Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Kate Lissaur champions a transatlantic roots sound

Fiddler, clawhammer banjo picker, guitarist, and singer Kate Lissaur grew up in Cockeysville, Maryland, but now makes her home in Frome, Somerset in the southwest of England. 

“I got here by way of Scotland, where I lived for nine formative years starting in the late ’80s, having impulsively relocated to follow my heart,” she says. “My musical life has been greatly influenced by my time in Scotland, where I spent a lot of time among gypsy singers. I moved to England in 1997, and have also benefitted here from the diverse approach to folk music and the social aspects of music, kept alive through the ceilidh tradition.”

Since her relocation to the UK, Lissaur has occupied much of her time with a bluegrass band known as Buffalo Gals, a group that consists of Peter Dunn on guitar, Sooz Clare on resophonic ukulele, Johnny Whelan, who plays banjo, Jolene Missing on bass, Sara Marshall Rose on foot percussion, and Lissaur herself. “Our seventh member, mandolin player Joe Hymas, also tours with Hayseed Dixie,” she explained, “and so we don’t always have him in the lineup.”

Lissaur said that the Buffalo Gals band dates back to 2001, when she and Whelan and organized a concert in Frome, subsequently dubbed Old-Time Country and Blues, and shared as a showcase for American roots music. “It was a great success,” she says in retrospect. “It also made us all want to continue playing together. We keep the music close to the roots rhythms and sounds, while incorporating some self-penned genre-influenced numbers. It’s generally very lively, and I always look for the entertainment value of our show. That’s what old-time bands were all about. I would describe my music as pre-bluegrass, or the roots of bluegrass.”

She goes on to say that Buffalo Gals is an old-time string band. “As an individual, and as a band leader, I take inspiration from the music preserved during the early days of the recorded music industry, at which time old-time country musicians were the pop stars of their time,” she continues. “I have also gleaned a lot from a few older-generation musicians who were still playing at the time when I started learning. I am very moved by the older sounds and the sense of timelessness they carry. My mentors and heroes come from Appalachian communities in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia.”

Thus far, Lissaur and her bandmates have toured in England, Ireland, and the US, and they once made an appearance at the world-renowned Glastonbury Festival. “I work through the Arts Council of England to bring my music to arts centers and village halls throughout the country,” she explains. “I also frequent folk, roots, and bluegrass festivals in England and Ireland. Buffalo Gals has toured in the Midwest of the USA, and I have appeared several times as a tutor at Common Ground on the Hill in Maryland.”

The latter experience brought her a special honor. She was given the opportunity to share a stage with Doc Watson and Jean Ritchie. “They were both not far from the end of their lives, so that was a great privilege,” she maintains. “They were both hugely inspiring and influential interpreters of the old-time music of the Appalachians, and brought that music to life with enormous passion and beauty.”

In addition, Kate performed with fiddler Stuart Duncan at Sore Fingers Summer School during the time he served as an instructor in the UK. She’s also recorded and toured with Dave Bing and his brother Tim, West Virginia’s greatest living fiddler and banjo player, respectively. 

“I don’t get back to the States much, but when I do, I always look for ways to connect with people through our common language of roots music,” Lissaur insists. “It’s fundamentally social music, and the people playing it are wonderful.”

Lissaur has released three solo albums and three albums with Buffalo Gals. The three under her own auspices include Aint No Grave, Walk Chalk Chicken, and Stately Mansion. Those credited to Buffalo Gals are titled Wont You Come Out Tonight, Wont Get Trouble in Mind, and Wont You Be Cruel To Be Kind. The albums and their individual tracks are all available though Spotify, Apple, YouTube, and Bandcamp. She’s also preparing the release an EP of six original songs, which, she says, find her moving beyond the stylistic parameters of old-time music and bluegrass.

“We play mainly our own arrangements of old songs and tunes, or covers of my old string-band favorites and novelties,” she explains. “I always include original material in my sets in keeping with the spirit of old-time music, which is a living tradition and therefore open to a lot of creativity and self-expression.”

Asked about the continuing pertinence and importance of championing old time music, Lissaur freely offers her thoughts as to why it’s important to maintain that lingering legacy. “I think that when music carries within it the deep sentiment of a culture or a place, that connection with roots will be felt by any listener, no matter where they come from,” she suggests. “People are drawn to something elemental in music, and bluegrass carries some of that, especially in the sounds and rhythms of the banjo and fiddle.”

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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.