Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Bluegrass comes alive with The Dead South

They may call themselves The Dead South, but in truth, they hail from the great white north — Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada to be precise. That may be what makes the Dead South’s charm seem all the more universal.

The idea of forming what they then termed a “rockin’ stompin’ bluegrass band” originated with guitarist and mandolin player Nate Hilts, cellist Danny Kenyon, banjo player Colton Crawford, and guitarist and mandolin player Scott Pringle in 2012. Their intention was to play a rugged form of acoustic bluegrass, while also lending it a unique satirical perspective that would distinguish their group from other like-minded outfits. Some fans jokingly refer to them as “Mumford and Sons’ Evil Twins,” but it’s also clear that the band takes their music seriously. On their website they describe it as a mix of traditional trappings infused “with an air of frontier recklessness, whiskey breakfasts, and grizzled tin-pan showmanship” that “speeds like a train past polite definitions of acoustic music into the grittier, rowdier spaces of the bluegrass world.”

Three albums on, they’re currently regarded as one of Canada’s most dynamic exports. Their latest effort, Sugar & Joy, offers yet another reason why.

“Nate and I met through some mutual friends in university, shortly after I had gotten my first banjo,” Crawford recalls. “We started playing open mics and local shows as a duo, and with some other friends before Scott and Danny joined. Danny, Scott, and Nate have known each other since kindergarten, and we played in bands together in high school.”

From the beginning it was clear that the four men shared a fondness for a similar sound. “We grew up listening to a whole range of influences, from punk and metal to classical,” Crawford claims. “In the bluegrass realm, Nate is an outlaw country encyclopedia. I started listening to bluegrass banjo players when I started playing the banjo — Earl Scruggs and Steve Martin in particular.”

Crawford left the band briefly in 2015 and was replaced by studio session player Eliza Mary Doyle, but he returned two years later. Kenyon, who has an active career as an engineer, occasionally bows out from touring, and is replaced by Erik Mehlsen. The band plays major festivals and venues like Glastonbury and Red Rocks, and frequently travels overseas, often attracting audiences that number in the tens of thousands. However their home country still boasts their biggest following.

“Our fan base in Canada is definitely growing,” Crawford claims. “In the place where we’re from — the prairies — country and bluegrass are very popular, possibly because it is a very rural place. Our music is starting to gain traction in the US, which makes us one of the lucky ones. Lots of Canadian bands have a very difficult time breaking through in the States.”

It’s little wonder. The band’s second full length set, 2016’s Illusion and Doubt, reached the upper strata of Billboard’s bluegrass charts, while their latest effort, Sugar & Joy, was recently released to rave reviews, including the high praise received from this very publication.

Crawford has his own theory as to why bluegrass — and grassicana — is so well received worldwide. 

“That’s an interesting question,” he responds when asked why he thinks that’s the case. “There definitely seems to be a resurgence in folk music worldwide. I think people are drawn to acoustic music, and right now, so much of mainstream music is digitally produced. And that’s not a dig at pop or dance music. I’m a huge fan of EDM and pop music. But I think music played with acoustic instruments is refreshing for people at this point in time.”

As judged by the fan following the Dead South has attained in the seven years since it originated, that certainly seems to be the case.

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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.