Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Ireland’s Back Axles spin along quite nicely

Stephen Rosney says that it ought not be considered a radical tack to find him and his band, The Back Axles, primarily play bluegrass. Although they hail from the Irish Midlands, Rosney insists that there is a distinct connection between traditional American music and that of his native Ireland.

“Both are very similar,” he says. “Years ago in Ireland, people wrote songs about their daily life and experiences. Bluegrass music is also based on story telling. The flow of the tunes and instruments used are very much the same.”

Not surprisingly then, the sounds Rosney encountered while growing up helped shape his musical direction, as well as his desire to pursue a career that’s all about making music.

“From a very young age, I played several instruments, starting with the guitar, moving on to the keyboards, electric guitar, and, in more recent years, the fiddle. My grandfather played the tin whistle and the fife, so I was always surrounded by music. My love for bluegrass music came from listening to a great Irish country and bluegrass band called The Cotton Mill Boys, and from that moment on, I was hooked on bluegrass music.”

Rosney formed his first band at the age 15. He initially began by playing songs that leaned towards a traditional template, but later he connected with other songwriters — including several based in Nashville — and began developing a more contemporary style. He cofounded The Back Axles with friend and fellow musician Shane Dunne, who sings and plays bass, and the pair later added fiddler Pete Mulkearns, Alistair McKenzie on banjo, and drummer Shaw Spain.

Rosney offers an explanation of the origins of the band’s name on their website. “While playing music around the open hearth fire at a traditional session of singing and storytelling in my home house long ago, the local priest suggested a band name, and so I thought it appropriate to call ourselves this name ‘The Back Axles,’ as the music of old Ireland plays a big part in our music and song writing today.”

That said, the band found an avid following, not only at home but also abroad. They’ve toured the States, performed several dates in Nashville, did a week-long residency in London. Naturally, they’ve also become regulars at any number of Irish music festivals. They’re currently on tour in England and Ireland with banjo player Mike Scott, a veteran of the bands Jim & Jessie and the Virginia Boys, and renowned fiddler Travis Wetzel.

“We have been very fortunate,” Rosney remarks, noting that the group has been nominated as the Best Original Band for 2019 at the Irish Entertainment Awards taking place this November. Likewise, the band are in constant demand and have become ones to watch on the Irish new music scene.

The band’s latest single is a cover of a John Prine song titled Please Don’t Bury Me and Rosney claims that it’s garnered a significant amount of airplay both at home and as far afield as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the UK. A new album, auspiciously titled Murphy’s Ass, is also in the works as well.

Although things have been going well, Rosney reminds people that carving out a career is not without its ups and downs. “As I often describe it to people, it has been like walking through the mud,” he says. “Sometimes you hit a soft patch and other times the mud hardens and off you go again. However 2019 has been a great year for us, we have finally made it to solid ground.”

Indeed, the attraction to bluegrass is something Rosney references in the music he and his collaborators make. He’s quick to note the way it also has appeals to others.

“It relates to ordinary people’s lives, and it’s very uplifting music,” he notes. “It has a very spiritual tone.”

That’s an eloquent way to refer to it, but given the success The Back Axles have acquired so far, there’s traction to be found indeed.

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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.