Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Larry & Joe offer cross-cultural, Pan American connection

Larry & Joe tout their sound as a mash-up of “Venezuelan + Appalachian folk music, a unique blend of languages, cultures, and musical sounds.”

They come by that description naturally. Larry Bellorín, a multi-instrumentalist and expatriate from Venezuela, was once a leading light in the realms of Llanera music. He grew up in Punta de Mata in the state of Monagas, Venezuela, where he was raised single-handedly by his mother, a poor farmworker. At age six he was helping to supplement the family income shining shoes, and while doing so, he built a faithful following among his clientele by singing as he polished, even to the point of taking requests! He eventually caught the attention of a local music educator who invited him to study at the city’s premiere music school. By age eleven, he was solely supporting himself as a musician, 

He became proficient on guitar, electric bass, mandolin, and maracas, and by the time he turned 13, he was already well-versed in the folk music of his region, and playing in a band called Casa de Cultura. Noted llanera harpist Urbino Ruiz took him under his wing as an apprentice, and after only a month, Larry had already amassed a repertoire of 40 songs. 

In 1999, Urbano invited Larry to perform with him alongside Renaldo Armas at the Punta de Mata’s Parque Ferial. Armas, a Grammy Award-winner and the country’s most well known champion of Llanera music, then introduced him to a crowd of more than 8,000 people as “El Maestro Larry Bellorín.” From that point on, Larry’s reputation was sealed. He went on to accompany countless Venezuelan musical luminaries and toured his country extensively. He and his wife went on to open Casa Vieja, a school dedicated to teaching Música Llanera. In three years, he taught nearly five hundred students and launched Monagas’ first Musicá Llanera festival. 

Nevertheless, the collapse of the country made it impossible to sustain his endeavors. Crime and poverty ran rampant.  He left for the United States in search of work and asylum, arriving with only $30 in his pocket. He worked construction, slept on the floor of an unfurnished room, and endured wage theft and several worksite injuries. He eventually found work as a musician in North Carolina, playing bass in Salsa bands and booking his own Venezuelan folk group across the state. Yet due to the restrictions of the pandemic, he was forced to return to construction work.

Enter Joe Troop, a multi-instrumentalist, singer, and songwriter hailing from Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The founder of Grammy-nominated string band Che Apalache, his music was inspired by a decade living in Buenos Aires and his travels throughout Latin America. After the pandemic brought him back to North Carolina, he recorded and co-produced his homecoming album Borrowed Time, featuring Béla Fleck, Abigail Washburn, Tim O’Brien, and Charlie Hunter. 

He met Larry shortly thereafter, and the two found they shared the same interests, albeit from different perspectives. Not surprisingly then, the duo’s debut album, Nuevo South Train, demonstrates the pair’s absolute aplomb at being able to meld the music of North and South America while remaining true to both environs. That said, it tends to veer towards a sound from south of the border, with songs sung primarily in Spanish. Nevertheless, the mash-up is exemplified by the fact that the set features both the Llanera classic, Caballo Viejo and the bluegrass standard, Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms, as well as an original song Border Wall, which is sung in both English and Spanish, and carries with it a timely treatise on the immigration miasma at our southern border.

Joe sums the sound up succinctly. “It’s a mix of originals and traditional numbers from across the Americas,” he notes. It’s the latter that serves as their primary influence.

With Larry playing cuatro, harp, upright bass, and maracas, and Joe performing on guitar, mandolin and fiddle, the duo offer an impressive musical arsenal, supplemented at times by producer Charlie Hunter on guitar, Nelson Echandia on bass, DaShawn Hickman on vocals and sacred steel, and Brevan Hampden on percussion. Nevertheless, it’s the duo’s consistent strum and rousing vocals which drive these songs with such verve and virtuosity.

“Our influences consist of traditional music from South America,” Joe notes. “People dig it, especially back home in North Carolina. We love our local music scene.”

That said, their music is gaining acclaim in realms well beyond their local area. Joe said they’ve played literally hundred of gigs across the lower 48 states, and have made appearances at any number of major festivals, including Big Ears, California Worldfest, the Green River Festival, Rockygrass, Pickathon, and what Joe calls “a whole slew more.”

Joe, in turn, offers a simple perspective on why bluegrass has such an absolute ability to cross borders and transcend cultures. “It’s because that twang is infectious,” he insists. “It’s irresistible… but only for the coolest folks.”

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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.