Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Country GongBang returning to the US

South Korea’s Country GongBang demonstrates that the basics of bluegrass aren’t limited exclusively to the realms of the western world. Since we last profiled the band, they received the 2023 IBMA International Band Performance Grant, a credit to their credibility as purveyors of authentic American roots music, albeit with a Korean twist. They also recently released a second album and have begun to make a mark outside their own country.

The band’s name means “country atelier,” a pun on a Korean custom that involves students being filmed while practicing music or simply taking part in their studies. Consequently, their fame has been furthered courtesy of YouTube and various other online media platforms.

The band, which currently consists of Hyunho Jang (banjo), Jongsu Yoon (fiddle), Yebin Kim (vocals and mandolin), Sunjae Won (guitar), and Keeha Song (bass), was initially founded by Jane, Song, and Kim when they were college classmates. Once Yoon and Won joined the fold, the band solidified their standing under the banner of Country Gongbang and became a five-member ensemble.

“Our sound is actually hard for us to explain clearly,” says Yoon. “We started because we were attracted to the traditional bluegrass genre, but after that, we started to pursue different things. We think our music has a variety of elements, such as K-Pop, classical, jazz, Irish, and gypsy.”

Regardless, their initial  influences were derived from the standard sources, such as Bill Monroe, Doc Watson, and Tony Rice. “We were also influenced by musicians of other genres such as jazz, blues, and pop,” Yoon explains. “We love the Punch Brothers and we’re influenced by them in particular. All of those sounds came together to form Country Gongbang’s own style of music. For our second studio album, we took advantage of the influences we had received from those other genres of music, and then took the album in different directions, apart from the traditional bluegrass style of music.”

To date, the band has performed in various parts of Korea and twice in Japan. “There’s been nothing that we can call a tour yet, but this summer will be the first time we’re doing an American tour,” Yoon continues, noting the fact that the band sing in both English and Korean.

So too, Country Gongbang has made their mark at a number of prestigious festivals. “We performed at the Takarazuka Bluegrass Festival in Japan, and at the La Roche Bluegrass Festival in France in 2022,” Yoon recalls. “I personally performed at World of Bluegrass in Raleigh in September of last year.” They’re also due to appear as special guests of the band Crying Uncle who are currently enroute to a series of shows in South Korea. “We are so looking forward to it,” he said.

The future holds further promise as well. “This year, we’ve been invited to some of the best festivals in the world with huge histories that can’t be compared to the festivals in Korea,” Yoon explains. “There we will meet some of the best musicians bluegrass has to offer.”

Among these is the big Father’s Day Bluegrass Festival sponsored and managed by the California Bluegrass Association. The band will perform there June 13 and 14 on the main stage, offering bluegrass fans in the western US a rare opportunity to catch this stellar international act.

Nevertheless, Yoon says that the band has yet to find a sizable following in their native country. 

“To be honest, we are not famous at all in Korea,” he allows. “First of all, there is no market in Korea that can be called the bluegrass scene, but even so, our music is really liked by a few people. It feels strange that people seem to like it more abroad.”

The band released their second full-length album, Unknown Poets, in September last year.

“We want to make and play more of our own original music,” Yoon added. “I’d like to create a new and original bluegrass song that hasn’t come out until now. Of course, it’s not an easy task. Still, I believe that there will be good results someday.”

He’s also confident when it comes to explaining bluegrass’ inherent appeal. “I think bluegrass music has a primal charm,” he says. “The energy of the day, made up of only acoustic instruments and human voices, has the power to give people who like it a feeling of connection. I think the reason has to do with warm lyrics that are based on a sense of longing that can be understood anywhere in the world. It’s about family, friends, and hometown feelings. There is a certain warmth given by the words that’s more and more absent from modern society.”

As for their own plans going forward, Yoon lays it out succinctly.

“In the future, we want to make and perform better music, and have our music heard in more places around the world.”

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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.