If there’s one individual in particular who has been the most ardent promoter of bluegrass in his native New Zealand —and one who has done so with a determination and dexterity that reflects his true devotion to the cause — it would have to be Paul Trenwith. Trenwith, radio host of a program called Back Porch Bluegrass and the founder of the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band — an influential outfit that began making music in the mid-’70s and then continued through the mid-’90s — has devoted much of his life to sharing that style of music with both fans and anyone new to the genre as well.
His quest began more than 50 years ago when Trenwith and his fiddle-playing wife Colleen first began playing Gospel music with their friends, and, at the same time, applying bluegrass-style arrangements while including his original material in the mix. A multi-talented musician, he demonstrated the ability to switch at will between banjo, dobro, pedal steel, rhythm guitar, and double bass, all with same effort and enthusiasm.
Trenwith says his early interest in bluegrass began after he was given a ukulele banjo while he was in his early teens. “I thought I was a banjo player,” he notes. “Together with my guitar-playing friend Alan Rhodes, we played music from the current folk groups such as The Kingston Trio, The Limeliters, The Brothers Four, and The New Christy Minstrels. When I left high school at age eighteen, I purchased a 5-string banjo – the first I’d ever seen – and tried to work out how to get the picking sound I’d heard on those folk records. Then I heard the theme music from The Beverly Hillbillies, discovered it was part of a specific genre of music, and then was hooked. We got Flatt and Scruggs Live At Carnegie from a record club, and that started us on our search for bluegrass records.”
Absorbing an array of influences — he cites Flatt & Scruggs, the Dillards, Earl Taylor, The Stanley Brothers, Emerson & Waldron, the Country Gentlemen, and the Osborne Brothers chief among them — he was motivated to dig deeper into the music.
“From my early days of working out banjo rolls with my friend Alan Rhodes, we got other friends interested in bluegrass music too, and formed embryo bands which, in 1966, led to the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band,” Trenwith recalls.
The HCBB had significant success in New Zealand and quickly became the resident band on a nationally-broadcast TV show called Country Touch. And by the end of the ‘60s, they were doing regular tours of New Zealand and Australia. “We presented exuberant, polished, skillful music to audiences who were mostly unaware that we were playing bluegrass,” he says in retrospect. “Nevertheless, they enjoyed our entertaining approach.”
“In our very early days, our audiences were unfamiliar with bluegrass per se,” Trenwith goes on to explain. “We were considered a ‘folk music’ group, where the use of banjo was a familiar factor. However, putting it all together as a bluegrass band was different. Right from our very early days, we tried to present the music we played as entertainment. We were fun to watch and listen to, and we presented a variety of sounds in our shows.”
As a result, they struck on a successful formula.
“Our first venture as a full time group in 1969 was a concert tour of small towns in the north of New Zealand,” he continues. “We booked the halls, advertised as much as we could, and played a full concert from 8:00 p.m. to 10.30 p.m. The HCBB played, then individuals in the band were featured playing solo or in duets. We did humorous songs and lots of flat-out picking. Most people went home entertained, whether or not they knew they had been listening to a bluegrass show or not.”
In 1971, the group fulfilled their dream when they visited the US for the first time. Mike Seeger, who originally met the group when he visited New Zealand in 1968 and performed there at a local festival, helped make the trip possible. “Mike arranged for us to play at Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom festival,” Trentwith remembers. “We also played on the Grand Ole Opry in Bill Monroe’s segment, played at Carlton Haney’s Berryville festival, and then at the Mariposa Folk Festival in Canada while also taking miscellaneous opportunities in-between.”
Trenwith says Seeger was the first real bluegrass musician they ever met, and he credits him for giving generously of his time in helping us develop our bluegrass skills,” Trentwith says. “We backed him at the festival, and really enjoyed his input into our music. We told him of our intentions to visit the USA, and he facilitated much of the trip for us. We were very excited about playing on the Opry. I even got to meet Earl Scruggs back stage. Mike introduced us, and I think I just stared open-mouth, my brain turned to custard!!!”
Seeger also took Colleen and Alan to meet Roy Acuff in his dressing room. “I wished I’d been in on that,” he opines. “At the Opry, which was only two days after we’d landed in New York, Bill introduced us, and we played a Slim Dusty-penned song called Big Begging Fool and received a rapturous reception from the audience at the Ryman. Bill asked us to do another, and we did How Lonely Can You Get, a real tear-jerker, country style song we’d borrowed from the singing of Mac Wiseman and Bobby Osborne. We had wonderful audience response for that too. I don’t know how much of it was worked up by the emcees, but we sure felt good about it. I think they were genuinely surprised that we played quite well, and were so convincing. After the Opry, we played at Ernest Tubb’s Record Shop for the midnight concert, and went down really well there too.”
After returning to New Zealand in 1974 with the intention of settling down, he and Colleen received an offer from Australia’s so-called ‘King of Country Music’ – an artist named Slim Dusty – to join his touring show. A short time later, they were recruited as his regular backing band. “Slim dominated the Australian country music scene in those days,” he explains. “We received great exposure to a wide audience, and then were able to feature our own bluegrass music on his shows and in his songs, which were well suited to our style.”
That arrangement lasted until 1976 when the couple again decided to tend to their domestic duties and devote more of their time to raising a family, and to play in a Gospel group they had formed simply called Paul & Colleen Trenwith & Friends. Focusing their efforts on local churches and on various religious gatherings, they also found time to record four albums, all consisting mostly of Trenwith’s original material.
In the 1990’s, Trenwith diversified his activities by leading what he had dubbed the Bluegrass Heartland tour to various places in the US. He showed guests around Tennessee, Virginia, and parts of Appalachia where they were able explore bluegrass as it was being performed in a variety of scenarios, be it festivals or backyards.
He also re-formed the HCBB to play occasional gigs, as well as several national tours as part of some larger musical touring shows. The HCBB also visited the USA in 2008, as international guests at the ROMP Festival in Owenboro, KY. Along the way, they played at the Grass Valley Father’s Day Festival in California, and a few venues in and around San Francisco.
Their efforts have continued up until the present. “In 2019, we had the first Kiwigrass – a new New Zealand bluegrass festival featuring some bands from the USA and Australia, as well as local New Zealand bands,” he adds. “This was followed up by another festival earlier this year at a superb lakeside location near Cambridge, New Zealand.”
These days, Trenwith often plays gigs with his immediate family. “Sam is a great song-writer and rhythm guitarist, and Tim is a bass player and tenor singer,” he says proudly. “We play Sam’s original songs, plus a few covers to youthful audiences, who rock along with the music. Occasionally the group is augmented by my oldest son Jeremy, Sam’s two sons, Jeremy’s oldest son, and my youngest son Mike. I understand how Earl Scruggs wanted to play music with his sons. We reach an audience that the HCBB would never reach, and the kids love it! I just pick and grin, and love it too. Even when it’s very loud!”
Ultimately, Trenwith offers some simple advice to would-be bluegrass musicians.
“Lesson One – learn to pick! Lesson Two – learn to smile while you’re doing it. Do so, and you’ll have an audience!”