Scotland’s Homecoming String Band is more than merely a bluegrass band that happens to hail from the opposite side of the ocean. Their purpose is to celebrate the contributions their Scottish forebears made to this country’s traditional tapestry — that music which was birthed in Appalachia in particular — when those settlers migrated to America and brought their archival origins with them. With their high harmonies, tightly-knit rhythms, and some fully-fueled exuberance and enthusiasm, they blend bluegrass sensibilities with the sound of jigs and reels and do so in a sweeping and stirring fashion. As they mention on their website, it doesn’t matter whether they’re performing in intimate environs or in full festival frenzy, their commitment to the cause of making music doesn’t falter or fade.
The band’s core members — Jed Milroy (banjo, mandolin, vocals), Suzanne Butler (fiddle, vocals), Sandy Butler (guitar, vocals), Phil Mcbride (bass), and Dave Dukes (drums) — first convened in 2007. Jed and Suzanne met while working as musicians for an Edinburgh children’s music charity called Fischy Music. “At that point, Jed had just discovered bluegrass from a banjo-playing flatmate, after having been a performer in the English folk-revival style for several years using acoustic guitar,’ Suzanne explains.
Suzanne herself was a Scottish folk fiddle player and ceilidh band veteran. Consequently she and Jed shared the idea to create a band that blended Scottish and bluegrass material and transform that high-energy sound to service to ceilidhs, a type of traditional Scottish communal dance commonly enjoyed at weddings, parties, and other festive events.
“The popularity of the Cohen Brothers movie O Brother, Where Art Thou was a big influence at that time, and quite a lot of Scottish music fans were enjoying a new awareness of roots music from the USA as a result,” Suzanne explains. “The band took off and soon found itself in demand, with the bluegrass element being much appreciated as a less formal and more vocal-led addition to the ceilidh tradition in central Scotland and beyond.”
Citing such eclectic influences as Flatt and Scruggs, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Punch Brothers, Shooglenifty, Lau, and, of course, the aforementioned O Brother film soundtrack, Homecoming String Band naturally emphasizes a combination of banjo, guitar, and fiddle, while placing their vocals firmly at the fore. “It’s an energetic, joyful vibe, with driving rhythm, and loads of harmony from the voices,” Suzanne says. “We play traditional Scottish folk melodies, bluegrass standards, contemporary roots music, and a few original tunes and songs as well. It’s all aimed at helping audiences have a great time, and getting them so caught up in the music that they can’t help but want to get on the dance floor!”
Clearly, the strategy has paid off. “They tend to love the energy and freshness that the bluegrass brings,” Suzanne notes. “Especially when played alongside British folk songs and traditional tunes.”
While the aim is obviously to excite their audiences, Suzanne insists the musicians themselves share in that enthusiasm. “Listening to and playing bluegrass and roots music from the USA has brought us a lot of joy and togetherness over the last 15 years,” she maintains.
Although the band mostly plays private events, they have toured in the UK and Bavaria, in addition to having made an appearance at Scotland’s Big Tent Festival. However, like most other outfits, COVID has grounded them from live performance over the past two years. “It has been very difficult during the pandemic not to be able to go out and play together, but we continue to be patient,” Suzanne says. “Communal dancing, such as the ceilidh tradition that we’re part of, has been a sad casualty of COVID restrictions.”
To date, the band haven’t recorded any music for wider public consumption, but they do have an EP CD that dates from 2009. It can be sampled at their web site. They mostly focus on covers, with a few original tunes tossed into the mix. Nevertheless, they have a varied repertoire, one that includes such standards as Foggy Mountain Top, The Cuckoo, and contemporary material like Swimming Song by Loudon Wainwright and, surprisingly enough, a bluegrass version of Fat Bottom Girls by Queen.
Ultimately it proves a potent combination.
“Bluegrass connects with people at a deep level, with its strong rhythm, repetition, intuitive melodies, and direct vocal style,” Suzanne suggests. “People tend to enjoy the sound of folk instruments like fiddle, banjo, and mandolin. They are hard to ignore with their distinctive tones. Like many folk traditions, it taps into human musicality in a way that goes beyond geographical borders.”