Bluegrass Beyond Borders: England’s Vanguards take their name seriously

The English have a clear connection to the music we refer to as bluegrass. After all, the sounds sown in Appalachia were a direct result of the folk and traditional music that originated in the British Isles.

The Vanguards — Jack Baker on mandolin, Alex Clarke on guitar, Chris Lord on banjo, Laura Nailor on fiddle, and Pete Thomas on bass — hail from Croydon, a large town located in South London. “Some of us have lived there all our lives, and we’re proud to call it home,” Lord says. “Our bassist, Pete Thomas, is originally from Henley-on-Thames, but currently lives near us in central London. Though he’s just north of the river, we consider him to be an honorary Croydoner! We should also make mention of the sixth honorary Vanguard, Ewan Penkey of Surrey Audio Works, who often fills in for Pete. At this point, he’s probably played at least half of our gigs.”

Regardless of who’s playing when, Lord insists the band is thoroughly enmeshed in bluegrass. “Though we wouldn’t want to be pigeonholed, it’s fair to say that we’re a traditional bluegrass band,” he notes. “That said, we like to include a wide variety of sounds in our sets, with a lot of classic country influence alongside the more traditional bluegrass material.”

So too, it’s hardly surprising that they tap into the usual wellspring of archival inspiration. “Our primary influences are Bill Monroe and The Stanley Brothers, and that’s usually the kind of feel we’re aiming for with our original compositions,” Lord maintains. “Jack’s major mandolin influence is Bill Monroe, something that we think is immediately obvious when you hear him play. I have a variety of banjo influences. Though I’m a big fan of Ralph Stanley and I play an arch-top like he did, my own style tends to incorporate more melodic playing into a traditional sound, more in the vein of Greg Cahill. Laura is a big fan of Kenny Baker and old-time fiddle in general. She got her start playing Irish trad, though it wasn’t very long before she made the move to bluegrass. In terms of more contemporary music, we’re big fans of The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys and The Kody Norris Show, and we really appreciate and enjoy the energy and coordination they put into their performances.”

To date, The Vanguards have mostly performed at bluegrass festivals throughout the UK. “Over the years, we’ve played Didmarton, Orwell, South Essex, Battlefield, Crossover, East Anglia, Tamworth, Moniaive, Surrey, and St. Julian’s, some of which are now sadly defunct,” Lord notes. “We also like to play outside of the bluegrass circuit, and we’ve played Fire in the Mountain, Black Deer Festival, Long Road Festival, and the Cambridge Folk Festival. Oftentimes bluegrass is really appreciated in festivals with a broader range of music, as listeners haven’t heard anything like it before. 

“More recently we’ve also played internationally, at both Westport Folk and Bluegrass Festival in Ireland, and La Roche in France. We’ve also had the honor of playing at Cambridge Folk Festival twice now, first appearing on The Den stage in 2019, and again this year on the new, third main stage. We’ve played Black Deer Festival twice, first in 2019 and also this year. In 2019, Black Deer was quite new, but it’s since grown massively. It was quite a shock to see how many people were there this year. Last year, we also got to play at The Long Road Festival, another relatively new festival that has quickly become massively popular.”

Lord said those aforementioned appearances have resonated with the band by leaving them with an indelible impression. “We particularly enjoyed getting to see Marty Stuart,” he added. “Plus, getting to play La Roche this year was a definite highlight. There probably aren’t going to be too many opportunities to see Special Consensus and Tim O’Brien sharing the same stage! Nevertheless, we’re hoping to continue the streak and make it to Rotterdam next year. The dream, of course, is to get to play in America. Members of the band have visited the IBMA festival and various festivals in the South, but we’d love to be able to bring the whole band over as well.”

According to Lord, bluegrass artists don’t tend to tour the UK very often, so they don’t get many opportunities to provide back-up as a band. “We did get to support Cedar Hill in 2016, and more recently we shared the bill with the Canadian band, Crooked Creek,” he mentions. “We have, however, been lucky enough to jam with plenty of current bluegrass greats. One of the many great things about this music is how accessible and how friendly its musicians tend to be, and we really appreciate that.”

Lord said that their audiences back home have been especially enthusiastic. “We’ve been able to gig quite regularly and we’ve gotten some great feedback, so I suppose we’ve been received well,” he muses. “We managed to sell out the first, self-titled EP we released in 2016, but we haven’t had the same luck with our recently-released album… yet. It’s called South of the River and it’s available on Bandcamp and most streaming services. Buying via Bandcamp is the best way to support us outside of getting a CD in person, but we appreciate anyone listening to our music, however they want to listen to it. You can listen to and buy our album there, or by searching for “The Vanguards South of the River” on your favorite streaming platform.”

Still, Lord said today’s musical environs do present them with some challenges. “It does feel like people are buying fewer CDs and relying more on streaming services now than they were seven years ago,” Lord muses. “That unfortunately doesn’t work out well for smaller bands like us. We’re all also very typically British, so we have a hard time with self-promotion.”

That said, the band can claim a varied repertoire.  

“We play both originals and covers,” Lord explains. “We try to focus on the originals. It’s good to be able to fully express ourselves, and it’s nice to do something that an audience won’t have heard anywhere else. Still, we love to play our favorite songs, and it’s pretty rare that our set doesn’t include a few of those. In particular, we’re quite big fans of Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley, and oftentimes we open with My Sweet Blue Eyed Darling and close with Katy Daly.”

Lord says it’s easily understandable why bluegrass boasts such international appeal. “I think that the mix of high musicianship with uncomplicated chord structures is a big draw,” he says. “The music is easy to follow, but never boring, and it never outstays its welcome. The subject matter also tends to be universally understood and experienced — it often deals with heartbreak, tragedy, travel, and a yearning for times past. There are very few other types of music that are so accessible for aspiring musicians to get into, and it’s also very feasible to get to meet and even play with your heroes. I’m not sure there are many other genres that you can say that about.”

Ultimately then, The Vanguards seem quite pleased with the place they’ve secured in those musical environs.

“The bluegrass community has been incredibly kind and welcoming to us, and there’s no other music we’d rather be playing,” Lord suggests. “We hope we get to play for you all somewhere down the road.”

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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.