When guitarist Steve Volz made the fateful decision to relocate from the US to Germany, little did he know that in doing he’d become an ambassador of sorts for genuine American music. While that may be overstating the case a bit, given his work with the German-American trio known as Standard Crow Behavior, it’s clear he’s made an emphatic impression. The band, which takes its name from a traditional Stateside radio show, excels in old time music that runs the gamut from bluegrass and folk to pop and jazz, with elements of everything in-between.
Volz and his bandmates, Judith Beckedorf (vocals, mandolin, banjo) and Filip Sommer (vocals, violin, and mandolin), joined forces at a fortuitous time. Beckedorf had just returned from a year abroad in Nashville, where she had gained an initial exposure to folk and bluegrass. At the time the two met, Volz had been playing in one of the only bluegrass bands that could be found in Dresden Germany. That alone proved an immediate enticement as far as Beckedorf was concerned. Meanwhile. Sommer had been playing in a folk band that had recently disbanded, and as a result, he too was looking to embark on a new musical venture. Beckedorf made the effort to bring the three of them together, and it was only at their initial rehearsal in January of 2018 that Sommer and Volz first met.
Fortunately, the three musicians shared the same influences — the Punch Brothers, Nickel Creek, the Milk Carton Kids, the Wood Brothers, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell and, as Volz says, “basically anything that Chris Thile is involved in. For me personally, I can’t deny a heavy influence from growing up with the Beatles, Tony Rice, Grateful Dead, and the Eagles, which I think helped create a natural sense of singing harmony.”
Volz migrated to Germany in June 2013 to join a brother who had previously settled in Dresden. “In the final year of my history studies in upstate New York, he and I were considering the possibility of moving over there to try it out,” he recalls. “Although I was skeptical at first, I wasn’t having much luck fishing for teaching jobs stateside, so I decided to do it. My brother thought that me moving here would be good for my development, but another motivation was to get me involved with a band he had joined playing Czech polka music! It was then that we started singing folk and bluegrass tunes together, and I started to get more involved with flat-picking.”
While some might guess that Volz encountered some culture shock in his new environs, he denies that was the case at all.
“The transition wasn’t so crazy,” he insists. “Ultimately, it’s still a Western country which had been very Americanized over the last 60 years. Of course the biggest adjustment is just the language. Dresden ain’t like Berlin, so to enjoy living there you really ought to speak German. Otherwise, some of the things I had to get used to included shops being closed on Sundays, having to introduce myself and then say goodbye to every single person at a social event or gathering, and recognizing the fact that Germans take the act of christening each new beer with a small ‘klink’ very seriously! You also have to learn to open a bottle of beer with anything that provides leverage.”
Volz does admit that initially at least, it was no small challenge to find other musicians who shared an actual interest in bluegrass.
“I can’t say what it’s like in other cities in Germany, but in Dresden it was definitely rare,” he reflects. “Yet when my brother and I started our folk/bluegrass band in 2015, it was really well received, mostly because people hadn’t really experienced that before, especially the tight three part harmonies. There’s definitely an audience, but it’s never gonna be mainstream. Even so, there are a lot of people who appreciate good old handcrafted music.”
Fortunately, the band has been able to broaden its audience, courtesy of the fact of their tour following the release of their first EP, and then again in February 2019. They had planned to be out on the road this past September, but the pandemic forced them to cancel their plans and put things on hold, at least until next April.
Volz says he’s pleased with the music scene in his adopted country, citing the fact that people are willing to pay to see live entertainment. “The audiences are good listeners,” he suggests. “Bluegrass is a special niche, and when you find local audiences that are into it, they are super excited. I was amazed at this festival we were at in La Roche, France. There were so many older folks from France, Switzerland, and Czech Republic all sitting around and pickin’ away at some standards while singing Bill Monroe tunes.”
That connection to the contrary, Volz insists that there’s little in the way of a common bond between bluegrass and traditional folk music of Germanic origin. “Hmm, there are some old folk songs which also involve stringed instruments and harmony singing, but not much,” he concedes. “There isn’t a strong culture of folk music here. These days, it isn’t popular in Germany to have anything associated with national pride and heritage, so a lot of these traditional folk songs aren’t celebrated. However, there are some singer/songwriters from the ’60s and ’70s, writing songs of a political nature, often just accompanied by guitar. That’s the most grassicana-sounding thing you would find. But pure bluegrass isn’t very common. Only the song structure and simplicity are relatable.”
Nevertheless, Volz does understand why bluegrass can attract such a fervent following beyond American borders.
“Everyone can listen to it, appreciate it, play along and sing along to it,” he reflects. “Seeing this group of old fellas sitting around in France and playing tunes that they all knew in common… I think that hits the point right there. It doesn’t matter which country, language, or background they have — in that moment bluegrass was the element binding them together. There’s also something magical about voices in harmony that just seem to uplift people, even more so when the songs can be sung along to!”