Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Downhill Bluegrass Band links Sweden and the States

It’s no small achievement to forge a sound so essentially American in a place that’s so decidedly removed from its roots. So credit Sweden’s Downhill Bluegrass Band with not only succeeding on that score, but also making their mark both in Europe and the U.S., places that have found  them becoming regulars on the festival circuit.

“Our influences weren’t much different than anybody else,” guitarist Christoffer Olsson insists. “Earl and Lester, The Osborn Brothers, Tony Rice and all of those people that were and are the biggest players of our time within the genre.”

Based in Bergslagen, an industrial, working class region of their native Sweden, the band was formed some 20 years by brothers Kenneth and Jonas Kjellgren. The group underwent a number of shifts in their personnel until coalescing with their current roster consisting of Olsson, Kenneth Kjellgren (banjo), Jonas Kjellgren (mandolin), Jimmy Sunnebrandt (bass) and Nicke Widén (dobro). Their sound not only emulates its Americana origins, but also adds some original influences as well, specifically those having to do with the trials and challenges so intrinsic to their own roughhewn environs. 

The five albums the Downhill Bluegrass Band has released on their own and on a pair of collaborative efforts with others — Maxida Märak, a musician representing the indigenous Sami people, and bluegrass veteran and influential archivist Pelle Lindström — have found the band writing the majority of its own music. Still, Olsson implies that they take their cue from seminal sources.  

“We have a lot of similarities between our own folk music and American bluegrass,” Olsson suggests. “Some of us create new sounds and cross genres with each other. Some of it sounds just like straight bluegrass. Nevertheless, it’s totally compatible.”

Olsson also notes that while the local audience for bluegrass has been limited so far, the genre is continues to grow in popularity, 

“Bluegrass in Europe and Scandinavia is not big,” he admits. “But during the past two decades, it has definitely gotten bigger thanks to the film industry and digital platforms like YouTube and Spotify. When people hear it, they appreciate it. It’s a small genre, but you can find it everywhere. Small music communities create modest venues in the bigger cities, and sometimes they even bring over artists from the U.S. to come and play. So yeah, it’s getting bigger.”

The group has helped further the cause by organizing and hosting the annual Torsåker Bluegrass Festival, one of Sweden’s largest musical gatherings, located in Torsåker, a scenic region many refer to as the heartland of Swedish bluegrass. The festival takes place the first weekend in July.

“Although Sweden is a very small country, there is a small bluegrass scene here,” Olsson maintains. “We do not have many bands or musicians, but we have a few, and that allows us to have a few festivals every year.”

Nevertheless, the band doesn’t rely solely on homegrown acceptance. They’ve toured the continent and the States with increasing regularity. “That’s mostly because the music is bigger in the U.S. and there are a lot more bands,” Olsson adds.

Hopefully they can continue to encourage that growth at home as well. 

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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.