Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Illgresi heats up bluegrass in Iceland

Iceland isn’t generally considered a breeding ground for bluegrass. In fact, most Americans know very little about the nation at all, except that it’s a tiny island in the Atlantic whose main product would seem to be ice and snow. However like most stereotypes, it doesn’t ring true. Iceland is rich in culture, beautiful to behold, and a haven of historical depth that goes back centuries.

Not surprisingly then, the Icelandic band Illgresi (translated, illur means “bad, evil” and -gresi means “grass”) is doing their part to preserve that rich heritage by introducing bluegrass to a population which up until now has been all but unaware. The group, consisting of Vignir Þór Pálsson (banjo), Arnbjörn Sólimann Sigurðsson (guitar), Guðmundur Atli Pétursson (mandolin), and Eiríkur Hlöðversson (bass), was formed in 2009 when the four members, along with fiddler, Ólafur Egilsson, met at a weekly Celtic gathering in downtown Reykjavik. “At that point all of us had been curious about bluegrass,” Atli explains. “Arnbjörn, Eirikur, and Vignir had been playing a bit together. Guðmundur had been studying the mandolin for a couple of years and then learning by playing fiddle tunes, jigs, and reels at this Celtic session. It was incredible to meet up and start geeking around with playing and studying bluegrass tunes. Ólafur soon moved to the UK so he never really became a part of the actual band.”

Nevertheless, it proved to be a fortuitous encounter. “Since that meeting at the bar, we have often talked about really how crazy it was actually meeting up, the four of us, all interested in bluegrass and each playing different bluegrass instruments in Iceland,” Atli marvels. “And on top of that, the fact that we were all the same age, 28 at the time. And again, in Iceland! Really, what are the odds?”

In fact, the odds worked in their favor. Illgresi is Iceland’s only actual bluegrass band. As a result, they had to work extra hard to enlighten their audiences while entertaining them at the same time. Nevertheless, they approached their task with due diligence.

“We were pretty active in the following years, playing small gigs and trying to tell our audience about the pioneers of the music,” Atli recalls. “We like to think we sparked some curiosity. At one point we collaborated with a band called Brother Grass, a group of four female singers and a guitarist. They wanted to cover and record some of the songs from the OBrother Where Art Thou soundtrack. So we did that with them and played a few shows. That was great fun. They were also spreading the word about bluegrass a bit, but more along the lines of harmony singing and hymns. However when we got together, we kind of filled in what the the other party was missing. So we had harmony singing plus the right instrumentation.”

Atli says it was the band’s “fast-paced Scruggs-style banjo” and “mandolin chop-driven bluegrass tunes” that won their audiences over.

“Our path into bluegrass is a little different,” he explains. “Guðmundur came into it a little backwards, so to speak, through studying the mandolin and listening to guys like David Grisman, Chris Thile, and Sam Bush, mandolinists who were not necessarily playing traditional bluegrass. But then he moved backwards through guys like Ronnie McCoury, Tim O’Brien, and further back to Bill Monroe. He was also discovering fantastic bands and players along the way like the Kentucky Colonels, the Country Gentlemen, The Seldom Scene, Old and in the Way, Hot Rize, the Stanley Brothers, Tony Rice, Doc Watson, Flatt & Scruggs, and the like. Arnbjörn and Eiríkur came to it by listening to blues and country, and then discovering Clarence White, Bill Monroe, and Tony Rice through a friend. Arnbjörn had been studying jazz guitar and listening to blues and country. But after hearing Bill Monroe, he bought a D28 Martin and never looked back to the electric stuff.”

In a sense, the band evolved through expediency. Arnbjörn and Eiríkur were playing guitar and bass, respectively, which motivated Vignir to pick up the banjo. But like Guðmundur with the mandolin, there was no one to learn the banjo from, so he bought books and started learning the technique and listening to banjo players. His early influenceswere Earl Scruggs, Bill Keith, Tony Trischka, and Béla Fleck. 

“Something that really influenced us as a group was watching a concert video with the supergroup Muleskinner, which included Peter Rowan, David Grisman, Bill Keith, Richard Green, and Clarence White,” Atli mentions. “For the first couple of years we watched that on a regular basis, studying the sound, the playing and licks from it. What else is there to do when you are stuck up on an Island with no bluegrass scene? Also, we listened a lot to the David Grisman quintet, the Kentucky Colonels and The Seldom Scene as well as the Bluegrass Boys.”

“We picked up bits and pieces here and there to incorporate into our playing.”

“There is a lot of curiosity for bluegrass in Iceland,”Guðmundur explains. There are not that many hardcore fans, but there are a handful of people who know the music and have listened to the same artists as we have.”

“Older generations in Iceland know the music through the movie Deliverance, and younger generations through O Brother Where Art Thou,” Arnbjörn adds. 

“People who didn’t know us and saw us play usually liked what they saw, even though not really knowing bluegrass beforehand,” Vignir notes.

Although the band hasn’t toured outside of Iceland, Guðmundur insists that the reaction to their music has been very positive. “Usually we get great response,” he says. “Bluegrass is so uncommon in Iceland, but yet it’s something people feel familiar with in a way, I guess. So even though the audience wasn’t familiar with the tunes, often times they would be pleasantly surprised by hearing bluegrass tunes being performed right in front of them. Since Illgresi was the only Icelandic band that includes a banjo and a mandolin, it worked in our benefit.”  

“Sometimes we would get requests like ‘Do you know the song from that one movie?,’ referring to either Deliverance or O Brother Where Art Thou,” Vignir notes.

Given their singular status, Guðmundur says that they have been contacted by various musicians making their way through Iceland who have invited them to jam. He name checks such individuals as bassist Ethan Jodziewich (Sierra Hull), fiddler Brittany Haas (Crooked Still), mandolin player Jacob Tilove (The Lonesome trio), banjo player Hank Smith (Hank, Pattie & the Current), and Jack Tuttle, who happens to be Molly Tuttle’s dad, as among those they’ve had theopporutnity to connect with in Reykjavík. 

“It’s been very cool and useful for us to get a glimpse into the world we’d been studying, and yet is so far away from us,” Vignir suggests  “Iceland, being a popular place to travel — well, pre COVID at least — and also being a hub between the US and Europe, regularly sends musicians our way that we can jam with.” 

A couple of us — me, Vignir, and Ólafur the fiddle player — went to Wintergrass festival a couple of years back and got the chance to meet and talk with a few heroes like David Grisman, Mark O’Connor, Mike Marshall, and Darol Anger,” Guðmundur says. “We were there with our friend Amy Håkanson, who plays the Swedish instrument the Nyckelharpa, and through her we met members of the band Väsen. That is also really inspiring, meeting and chatting with these folks.”

We also experienced the fact that being from Iceland made us interesting to the people there,” Vignir adds. “Everyone at Wintergrass that year seemed to know about the Icelandic guys, probably because you don’t really think of bluegrass when thinking about Iceland.” 

“Yes, everyone was curious about the Icelanders,” Guðmundur chuckles.

“You have to understand that we are digging into a musical scene that is so far away from us, studying the music from afar,” Atli muses. “We have joked about how people in the US don’t know how privileged they are having the bluegrass scene all around.” (He mentions that he’s also working on a side project called Brek. “It’s not really bluegrass, but does take various influences that are integrated into our original music, even bluegrass.”)

Yet even from afar, Illgresi have learned to appreciate all bluegrass has to offer, and they aren’t shy about sharing it.

Bluegrass music is just such an honest and pure form of music,” Guðmundur insists. “It may be hard to get to like it in the beginning as a listener if you come from, say, more mainstream music tastes. But when you get it, something just lights up within. When you’re a musician and get into playing bluegrass, that just becomes a language in itself —  especially playing with others, with the interaction and the dialogue. As a whole, the bluegrass genre and community is so inclusive.  We think that might really help with its popularity worldwide.”  

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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.