Johnny & The Yooahoos – photo by Ron Ronson
Bavaria may be known to much of the world for its majestic mountains, its celebration of Oktoberfest, its rich cuisine, and a host of oompah bands. So credit Johnny & the Yooahoos with adding their own bluegrass imprint as well.
A talented and tenacious four piece acoustic ensemble, the band — currently consisting of Johnny Schuhbeck (mandolin, lead and baritone vocals), Bastian Schuhbeck (banjo, dobro, lead and baritone vocals), Bernie Huber (guitar, harp, lead and tenor vocals), and Jonas Kollenda (bass, bass vocals) — Johnny & the Yooahoos formed relatively recently, in 2017 to be exact. And while their center of operation may seem somewhat off the grid, the group has pursued bluegrass in its essential form by employing its traditional instrumentation, effusive harmonies, and lightning fast picking. They even dress like the typical traditional troubadours, and in so doing, provide an appropriate presentation when it comes to their concerts as well.
While their reverence for bluegrass roots is apparent, it’s also obvious that they’re intent on having fun and also encouraging their audiences to share that celebratory spirit. At the same time, they’re unafraid to bend a few boundaries every so often to ensure that the music remains both varied and vibrant.
“Three of us had been playing together in a progressive rock band called Karakorum and other blues rock formations,” Schuhbeck explains. “It was me, Basti, on drums, Bernie on electric guitar and Joni on electric bass. Back then, we already knew that everyone of us had a love for bluegrass, folk, and country music. After my brother Johnny got more into singing and mandolin playing, we found that we had a complete bluegrass quartet, so we thought we’d try to play out in that format and style.”
It seemed a natural choice given the band’s essential influences. “All of us have ‘60s / ‘70s musical backgrounds, mainly through our dads,” Schuhbeck says. “For Johnny and me, it was Creedence Clearwater Revival and John Fogerty’s first two solo albums that got us more into country and bluegrass. Joni is a big Bob Dylan fan, but he also became more interested in this style through the Oh Brother, Where Are Thou movie. Bernie’s early influences were more in the blues/rock field. When it comes to bluegrass, for us it all started with the Stanley Brothers. What we do today is still somehow based around their music.”
Surprisingly, Schuhbeck insists that there is an audience for bluegrass in his country, although he says that it draws mainly from an older concert-going crowd. “It’s a genre for the connoisseurs,” he says. “Not for the pop charts crowd.”
That said, Schuhbeck sees several indications that newer audiences are gradually coming into the fold as well. “It’s exciting that artists like Billy Strings bring this music to a younger generation in the US,” he notes. “With our concerts, we also try to bring this music to younger people.”
Ironically, the connection is clearer than one might think. In fact, there are various cultural ties that can connect bluegrass music to the vintage sound of their native environs.
“Songs based on 1,4,5 chords and close harmony singing are very popular in traditional Bavarian music,” Schuhbeck explains. “Also, there are similar song topics, like love, home, traveling and nature.” He goes on to point out that, like bluegrass, Bavarian music tends to be acoustic, and played on string instruments without the use of drums.
“I think that people enjoy the harmony singing and the fact that this kind of music is purely acoustic,” he muses. “Of course, there are always folks that are new to the genre, and who enjoy the more uptempo songs. We also love playing non-bluegrass songs in a bluegrass style. People always like that because they know the song, but have never heard it done that way before.”
Happily then, Johnny & the Yooahoos have found an audience of their own. “Last year we performed mostly in southern Germany,” Shuhbeck explains. “This year’s summer performances would have been our first to feature more international shows. We would have played in Ireland, France, Switzerland, Austria, and the Netherlands. Most of these festivals have of course been cancelled due to the corona crisis.”
Prior to the pandemic, the band did have opportunity to share stages with several notable artists. “We had the honor to pick and sing for an encore with Jeff Scroggins & Colorado, the Price Sisters, the Brother Brothers, Bill and the Belles, Golden Shoals and Chicken Wire Empire during the Bluegrass Jamboree tour here in Germany,” Shuhbeck notes. “All great people and incredible musicians!”
It’s little wonder that Schuhbeck is so intent to share a response when asked why bluegrass retains its persistent popularity worldwide. “Beneath all the fascinating musical features of bluegrass — the harmony singing, instrumentation, virtuoso solos, etc. — the beauty of this music lies in its authenticity and its tradition. That is why I think it is real and why there will be always people that listen to it.”
Little wonder then that like elsewhere, bluegrass in Bavaria is alive and kicking.