Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Rookie Riot teaches young Swedes to play bluegrass

Anders Ternesten, guitarist, banjo player, and co-founder of the Swedish band, Dunderhead, is a man with a mission. After mentoring a young and talented banjo student, he decided to form a band that would allow him to bring his pupil’s skills to full fruition. The student was given a prominent place at the helm of the band that Ternesten helped organize with his prodigy in mind, and
subsequently named Rookie Riot. The young banjo player eventually went on to university, but Rookie Riot continues, a further testament to the talent Ternsesten has continued to mentor. The band is now in its third generation and still adding new players all along the way. 

“We have kept true to the idea of taking in new/young people who want to learn the bluegrass musical style,” Ternesten explains. “Now my daughter Wilma, who is 15 years old, is one of the lead singers, and another of my banjo students fills the 5-string slot. The band has gone from being just a project to a full ensemble that has a goal of visiting the US to find further inspiration and learn more about bluegrass.”

Indeed, Rookie Riot is a promising young combo whose talents are already well established. While this is Wilma’s first band, her interest in bluegrass was nurtured by her parents who made it a point to take her along to every Swedish bluegrass festival they’ve attended since her birth. It was only natural; Anders, who plays rhythm guitar in the group, started playing banjo himself at age 12 and has held a constant love for bluegrass his entire life.

Fiddler and vocalist Agnes Brogeb became a well-known name in the Swedish bluegrass scene, and has been with Rookie Riot since the beginning. Along with Ternesten and mandolin player Karl Lagrell Annerhult — a former member of the Downtown Ramblers and a onetime associate of Anders in Dunderhead — Brogeb serves as one of the band’s primary mentors.

Jeremiah Danielsson plays upright bass, although he originally excelled on clawhammer banjo. The banjo duties are handled by Daniel Svensson, who rapidly became one of Anders’ top students.

“Me and Agnes had managed two versions of Rookie Riot prior to this set-up, but when Daniel became ready to join a band, Wilma was ready to sing lead and the other members wanted to join in,” Anders explains. “We could not resist setting up this outfit.”

Ternesten describes Rookie Riot’s sound as holding to a traditional template. “More than half of the band members are completely new to their instrument, and a couple of them never did any music at all before joining Rookie Riot,” he reflects. “It is more about the songs we choose to do. It’s the way we put together a setlist, and the energy we bring on stage that creates a unique experience for those attending our shows.”

Not surprisingly then, the group has a sprawling array of influences. 

“If you play bluegrass and love this music, it is almost impossible to not be influenced by the first generation of bluegrass musicians — Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Stanley Brothers and more,” he insists. “We do a few Monroe and Kenny Baker numbers — Jerusalem Ridge, Let Me Rest, and Ashland Breakdown, to name a few. That being said, I believe the main influences among the band members would lean more towards bands like Sideline, Mountain Heart, the Steeldrivers and, of course, Union Station. I believe the public awareness of bluegrass music in Europe is very much due to Alison Krauss & Union Station.”

Ternesten notes that there is a tendency within the band to listen more to jam videos from IBMA, SPGMBA, and other assorted festivals than to actual recordings on Spotify. “The spontaneous energy in these jam sessions is something we strive for,” he adds.

Although the group has performed at two of the three major bluegrass gatherings in Sweden — the Grenna Bluegrass Festival and Naesville Bluegrass Festival, and have also been booked for those same two festivals in 2022 — their long-range plan is to journey to the US sometime within the next year or two. “We just recently decided that this was our goal, and the work to get the money to go has just gotten started,” Ternesten notes. “We put all the money we get from shows, merchandise, and donations into an account that we will use to make the journey to the US possible. We almost count the income from a show in numbers of flight tickets.”

In the meantime, Ternesten remains focused on honing the players’ skills. “We have a very pronounced tactic of playing in the street as much as possible, as this, in our opinion, is the best way to get a band tight, test new songs, interact with an audience and prepare a band for circumstances on stage where you sometimes have poor monitoring,” Ternesten maintains. “The first step in learning a musical genre is to try to copy the masters. Then you can move on to find your own path.”

So far their efforts seem to have paid off with the people at home. “Bluegrass always works,” Ternesten suggests. “It’s sort of the basis of rock and pop tradition, and people in a live setting always seem to enjoy it. In Europe, not many people would listen to bluegrass driving their car to work or at home cooking dinner, but when they experience it live, everyone loves it. We’ve had a big variety of audiences. Our goal is to bring more people into bluegrass music and increase the knowledge of the music in Sweden and Europe.”

That said, any recording plans remain on the back burner. “We have not been in the studio yet,” Ternesten says. “Since we do mostly covers, it does not feel like a focus for us at this point.
Maturing the band and getting new inspiration from our US trip may change our minds, but rather than getting a perfect recording in a studio, we will focus more on creating more jam-like videos for social media. YouTube is the greatest channel for people to find new music today. We are also looking at TikTok as a soon-to-be viable platform for bluegrass.”

That shouldn’t be difficult. After all, Ternesten says there’s a simple explanation as to why bluegrass maintains a growing popularity. 

“It combines an honest simplicity that goes straight into your heart with a virtuosic approach that entices the mind,” he muses. “It’s just a winning concept.”

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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.