Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Ireland’s Cup O’Joe

There’s s something to be said for the common bond that results from family ties. Cup O’Joe, a progressive bluegrass band based in Northern Ireland, proves that point. Formed by three siblings — Tabitha, Benjamin, and Reuben Agnew, and later to include Tabitha’’ husband David Benedict — they boast the natural synergy that comes courtesy of any close kinship. Sharing a mix of original compositions and re-imagined traditional tunes, their lively performances and astute instrumental arrangements have garnered them an enthusiastic following throughout Ireland, The UK, Europe, and even in the USA.

Naturally, their harmonies stand out, but so too, each member brings a special skill to the fore. Tabitha Benjamin plays banjo, and proudly claims a 2020 Momentum Instrumentalist of the Year Award from the IBMA. Reuben Agnew offers a special skill on guitar that helps provide the pacing. He and his sister are responsible for much of the band’s original material. Benjamin Agnew plays bass and contributes lead vocals, while David Benedict, an American who hails from South Carolina, plays mandolin, a talent which won him the IBMA Momentum Award in 2018.

Two winners in one family is pretty impressive.

Naturally then, Cup O’Joe can be considered a formidable ensemble. In 2015, they were runners up in the BBC Radio 2 Young Folk Awards, as well as the first youth band to showcase at IBMA. In addition to their success on the touring circuit, they’ve appeared in several BBC television documentaries and a TV series titled Sam Henry: Songs of the People. In addition to sharing stages with such fabled folk icons as Aly Bain, Phil Cunningham, and Eddi Reader, as well as the Italian bluegrass band Red Wine and fellow countrymen Niall Murphy and Damien O’Kane, they’ve also appeared at any number of notable festivals, including Celtic Connections, the IBMA, the Pickin’ in Parsons Bluegrass Festival, and the Omagh Bluegrass Festival.

Tabitha says the band’s sound was inspired by the music of their Northern Ireland homeland, as well as varied outside interests. “Growing up, all of us listened to a wide range of artists and bands,” she says. “Some of those influences we shared in common were Nickel Creek, Alison Krauss & Union Station, The Kruger Brothers, Béla Fleck, and Flatt and Scruggs. The list goes on and on.”

Happily then, their efforts have been well received. “We really have felt the support from fans and friends back home in Northern Ireland,” Tabitha says. “Every few years, we try to plan a few home shows, and it’s always incredible to get to play on home turf. We have really enjoyed bringing our Northern Irish-inspired bluegrass and folk twist to many audiences all over the world, but we especially enjoy playing these songs for our hometown audiences, because many of the places that inspired us are right here on the doorsteps of the venues where we play.”

The band released a new album titled Why Live Without this past August. It includes ten original songs and a traditional folk cover of The Old Churchyard. “It has been such a joy to get to have already toured the album twice in the USA this past summer and autumn,” Tabitha remarked.

“We tend to prioritize original music,” she continued. “This is really due to having the ability to have a voice within our own music. This is such an incredible blessing, and has really encouraged us to keep writing and recording new music.”

She also has a very clear idea as to why she thinks bluegrass boasts such universal appeal. “The biggest reason, especially for those who enjoy playing it and watching it, is the community aspect of the music,” she suggests. “It really is such a unique thing, to be able to approach it on any level and feel its accessibility and welcome. We have made so many friends from all over the world because of this music, and this is, for us, one of the most incredible things about it.” 

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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.