Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Say Hello to Howdy Bluegrass from Basque Country

It’s clear even at the outset that Howdy Bluegrass has an absolute devotion to… well…bluegrass. Based in the Basque Country, a tiny nation situated between France and Spain on the Atlantic side of the Pyrenees Mountains, their name certainly tells all.

The band — consisting of Gorka Arranz on guitar and main vocal, Julen Maestro on diatonic accordion, Jon Arzelus on double bass, Jose Mari Pulido on banjo, and Urbil Artola on reso-guitar — cull their influences from Basque, Irish and American folk songs, as well as traditional music in general. “We all had different approaches to bluegrass music,” Artola insists. “My first contact was in the mid ’90s, when I discovered an album by The Bluegrass Album Band among my dad’s CD collection. At that time, I already was performing with a Basque folk band. Gorka listened to a lot of Bob Dylan’s music throughout his teens, and started looking for where that music came from, before discovering the Carter Family’s song, Bury Me Beneath the Willow. Jose Mari and Julen got into bluegrass music through popular music, of both Basque and Irish origin, and they then discovered banjo and fiddle tunes, which they love to play nowadays. Jon first found what bluegrass music was when he joined our band at the age of 17.”

After their initial introductions, the members took their fascination even further and began pursuing new opportunities to integrate it into their ongoing efforts. “I started playing a few bluegrass licks on the dobro in 2003, when I was turning 30,” Artola recalls. “I performed for the first time a few years later on a small tour in Spain with the Barcelona Bluegrass Band.” He adds that Pulido first played in a traditional bluegrass band called Bluegrass Express back in the ’90s And that Arranz and Maestro originally began performing in local clubs and little venues in 2012

“Gorka, Jon, and Julen had already been playing and performing both Basque and American folk music when we formed our group in 2015,” Artola continues. “We got to meet in a local bluegrass session  — yes, we have our own bluegrass jam sessions in the Basque Country! — and then started talking and sharing our love for bluegrass music. I got to share the stage with them at a couple of shows, and then we had the chance to play our very first folk festival. The more we talked, the more we wanted to take a further step forward, so we asked Jose Mari if he wanted to join us, and that’s when we established the band that Howdy Bluegrass is today.”

In the six years since, Howdy Bluegrass have made their name through regular appearances at any number of European festivals, among them, Donostiako Jazzaldia, the VI Musikagela Weekend, Donostiako Aste Nagusia, Getxo Rustyc Fest, the Usopop Festival, Nofugrass Bluegrass Fest, Al Ras Bluegrass and Old Time Festival, and Andoain Rock Jaialdia. They’ve also scored several significant honors, taking third place in the band contest at Entzun Adarra in 2018 and second place at Autrigalia Fest 2019. Artola mentions that they hope to embark on their first full European tour next summer.

Artola goes on to say that their individual activities haven’t been limited to band activities either. 

“We have had the chance to play with some great musicians at the Al Ras Bluegrass & Old Time Festival and Nofugrass Fest, as well with various musicians that have toured our area,” he mentions. “In fact, each one of us has had the opportunity to enjoy our own bluegrass experience. I spent some time in the Sore Fingers Summer School in the UK, as well as at the Johnny Keenan Banjo Festival in Ireland. Jose Mari and I went on a trip to Grey Fox and RockyGrass back in 2008. Gorka spent several days at the IBMA festival in Raleigh in 2016, as did Jose Mari in 2018. But one of our most valuable experiences was when we shared time with Jake Schepps, a bluegrass banjo picker from the US, here at home prior to the pandemic. We had the opportunity to hang out with Jake and his family, and it helped open up our eyes while also filling us with excitement and the motivation to keep improving and learning more about bluegrass music.”

In 2019, Howdy Bluegrass recorded their eponymous debut album, which consisted of twelve original songs, all of which the band had been developing over the years prior. The album was finally released in January 2020. The group is currently working on some new material, with the hope that they will have opportunity to record a follow-up effort in the very near future. Artola also adds that the band is planning to record the first bluegrass album ever offered in their native language.

Meanwhile, the group has made inroads in helping people in their country become familiar with bluegrass, a style of music that’s naturally not very well known there.

“People usually refer to Americana as country music, so sometimes it’s even hard to explain what we are trying to play,” Artola says. “However, despite that, the audiences are receptive to what they’re hearing as we try to share what bluegrass harmonies and that type of picking sound like. We also have our traditional tunes and dances here at home, which are usually based around accordion music. It can get really funny when we’re playing bluegrass and old-time fiddle tunes, and people dance to them in our country’s traditional style. We can say that this is new to our country because we’re fusing the distinctive sound of the Basque accordion with bluegrass music, along with the instrumentation provided by banjo, dobro, guitar, and double bass. It actually works!”

Ultimately, Artola doesn’t seem surprised that it’s been accepted so well, and he credits the bluegrass basics with the ability to transcend language and culture. “The key to bluegrass success comes from great vocal melodies and harmonies, arranged with different toned acoustic instruments and a solid, compact, powerful rhythm,” he suggests. “That’s what causes the feet to start moving!”

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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.