Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Old Baby Mackerel from England

England’s Old Baby Mackerel kicked off their career in 2016 and hasn’t looked back since. They quickly found a loyal following on the UK festival circuit, and then went on to tour the UK, Thailand, Germany, Portugal, Italy, and Austria. 

The band was founded by banjo player Sam Garrard, whose father, blues musician Steve Payne, built a successful career touring the USA, Canada, and Europe while sharing stages with such icons as B.B. King, Dr John, Paul Brady, Bert Jansch, and others of that ilk. Growing up, Sam became immersed in the sounds of traditional blues and folk, which in turn, more or less became a soundtrack of sorts for his youth. When he eventually discovered the banjo, it led him to his love of traditional and contemporary bluegrass, a passion he still pursues today.

Old Baby Mackerel gelled rather quickly. Mandolin player Michael Ponsford attended one of Garrard’s first Bristol Bluegrass sessions in Spring 2018, and quickly decided to join the band. Guitarist Kai Carter came aboard in 2018 after finding his own fondness for traditional guitar music, and then moving to Bristol after transitioning out of the London Jazz scene. Fiddle player Danny Hart signed up in 2019, and currently works double duty playing in Cornish Pop-Americana band Flats & Sharps. Double bass player Sadie Morningstar originally hails from Kansas, and also plays part-time in a punk rock band called The Mudd Club.

On their website, the band describe itself thusly:

“Old Baby Mackerel play high-energy, foot-stomping bluegrass featuring a dizzying line-up of renowned musicians from some of the UK’s best folk, Americana, and festival bands. Their music uses the rhythmic sounds of fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar, and double bass to get knees bouncing and elbows swinging to the virtuosic sound of blistering solos and sweet harmonies. Be prepared to be transported back in time to the early 20th century and across the Atlantic to North America where songs dramatized the small town fascination with locomotion, the trials of murderous drunks, and the veneration of whisky and bootleg liquor.”

Garrard himself sums things up succinctly. “It’s traditional bluegrass, but with the punchy immediacy and exciting, high-energy feel that is sometimes lacking from bluegrass bands, especially in the UK and Europe.”

Not surprisingly then, their influences reflect that distinctive dynamic. Garrard lists Flatt & Scruggs, J.D. Crowe & The New South, Jim Mills, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Tony Rice and the Bluegrass Album Band, Lonesome River Band, Jimmy Martin, Hot Rize, and Tim O’Brien as chief among them.

To date, Old Baby Mackerel have headlined any number of high profile festivals, including Northern-Irish, Cornish, and Swiss Bluegrass festivals, in addition to appearances at Shambala Festival, Field of Avalon, and Glastonbury. They’ve also appeared on the main stages of Acoustic Summer in Germany, Omagh Bluegrass Festival in Northern Ireland, the Spring Bluegrass Festival in Willisau, Switzerland, and the Jai Thep festival in Thailand. 

In the process, they’ve had opportunity to perform alongside a number of international headliners, among them, Jeff Scroggins and Colorado, Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley, Henhouse Prowlers, and Lonesome Ace Stringband.

Their album, Live at the Old Mill, can be found on Spotify, and provides an accurate representation of their sound. Garrard also said that a new studio album is also in the works.

“We focus on 1940s traditional bluegrass, but also play more modern tunes as well,” Grand says. “Plus, we occasionally write originals such as A-Road Breakdown, which is one of the selections that can be found on Live At The Old Mill.”

Meanwhile, Garrard says their popularity continues to spread across the country.

“We played a village hall tour in 2022 in South West UK, which is where we are from, and nearly every gig was sold out,” Garrard notes. “We are well known on the Bristol music scene, which is one of the biggest and most diverse music scenes in the UK, and we’re also well established on the UK festival scene.”

It’s little wonder then that Garrard can offer a specific opinion as to why bluegrass continues to find such international appeal.

“It has so much soul and rhythm, somehow incorporating folk, blues, jazz, and gospel elements at such adrenaline inducing speeds,” he suggests. “As a a result, it’s hard to not see the appeal! I also think films like O Brother, Where Art Thou, and artists such as Billy Strings, have played a big part in bringing the genre to modern ears.”

Now it seems, Old Baby Mackerel are also doing their due diligence as well.

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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.