Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Norway’s bluegrass connection

It’s always interesting and intriguing to find a connection between America’s rural roots and the culture of other countries. It’s particularly fascinating to find an intrinsic element in the music made elsewhere that has common cause with bluegrass, nu-grass, grassicana and other wellsprings of heartland tradition.

Consequently, we couldn’t resist the opportunity offered by Bjørn Skarsem, a Norwegian writer, record collector, author and former radio announcer in his native Norway, to share some insights into his country’s embrace of bluegrass and other forms of American music. 

“We have always been attracted to American popular culture and have absorbed most varieties in that respect, Bjørn tells us. “This can be explained with the extensive emigration during the 1800s up until World War II, and the fact that our two countries were allies, both militarily and politically. That underscored the absorption of popular culture in general.”

While there hasn’t been a wealth of Norwegian bands making their way to the States, Bjørn says that American artists regularly visit Norway, playing in Oslo in particular. Nevertheless, Norway’s affinity for American music stretches back several decades.

“Probably the earliest examples of Norwegian Americana come from Arne Bendiksen, with his versions of the theme from Timberjack, The Ballad of Davy Crockett, and Tømmer-John from 1955,” Bjørn explained. “He also recorded a handful of other original country and western songs. Bendiksen was a successful entertainer from Bergen, and the coastal city turned out to be the epicenter for this genre in the ’60s and early ’70s.”

Bjørn also said that due to its location, Norway’s western city of Bergen became the stronghold for this music as sailors brought American records home after their tours of duty. “During the 1960s, the city had its own club for bluegrass and related styles called Boot Hill Saloon,” he recalls. “Arne Bendiksen eventually moved to Oslo and became an important figure in national entertainment. Other Bergen artists followed him, the most prominent being Clive Scott, Teddy Nelson, and Lillian Askeland, Norway’s Dolly Parton). Nelson even performed at the Grand Ole Opry in 1981.”

According to Bjørn, the interest in roots music heated up in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s thanks to the emergence of early Americana outfits like The Band, Poco, The Byrds, and The Flying Burrito Brothers. He point to two bands in particular that formed in Bergen — Hole in the Wall, and later, Flying Norwegians. 

“Guitarist Rune Walle served in both bands,” Bjørn recalls. “Hole in the Wall made a very strong debut in 1972 with their self-titled first album. The instrumentation was unusual, with the addition of cello, violin, and accordion added to the traditional rock regimen. Unfortunately, the album suffered from poor promotion and it had few sales, causing the band to break up a year later. Walle then established Flying Norwegians, whose second album, 1976‘s Wounded Bird reflected a confident and harmonious country rock sound. The same year, The Ozark Mountain Daredevils discovered Rune’s talents and offered him a place in their ranks. He immediately accepted and toured and recorded with the Daredevils until the early ’80s when he returned to Norway.”  

Øystein Sunde
Øystein Sunde

Bjørn points to one artist in particular as spurring the interest in bluegrass. Oslo’s Øystein Sunde gathered some likeminded individuals and founded Christiania Fusel & Blaagress. “For a few years, pre and post 1970, they enthusiastically performed bluegrass with a huge portion of humor,” he recalls. “On his second solo album, Sunde also included a Norwegian version of Six Days on the Road by The Flying Burrito Brothers.”

Bjørn tells us that the 1980s brought increasing awareness of American music, thanks to the rise of several small clubs in Oslo and the country’s bigger cities. “This meant more opportunities for both Norwegian acts and touring American bands,” he explains. “At the same time, a music newspaper named Puls started publishing in 1978. It and another magazine that came along later called BEAT, helped bring much further attention to new American music, introducing any number of essential roots outfits like The Tailgators, The Beat Farmers, Jason and the Scorchers, The Leroi Brothers, and The Long Ryders to their readers.

Indeed, local media had a major role in spreading the awareness. Bjørn cites Tom Skjeklesæther as perhaps the most important non-musician when it comes to promoting American music in Norway. Bjørn says he started as a journalist for Puls and editor for BEAT, while also turning his attention to being a promoter and producer. 

“In 1989, he established the Down On The Farm festival in Halden. The festival is a showcase for both foreign and Norwegian acts. The aftermath of the 20th anniversary of Woodstock saw festivals of all sorts across Norway,” Bjørn remarks. “From the late ’80s to present day, the combination of local festivals and the club scene has gained increasing importance for American artists. A good example is the annual Mosvik summer festival. Mosvik is a town in the middle of nowhere next to a long narrow fjord.” 

He also mentions that the state TV channel began broadcasting a series simply called Roots for three consecutive years 1992, 1993 and 1994. Featured guests included Garth Hudson from The Band, and the aforementioned Rune Walle. 

We asked Bjørn to offer some examples of Norwegian artists who retain a close connection to grassicana in particular. He began by mentioning a band called Hellbillies, who combine Norwegian folklore, everyday life and rural culture and traditions into their varied repertoire. . he notes that Hellbillies have recorded in Austin with producer Stephen Bruton. He also offers the example of singerguitarist Stein Torleif Bjella, whose songs “describe how life can be for middle-aged men living in rural areas… He lives with his family on a small farm, combining his life as an artist with chopping wood and taking care of his animals.”

Bjørn says the country’s most significant female act at is Ida Jenshus, a singer who won a prime time talent competition on the state TV channel in 2007, which launched her career. he says her influences were rooted in Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, and Nanci Griffith, and he mentions the fact that she’s released several albums and toured increasingly in both Norway and the U.S., even opening for The Eagles at a festival in Oslo, and touring America with singer/songwriter J.D. Souther. 

He also includes the northern Norwegian folk rock band Hekla Stålstrenga as among the country’s prime grassicana icons. They feature acoustic instruments such as violin and harmonica, and their signature song, Har du fyr, has become a popular standard. 

Another band worth noting is a group called Sugarfoot. “They’re keeping traditional country rock alive,” Bjørn  stresses. “Since 2012, they have released five albums. Their 2016 release Different Stars was recorded at Rancho De La Luna at Joshua Tree, California.”

Traditional bluegrass is also popular, Bjørn insists. “There are a number of bluegrass bands,” he maintains. “Ila Auto sings in English and plays the banjo and mandolin. Onkel Tuka, on the other hand, sings in Norwegian, and they describe themselves as a Christian band, calling their music “White Metal.” Their instrumentation includes harmonica, dobro, tambourine, banjo, and violin, in addition to guitar, bass and drums. 

Bjørn stresses a lingering similarity between American and Norwegian folk music, and although many of the country’s artists have recorded and toured in the U.S., none of them has gained much fame outside of Norway. “Most of them sing in English, but some also sing in Norwegian. For those singing in Norwegian, they choose to use their own dialect instead of standard Norwegian. Variations in dialects are significant in Norway, and pride in your own dialect is strong. Since the 1970s it has become common for artists and bands to sing in their own dialect.”

Thanks to Bjørn and his cousin Arlene Anderson in helping to bring this column to fruition.

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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.