We all recognize the fact that bluegrass is far from a staid form of expression. A rollicking and robust attitude is imbued in every string that’s plucked and picked, a reflection of its upbeat approach and the musicians’ heartfelt satisfaction.
The British band Dr Bluegrass and the Illbilly 8 knows that feeling all too well, and their combined energy, irreverence, and imagination have given them standout status throughout England, Ireland, and Scotland. Their spirited covers of Queen’s Fat Bottomed Girls and Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing reflect their penchant for providing a party-like atmosphere, while maintaining a tie to tradition at the same time.
Given the fact that the band — Sam Salter (banjo, clarinet, bagpipes, violin, guitar), Cleo Dibb (drums, banjo, guitar, hexagonal snare), Bryony Devitt (violin, viola), Tom Clarke (bass), and Tom Bailey (guitar, cello, sousaphone) — are all exceedingly adept at their instruments, that versatility comes as no surprise.
Nevertheless, their collective fondness for bluegrass came about almost by accident.
“Sam, our banjo player, came from a guitar background, and ordered a banjo the same night that he stumbled across Flatt and Scruggs playing Foggy Mountain Breakdown on YouTube,” Bailey explains. “He was inebriated and in hysterics after hearing the sound, and subsequently learned to play off banjo from YouTube tutorials with all the vigor — and spare time — that a suburban teenager could muster. None of us had any experience in bluegrass music, but I had gone in halves on a double bass with Tom, the bass player, because we both loved the sound of it. I had found one laying around in a practice rook in the last week of my university days, where I spent most of my time playing piano. Me, Cleo, and Tom had been playing music together since we were 14, but had never had any special interest in bluegrass.”
In fact, the band’s formation almost seemed spontaneous. As Bailey describes it, he happened to run into Salter on the street outside a record store, whereupon Salter suddenly shouted, “Listen to this music!,” referring to a bluegrass record he was touting at the time.
“I only knew him vaguely from parties around town,” Bailey recalls. “His relentless enthusiasm led us to meet up later that evening for a jam in our tiny terraced house. The ceilings were so low you couldn’t stand the bass upright! Bryony was playing viola because it’s all we had on hand, and our friend Chris Tatchell was playing slide on an electric Godin guitar. I think there were some djembes and maybe even a clarinet involved too. Basically it was awful. After a couple of weeks of this racket, our neighbors got annoyed and complained, so we dragged our instruments down the street to a pedestrian road to continue jamming. Inexplicably, people who were passing by started to give us money! By the morning — yes, we played all night — we had a big old pile of cash …and awful hangovers. None of us had ever really been paid for playing music before. We talked about buying a van, and then never looked back. Or, for that matter, even forward…”
The band currently has three albums to their credit — “of varying quality,” Bailey muses — and all three are available on Spotify and bandcamp. Their set lists also include covers and traditional tunes “rearranged and messed around so you might not recognize them straight away,” Bailey adds. “We have a few originals on our first album, but we stopped writing them pretty quickly!”
The band has also managed to expand its base by performing in such far flung locales as New York and New Orleans, as well as small islands in Croatia, the Norwegian fjords, the Scottish Highlands, the French Alps, and places in-between.
“We tend to bridge the gap between modern music and bluegrass, so we play to a wide variety of audiences,” Bailey notes. “Bluegrass festivals generally have an older audience, but we are just as happy playing in a small sweaty pub to a lot of drunk dancing folk.”
He says they’ve also had an opportunity to interact with other like-minded musicians along the way, citing The Hickory Project, Hayseed Dixie, Jackson Grimm, and Margo Cilker as among the up and coming American artists with whom they’ve shared stages.
“A lot of the old time Appalachian fiddle music which informed and inspired the original bluegrass pioneers came directly from Scottish and Irish settlers, so there is a direct traceable link to this music,” Bailey suggests. “We love playing some Irish trad in our set too.”
In that regard, Bailey offers a ready explanation when asked to explain why he thinks bluegrass maintains such worldwide popularity.
“It’s fun and crazy music,” he responds. “And it’s constantly changing and adapting, thanks to some brilliant modern musicians who are pushing it in new directions.”
Considering their free-spirited approach, Dr Bluegrass and the Illbilly 8 provide that same perfect prescription.