Bluegrass Beyond Borders – Red Wine’s intoxicating combination

Red Wine is from Italy. Everyone knows that as far as the finest blends are concerned. However in this case, the Red Wine in question is a bluegrass band. The fact that they chose to refer to themselves as Red Wine is likely a matter of natural pride, although red and blue have always been complementary colors. In this instance, Red Wine also happens to be one of Europe’s most successful grassicana bands, a distinction they’ve held for the past four decades, dating back to when the group first began touring in earnest in 1978. Their combination of traditional and contemporary bluegrass, country, Gospel, and swing has made them a popular festival attraction throughout the continent and in the States, as well, no small distinction for a bluegrass band based overseas. 

“The first Bluegrass band I ever heard were Flatt & Scruggs,” says the band’s founder and frontman Silvio Ferretti. “I came across a recording of them doing Salty Dog Blues and Jimmy Brown The Newsboy at the Newport Folk Festival on a box set released on Vanguard Records called American Folk Singers and Balladeers. There were lots of other great musicians on those four LPs too, like Doc Watson, Clarence Tom Ashley, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Pete Seeger, Odetta, and various others. It provided me with a great introduction. Later on, I was able to find some LPs — quite rare in Italy at the time — with Bill Monroe and The Country Gentlemen, as well as the Will the Circle Be Unbroken album. Still, those banjo pick-up notes that Earl shot out at the Newport audience are still burned in my musical flesh!”

Ferretti recalls that Red Wine developed around a duo consisting of himself and Beppe Gambetta. “We’d been playing together for a couple or three years and decided to add other musicians to expand our style and repertoire. First, we found another guitar player, then a bassist, and then a fiddler. We played mostly old-timey and folky stuff — hardly any bluegrass — from 1978 until the point where Martino Coppo came onboard with his mandolin in 1981. Martino and I had played bluegrass and some nu-grass together in another band, and I knew that our voices would blend nicely. Since then, we’ve always been a four-piece, and we’ve worked our sound around that combination. I’m especially fond of the 1983-1990 years with bass great, the late Marco Curreri, along with Beppe, Martino, and me. However, I must say that today’s band — with Lucas Bellotti on bass and my son Marco on guitar along with me and Martino — is the best version of Red Wine ever.”

Luckily, the various combinations have paid off, and Ferretti reports that the reaction among European audiences has been quite favorable. “We were bluegrass pioneers back in our early years,” he says, noting that he’s also been accorded honors as an EBMA Bluegrass Pioneer. “We were actually introducing bluegrass to audiences that didn’t know what this music was. Some of them still don’t, but that’s because we haven’t reached them yet. The sound of bluegrass music is not a stranger to European audiences, since – as Jens Kruger points out in his liner notes to our new CD – it has enjoyed an international fan community since the beginning of the ‘50s, especially in Europe after World War II when American music culture was widely spread through radio, movies and TV.”

To a great extent, Red Wine has been instrumental in educating audiences to a sound that’s not exactly indigenous to their countries. 

“We managed to present bluegrass in such a way as to make it sound natural to an audience who may know what a mandolin is, but not in the shape of an F-5,” he says. “Today, after 40 years in the business, we have a solid fan base, which 10 years ago led us to decide to have an annual concert for our home town. We call it the Red Wine Bluegrass Party, and it features various guests each year, initially from the USA — Tim O’Brien, Laurie Lewis & Tom Rozum, and the Kruger Brothers, among them — and later artists from Italy and Europe. It offers our audience a broad scope of bluegrass music in its original form, as well as in an old world interpretation.

In the past 20 plus years, Red Wine has spilled over into the U.S. as well, touring regularly and appearing at any number of leading festivals — among them, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Wintergrass Acoustic Music Festival, Oklahoma International Bluegrass Festival, Walnut Valley Festival, the Strawberry Festival, the Poppy Mountain Bluegrass Festival, and the Mohican Bluegrass Festival. They’ve also appeared at The Station Inn in Nashville and at the 1995, 2001, and 2008 editions of the IBMA World of Bluegrass events. In addition, they’ve guested on several TV and radio shows, including Terry Herd’s Bluegrass Radio Network and Michael Johnathon’s Woodsongs’ Old Time Radio Hour.

“We love playing the USA, and the response that we get seems to reflect this,” Ferretti notes. “Throughout our 40 years of playing, we’ve always strived to avoid being copycats, and so we look for material that hasn’t been overdone. We put together a show that aims to entertain more than anything else, and we record songs that are good or great to begin with, and can benefit from being arranged and played and sung to our style without necessarily bending them to the bluegrass rules. The result is that American audiences seem to like us for the show and style that we have to offer, and this tells me that we must have made the right choices along the way.”

In addition to their live performances, Red Wine has recorded a number of albums, including a self titled debut (cassette, 1986), Full Taste (LP 1989), Italian Flavor (cassette, 1995); Times & Changes (CD, 1998); Italian Cats (CD, 2001), Winter’s Come and Gone (CD, 2008) and Red (CD, 2012). Their upcoming effort, Carolina Red – Vintage 1978 was recorded with their friend Jens Kruger in the producer’s chair.

A 2008 recipient of the prestigious “Liguria Region Music Award” from the Cristoforo Colombo Foundation, Ferretti credits the IBMA with being instrumental in helping bluegrass musicians like themselves find the proper connections, and resources to help them succeed. “We’re grateful to the international bluegrass community for its continuous support,” Ferretti adds. “We couldn’t have done as much without the great opportunities that were offered us by the many festivals and clubs throughout Europe and the USA.

Naturally, Ferretti has his own thoughts about why bluegrass is so popular with the international community. “Bluegrass has a very recognizable sound, which is no longer closely tied to a certain culture, and which is highly adaptable to a lot of different musical visions, much like jazz was for decades. Bluegrass started from very stiff roots and rules, but it changed and expanded through the years to include something that was not there in the ‘40s and ‘50s, beginning in the U.S.A., but quickly reaching out to the rest of the world 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.