friends, bands, and pickers,” Mårtensson maintains. At the same time, the festivals provide opportunities to jam with American and European guests. We shared the bill with Special Consensus and Beppe Gambetta in Copenhagen a few years ago. We’re also lucky to have a great fiddler, former Sunny Mountain Boy Thomas Haglund, living here. He’s been very supportive to the younger generations of pickers, and it’s a treat to have him doing the occasional twin fiddle work with Peter.”

While the band has become their primary pursuit, Mårtensson says that each of the members have outside interests as well. “We are still pursuing other careers, mainly in music, with teaching, and with juggling several bands and projects around. Pedro is also a beekeeper and has his own business. Peter Danielsson has a solo thing going which involves flatfoot dancing while playing the banjo, guitar, fiddle and singing. It’s very entertaining.”

Naturally then, Mårtensson has a ready explanation as to why bluegrass is so well received worldwide. 

“The beauty of traditional bluegrass is that it’s diverse,” he suggests. “There’s something in it for everyone, and it can be played anywhere. It’s an alternative to much of the other stuff that’s heard on the radio and performed live. It’s about real instruments played by real people in front of a real crowd. There’s also a diversity to the music, ranging from a soft approach to the harder driving stuff. It shares a heartfelt delivery, which wins people over. You can’t cut corners playing bluegrass; you have to play it like you mean it, and when doing so, people will get it. Plus, it offers everyday lyrics that people can relate to. Still, for Swedes, it’s exotic. There’s the mysterious, magical lure of a 5-string banjo.”

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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.