Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Bluegrass Jam Along podcast from London

Matt Hutchinson is a British bluegrass enthusiast, one who takes his devotion to a deeper level. As Bluegrass Today reported early last year when he was initiating his efforts, he has a podcast called Bluegrass Jam Along, which finds him sharing free backing tracks for various fiddle tunes while encouraging others to play along from home.

As a result, anyone with the desire to delve in deeply will find plenty of opportunity to indulge their enthusiasm. An initial run-through provides a typical backing track that finds Hutchinson playing through the chords four times in order to allow the listener to become acquainted with the melody and variations. The second track finds him playing the melody four times through for the sake of offering opportunity for accompaniment. On the third time around, the listener is given the chance to trade leads.

In addition, Hutchinson offers free chord charts for each the songs he shares. There’s no limiting either the possibilities or potential, given that the charts can be used for banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin, or reso-guitar.

Although its handle states the purpose succinctly, it’s clearly an innovative idea. Fully fascinated, we decided to ask Hutchinson how the concept came about.

So how did you come up with this idea?

The original idea wasn’t to create a podcast at all. I was just looking for backing tracks to use, and I couldn’t find what I needed, so I started making my own. I wanted tracks that ran through the tune more than once or twice. When you play through a tune a few times, you settle into a groove much better — or I do anyway — so I wanted tracks that lasted at least four times through. Then I went looking for tracks where someone else played the tune so I could practice back-up. However, I couldn’t find any. Back-up is what you play 95% of the time, but I suspect most of us don’t spend that much time practicing it. So I started recording some tracks that had me playing fiddle tunes so I could accompany myself. The obvious next step was to create some that swap between the tune and the back-up, like you would in an actual jam. 

What inspired you to share the idea with others?

I found the tracks really useful and wondered if other people might as well. This was back in March 2021 and the UK was in lockdown, so there weren’t any jams to go to. I figured people would be glad to have anything that simulated what it was like to be jamming along with a buddy. I shared a few tracks with a couple of people, and they found them useful, so I started thinking about ways to get them out. A podcast seemed like a really simple way of doing it. I didn’t have loads of tracks, but if I could stick to releasing something every week, I thought it would all add up into a useful resource.

So what’s been the reaction? And how many followers do you have at this point?

That’s one of the weird things about a podcast – you send the episodes out into the world and know people are downloading them, but it’s a one-way thing, so you don’t get to see the reaction. People do message me, and I also use Instagram and Facebook to share the episodes, and that’s a great way to connect with people.

How many episodes have there been so far?

I recently released the 200th episode and, to date, I’ve had over 80,000 downloads from 121 countries. The bulk of those, as you’d expect, come from the US – around 75%. After that it’s the U.K. (about 10%) and Canada (5%), with the remaining 10% spread out all over the world. It’s really cool to think that people in Honduras or Uganda have downloaded an episode and jammed along!

So how does it work? Are you playing and then have people join in virtually? Do you or they know who is participating?

It’s really simple. I pick a fiddle tune and record three separate backing tracks at a set tempo. One is me playing the tune through four times on the guitar, one is me playing back-up through four times, and the other switches between the two so that people can practice making those transitions between back-up and lead. I release them as separate episodes and also add in one with me playing melody and back-up together, so that people have a performance of the tune to listen to if they’re not familiar with it.

How do you choose what you share?

I tend to stick to fairly modest tempos, as I figure people using the podcast won’t be playing at 120 bpm or above! I’ve done around 25 different tunes so far, starting at 75 bpm. I’ve done over half of those at 85 bpm as well and a few at 95. The plan is to keep adding new tunes, but also keep adding quicker versions of the ones I’ve done already. I mostly stick to the tunes people are most likely to find at a jam – things like Whiskey Before Breakfast, Cherokee Shuffle, and Old Joe Clark – but I also throw in the odd favorite of mine that might be slightly less common (Waiting for the Federals, Shove the Pig’s Foot a Little Further Into the Fire, etc.)

Did you intend for it to get to this level? Were you surprised?

To be honest, I’m not really sure what I intended. I had no big plans. I just wanted to keep going and try and release something every week. I haven’t quite managed that, but I’ve put something out most weeks. Getting to 100 episodes felt like a real achievement. I celebrated that by having Bryan Sutton on as a guest, which was fantastic! The podcast turned a year old in March, and I’ve since hit the 200th episode. The plan is just to keep going and getting more content out!

What instruments do you play?

I started out as a drummer in my teens but picked up the guitar not long after. Despite forays into dobro and pedal steel over the years, guitar was my main instrument. But then in 2007, I left a job and they bought me a mandolin as a going away present. I hadn’t asked for one, but they knew I loved acoustic music and figured I’d like it. So I started learning how to play. That was my introduction to learning fiddle tunes, and mandolin was my main thing after that. 

Did you stick with it?

In 2020, the UK went into lockdown and I found myself craving a bigger sound and started picking up the guitar again. I learned a few of the fiddle tunes I already knew from mandolin on the guitar, and just got hooked. Going back to guitar felt like opening up a room in my house I’d forgotten was there – there was something deeply satisfying about it. So I signed up for lessons with Bryan Sutton on ArtistWorks and guitar has been all I’ve really played for the past two years. I do have a rare gig as a drummer in a couple of weeks, probably only my second in the past 15 years!

Are you personally in touch with any of these musical masters you reference?

After I’d being going for a few months, I thought it would be cool to add some interview episodes to the podcast. Coincidentally, right around then, I got a message from Jake Eddy, guitarist with The Becky Buller Band. He had a new record out and asked if I’d be interested in having him on. That turned into my very first interview episode. After that, I started messaging people, hoping to get a few responses. My second guest was Marcel Ardans, from the Lessons With Marcel YouTube channel. I thought, given how much time he’d spent transcribing bluegrass, he’d have some interesting insights to share. He definitely did!

The only real connection I had at that point was with Bryan Sutton. He’s my guitar teacher on ArtistWorks, so I asked him if he’d do an interview, expecting him to say he was too busy. He said yes! As you can imagine that once you’ve had someone like Bryan on your podcast it becomes a bit easier to convince others! Since then I’ve interviewed people like Mike Marshall, Tony Trishchka, Chris Eldridge, Justin Moses, Jarrod Walker, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, and several other players. I’m also keen to widen the discussion to cover other areas of bluegrass too, so I’ve had authors on, including Josh Turknett, a neuroscientist who wrote a great book on how our brains work when we play music and how to practice more effectively.

It appears that the interview possibilities really blossomed. Who else have you had on?

I also interviewed Happy Traum from Homespun about the company’s 55-year history and what it was like working with legends like Tony Rice, Bill Monroe, and Norman Blake. Homespun has played such an important role in helping people like me learn bluegrass, but they’ve also documented some of the music’s leading players along the way. That was a special interview to be part of. I’m planning on having some instrument makers on the podcast next.

Are you surprised that these famous names were so willing to participate?

The thing that has really amazed me is how easy it’s been to get in touch with people in the bluegrass world. Most of the time, I just send a message on Instagram or an email via their personal website. Nobody has ever asked how many downloads I get, or what’s in it for them. The general response I get is ‘sure, that sounds like fun!’

Obviously there are a few people that you need to go through a publicist to reach, and that’s a little harder, but as the podcast grows, I’m sure I’ll be able to tick off most of the names on my ever growing wish list!

What is the bluegrass scene like where you live?

Pretty healthy, in fact there’s more going on than I realized. I’m in London and there are a few regular jams. I’ve been going to the same one for about 15 years. It’s monthly and a bit more song based than fiddle tunes, but it’s a really friendly group and lots of fun. There’s also another jam on the other side of town from me I need to find time to get to more! That one’s much more traditional bluegrass. We also have a few festivals over here and we get US bands over on tour. We don’t get to see them as often as you do over in the US, but the bonus is, when we do, they’re often in smaller venues. I saw Billy Strings a few months ago in a record store, playing in front of about 350 people. That was incredible,

Who were some of your early bluegrass icons? What got you interested in bluegrass?

I grew up in the north of England in the 1970s, so bluegrass wasn’t on my radar at all. My dad had one Johnny Cash LP, but that was the closest thing to bluegrass we had in the house. I started listening to a lot of singer/songwriters in my early twenties, back in the early ’90s, people like Neil Young. I ended up listening to a bit of country and starting to hear bits of bluegrass as well. That led me to listening to Steve Earle, who is one of my all-time favorite musicians. When his Train A Comin’ album came out, I was fascinated by the sound. It was my first introduction to people like Norman Blake and Peter Rowan. But it was a couple more years before the bluegrass bug really started to bite. 

Then, around 1999-2000 there were three records that really got me into bluegrass in a big way. The first was Steve Earle’s album, The Mountain with the Del McCoury Band. That’s just such a complete album. I love the combination of a killer band with such great songs. Then a few months later, someone gave me a copy of Dolly Parton’s The Grass Is Blue. I put it to one side for a while, thinking it would be a bit of a novelty, but how wrong I was! Again, the combination of songs, singer, and band on that record is just so on the money. The year after O Brother, Where Art Thou? came out, and suddenly, bluegrass was everywhere for a while.

After that, I started looking for more. I picked up a copy of Skip, Hop and Wobble by Jerry Douglas, Russ Barenberg and Edgar Meyer, and from there, there was no looking back. Funnily enough, I think the one person who links all of those records I mentioned is Jerry Douglas. Maybe I need to try and get him on as a guest. Jerry is such a cool player. I love all those records I just mentioned, but I’m also a huge fan of his work on Transatlantic Sessions. Those TV shows are still something I watch regularly, and the UK tour they do annually is an absolute highlight of my year.

What do you think accounts for the worldwide popularity of bluegrass?

I think it’s maybe as simple as how inclusive it is. If you learn half a dozen fiddle tunes, you can turn up pretty much anywhere in the world and sit down with other bluegrass players and have a connection, whatever your nationality, your politics or your background. That’s always wonderful, but maybe it’s particularly so in these times when we seem to be better at focussing on what makes us different, rather than what we share.


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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.