Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Bluedust tones their sounds with devotion

You can tell that Bluedust is committed to their cause simply based on their handle alone. As Josh Villa, the band’s singer and mandolin player expalins, they chose it for a specific purpose. 

“We are called Bluedust,” Villa says. “Blue like the grass of Kentucky, and dust like the dust on the records of Lester Flatt and Bill Monroe the musicians who inspired us.”

An Italian bluegrass band based in Milan, Bluedust was originally formed in 2011, but individual members have been making music for the better part of the past 20 years in their various other ensembles. The group currently consists of Villa, singer Perry Meroni, banjo player Dino Barbè, guitarist Tony Spezzano, and bassist Stefano Zanrosso. All five members share vocal duties. 

Villa says the combination was inevitable. “We all live in the same area, we all have a great passion for traditional bluegrass and at the same time we were tired of the musical projects we were part of,” he says. “All too often, they were tied to an idea of bluegrass that was too modern for our tastes.”

While each member of the group had traveled a different trajectory, all of them claimed similar influences — Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, and the later generation of musicians bluegrass that includes Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, JD Crowe, Jerry Douglas, and Tim O’Brien.

“We constantly follow the American music scene, and important events such as the IBMAs and the various festivals, and the new bands and musicians who continue to enrich this musical genre, “ Villa insists. “But when we travel, we listen to Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs! Lately we are very impressed by the Earls of Leichester, with whom we share much of our repertoire.”

To date, Bluedust has released three albums. The first, Blast from the Past, was, as its name implies, comprised of traditional songs that were a seminal influence.Their sophomore set, Fifties, also reflected a vintage legacy, but added a ‘50s flavor courtesy of covers originally recorded by Elvis Presley and Don Gibson, as well as a song sung in their native Italian. The band’s latest, Live at St Gotthard Pass, was recorded in concert in Switzerland near the San Gottardo Pass.

“It had three original songs that I wrote,” Villa explains. “There’s an instrumental fiddle tune called Little Buffalo, a song in ¾ time titled I Just Cannot Forget Loving You, and a song written in honor of Moniaive, a small village that hosted us during our tour of Scotland entitled Life Is Better When You Smile.”

Villa says that the band is constantly working on the repertoire. “We believe we have the duty to offer good music, and also to entertain the public. We could divide our repertoire into two types of songs. The first — and the most important — is the traditional bluegrass repertoire consisting of material by Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe, and Jimmy Martin. The second type is linked to a distinctly ’50s repertoire, and includes songs by Elvis Presley, Don Gibson, Johnny Cash, and some songs representing traditional Italian music. Everything is filtered through bluegrass, and that helps our audiences understand where we come from. The crowds are always very appreciative of our diversity.”

In recent years, the group has toured throughout Europe, while focusing on festivals in Italy and Switzerland, as well as Germany, France, Scotland, and the Netherlands. “We have about 40 concerts a year and often we have opened concerts of great bands like Special Consensus, Daley and Vincent, Kruger Brothers, and emerging bands like Midnight Run, and they have always confirmed that the road we are following is right, and in line with the way American bands play bluegrass.”

“We have a way of presenting ourselves in a very special way,” Villa explains. “We try to dress elegantly and not leave anything to chance. We use the single microphone technique, without traditional monitors, but a wireless in-ear monitor system instead. Everything is rehearsed, although in our shows we create the most beautiful and fun things. The reaction of the audience is generally enthusiastic — a bit because of the captivating repertoire, some due to our fans’ fondness for traditional bluegrass, a little bit out of sympathy, and, I hope, because of the skill of the musicians.”

Nevertheless, Villa admits that the environment isn’t ideal as far as bluegrass is concerned.

“In Italy, the musical culture is a bit in crisis,” he maintains. “I think it’s more the fault of producers than the public. A bluegrass group is still a risk compared to a cover band of some Italian singer, and not every concert producer wants to take this risk. Still, bluegrass is really liked by Italians, especially the traditional style of bluegrass that has some aspects in common with the popular peasant tradition of our area. There are many musicians who approach this genre in a superficial way without grasping the true meaning of the music. There are also technical obstacles due to the divide between Latin and bluegrass music, which generally must be listened to a lot before being played.”

Nevertheless, Villa believes that Italians are getting more comfortable with traditional American music, and that brings him hope for future inroads. “I feel like bluegrass is destined never to die,” Villa suggests. “It’s instinctively linked to something that makes people feel good when they listen to it. It’s music that doesn’t come with age limits, something that pleases adults and children alike, without regard to age or gender.”

As for their own aspirations, Villa’s very clear. 

“Our hope is to continue on the path we have undertaken, studying more and more, working on traditional and original pieces, and meeting great musicians,”  he says. “Maybe sooner or later we’ll succeed in reaching our dream of playing our bluegrass with a bit of Italian flavor in the USA.”

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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.