Bluegrass Beyond Borders – Darling West’s Nordic Niche

Ask most Americans what they know of Norway and you’re likely to hear a few scattered responses that make reference to fjords and chillier climes. Of course that can be attributed to abject ignorance and a tendency to stereotype when no other answer comes to mind.

Not surprisingly then, for all its beauty and charm, the Nordic countries of Scandinavia are rarely — if ever — associated with Grassicana. Nevertheless, it’s a tribute to bluegrass’ populist appeal and universality that it knows no boundaries, however distant they may sometimes seem. It’s also a credit to a band like DarlingWest that they show no hesitation when it comes to breaking down those boundaries and creating a fundamental sound that offers broad appeal to music aficionados wherever they might dwell.

The band, consisting of husband/wife duo Mari Sandvær Kreken (lead vocals, acoustic and electric guitars, harmonica, tambourine, mandolin and mountain dulcimer) and Tor Egil Kreken (six-string bass, banjo and acoustic and electric guitars), along with Kjetil Steensnæs (electric and acoustic guitars and pedal steel), and occasional drummer Thomas Gallatin, made their debut in 2014 and have released three albums since — Winter Passing (2014), Vinyl and a Heartache (2016) and their recently released offering, While I Was Asleep. Ignoring any hint of a cultural divide, local critics accorded them a Spellermannprisen award, the Norwegian equivalent of a Grammy nod. Aside from appearances on radio, at festivals and in leading concert venues in their native Norway, they’ve also performed around the world, scaled the country charts in the U.S., and performed at such major gatherings as Americanafest, South By Southwest and Folk Alliance. 

Indeed, one listen to any of their albums easily explains their burgeoning popularity. Darling West’s rich harmonies and instrumental acumen suggest a vintage folk approach which boasts a charm and finesse that are both easily accessible and true to tradition. Tor credits their families and schooling with providing early influences.

“We both had parents who listened to traditional country — Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris — so we were exposed to that type of music when we grew up,” he explains. “I discovered Ry Cooder at an early age because my older brother had records with him on them, and that was a profound influence. In school, we had teachers who showed us Bob Dylan and some of the other great songwriters, and that opened a new door into that world. I travelled to the U.S. when I was eighteen after I had just picked up the banjo, and I came back with 20 CDs by Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs and Ralph Stanley. Before that I had not really heard that much bluegrass. Mari listened a lot to Dolly Parton’s bluegrass albums and Alison Krauss. There were definitely record stores in Norway where you could get that type of music, but the selection would be rather poor. Before streaming I usually ordered bluegrass CDs online from the U.S.”

Considering their common interests, it was only natural that Tor and Mari should team up, both personally and professionally. “We started playing together around nine years ago,” Tor explains. We would bring a banjo and a mandolin to the family cabin in the mountains, and work on fiddle tunes and trad songs. Eventually, we started writing our own material. We wanted to add a guitar player, and so we asked our friend Kjetil Steensnæs to join and he has been a member of the band ever since.”

All three contribute equally, with Tor and Mari responsible for writing the songs and Kjetil helping with the arrangements. Tor says the reaction back home has been very positive not only to their music, but the Grassicana genre as a whole.

“It is absolutely a growing movement in Norway and Scandinavia in general,” he insists. “There’s been a small group of musicians playing bluegrass in Norway since the ‘70s, but then after the movie O Brother Where Art Thou came out, the interest exploded, and a lot of young people started playing bluegrass and related styles. Even at some of the conservatories in Norway, where jazz and classical music are the main styles, several bluegrass bands were formed. In the last few years, it’s taken a turn towards Americana and folk; there’s a burgeoning scene for that in Oslo where we live, but also throughout the rest of the country. There are several other bands also doing Nordic Americana or ‘Nordicana’ as some call it. The interest in international acts within the genre is tremendous, and Americana bands from the U.S. usually draw very good crowds here.”

They’re particularly pleased that the reaction they’ve received in the States has been equally enthusiastic. “People there seem to like our version of their music, and they say they can hear a Nordic influence, which we think is really nice. We’re not interested in just copying what has already been done so well, so if we can bring something of our own, that’s what we’re striving for.” He adds that Darling West is preparing for their first proper U.S. tour this coming August and September.

“There’s something in bluegrass that resonates with a lot of people everywhere,” Tor suggests when asked about the music’s universal appeal. “It’s very honest, and it strikes a chord with those that listen to it. The storytelling that takes place in bluegrass and similar styles is also something that I believe we can all relate to, giving us a chance to take a break from our daily lives and allowing us to be captivated by the music. Plus, the harmony singing in bluegrass is an undeniable force. I don’t think anyone can listen to Ralph Stanley’s album Clinch Mountain Gospel and not be moved by it.”

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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.