Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Lawrence County accommodates The Frailty of Humans

Given the fact that they hail from the United Kingdom, Lawrence County might be forgiven for skewing somewhat left of center. After all, the Brits have a long-established reputation for innovation and invention, and the English outfit known as Lawrence County is no exception. While their music often takes an insurgent stance and a few unlikely twists and turns along the way, they’re also tip their hat towards tradition.

“We’ve always had an interest in the migration of songs and tunes from England to the rest of the world,” Al Rate, the band’s vocalist, guitarist, and banjo player explains. “A great example of that is Jean Ritchie’s Nottamun Town, a tune which was famously used by Bob Dylan on Masters of War. Because the band all hail from Nottinghamshire in England, we’ve always had the romantic notion that the tune made its way from our hometown to Kentucky, USA. Cecil Sharp the English folklorist, discovered it and published Ritchie’s version in his 1932 book Folksongs of the Southern Appalachians.” 

“The back story is fascinating,” singer, guitarist and banjo picker Bill Kerry III adds. “Jean Ritchie seemed to think the song was an original that had been passed along in her family. But, according to Lyle Lofgren, the old time musician and journalist, another very similar version of the song called Nottingham Fair was found in the Missouri archives. It turned out that residents of the Ozark Mountains of Missouri were descendants of the folks who had migrated from the Appalachian Mountains in the early 19th century. Lofgren believed that our hometown of Nottingham was the original inspiration for the song. That’s just a brilliant example of the folk process due to the fact that the lyrics became corrupted in the Appalachian Mountains.” 

“As such, we’ve always aspired to go back to the old songs for our inspiration,” Rate continues. “Our new CD, The Frailty of Humans, features a version of the traditional song, Lucy Wan, done in stripped down style with banjo and fiddle in the minor keys. The storytelling in the song and those like it have always been an influence on our songwriting. Lots of these songs have been adapted to the bluegrass style, such as Poor Ellen Smith and Rank Stranger. They all seem to take the listener to a land faraway.”

It was back in 2008 when Rate and Kerry sat in a pub called the Dixies Arms, deep in the Bagthorpe Delta, converging under the gaze of a portrait that was hanging there of the revered English writer and poet D.H .Lawrence. (“We swore they could see his eyes moving,” Kerry recalls.) With their creative sensibilities infused by the soundscapes and stories suggested by Townes Van Zandt, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, Billy Bragg, and traditional English folk music, they realized that they also shared a mutual appreciation for an album titled Tonight at the Arizona, by the Felice Brothers, a country rock band from Upstate New York. Thrilled by the Brothers’ dark tales of love, loss and hard times, and the passion, grit, and humor with which it was delivered, they found themselves inspired to form a band, record an album and play some of their own songs in the process.

Originally referring to themselves as DH Lawrence & The Vaudeville Skiffle Show, they released their debut album Escape This Wicked Life in 2013, which garnered favorable reviews from the press.

One scribe described it as “…. a raucous debut! … Fiddles, banjos, raggedy choruses & accordions. There’s a feeling of the Felice brothers here … lighter less barking but the vibe is the same.”  They knew they had arrived, but there was a long way to go.

When the D.H. Lawrence-influenced Sons & Lovers came out in in 2016, more plaudits followed, with yours truly hailing the album as a “Sepia tinted … unlikely blend of attitude and Americana.”

After assuming an abbreviated handle, simply Lawrence County, the band — now consisting of Rate, Kerry, percussionist Bob Carlisle, vocalist Marianne Clarke, double bass player Pete Heron, cellist and singer Kristen Horner, trumpet player George French, fiddler and accordion player Martin Gallimore, and vocalist and acoustic guitarist Charlotte Pynegar —  embarked on a series of support gigs and began rebooting their MO.

“With a new album in the making and a new sound emerging organically, it seemed it was time for a change, not in the band personnel, not massively in the vibe or sound, and certainly not in the live shows, but simply in a name,” Kerry explains. “Overnight, the somewhat lengthy DHL&TVSS became the more user-friendly ‘Lawrence County’ … and the musical journey continued unabated.”

Both men agree that in forging a sound all their own, they’ve finally found their niche.

“When we first heard the term ‘Grassicana’ we thought we may have (at last) found our home,” Rate remembers. “Because with banjos, fiddle, and double bass and a smidgin of percussion we oscillate between folk, bluegrass, and Americana song by song.”

“As a band, we’ve never quite felt that we fitted exactly or perfectly into any of those genres,” Kerry contends. “Perhaps we’re not folky enough for the folkies, not pure bluegrass, and not quite twangy enough for Americanaistas. Yes, we have seen that ‘Grassicana’ as a sub genre is gaining traction worldwide and even has its own chart. Why is it popular? Perhaps because it lacks rigidity, promotes fluidity, and above all, celebrates the performance of good foot-stomping music… What’s not to like about that?”

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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.