Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Swedish bluegrass from Josephine & The River Boys

The origins of the Swedish bluegrass band, Josephine & The River Boys, can be traced back a dozen years and the seminal efforts of bassist Vagn Abel and guitarist and banjo picker Kurt Johansson. The pair played together previously before eventually switching styles and delving into the basics of bluegrass. It was then, when they expanded their parameters, that they recruited Mattias Kjerrman on mandolin, fiddle and vocals and made the conversion complete. 

“My family wanted some peace and quiet, so they answered an ad in the local paper on my behalf,” Kyerrman jokes in retrospect. “They got me out of the house, and the peace was restored!”

The band’s namesake — singer and guitarist Josefine Börjesson — was the final individual added to the ensemble. “She was at a birthday party that we played at, and we have never looked back since,” Kjerrman recalls.

Nowadays, the band generally hews to that same bluegrass approach. “The sound that we mostly feel comfortable with comes from the cornerstone of an upright bass and guitar, with the banjo rolls and mandolin chops doing their best to emphasis the rhythm,”  Kjerrman explains. “Once that’s secured, we try to focus on the vocals and the close harmonies. In recent years, we’ve found it important in any given situation to let the vocals be pushed forward and hold back with the instrumentation.”

Kjerrman cites a number of seminal influences that have contributed to the band’s sound, among them, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Emmylou Harris, Tony Rice, Doc Watson, and Kate Wolf, all of whom he says, “forever continue to inspire us.”

That inspiration has evolved into a prolific combined career, one that found them performing one or two gigs a week throughout the summer. Kjerrman also notes that they’ve performed at any number of bluegrass festivals in the south of Sweden for the past ten years.

“Each year usually starts with a trip to Denmark to play at a certain art exhibition outside Copenhagen,” he explains. “It was through those contacts that we’ve been able to tour twice in China, visiting places like Peking, Mongolia, and Xiamen on the China Sea. On one of these occasions, we were able to jam with some very talented folk musicians that played horse-head fiddle and sang throat songs. People are surprisingly alike all over the world, from the moment of the initial introduction until the song is over.”

Kjerrman also mentioned that they’ve had multiple opportunities to play with other artists as well, citing the fact that bluegrass is a genre that enables those exchanges to come somewhat naturally.

“It seems like bluegrass musicians who are able to jam and adapt to each other find it a lot easier than artists that follow a script, so to speak,” he suggests, adding that it inspires interest from the audience as well.

“Whenever we play around our home country, it seems like people are drawn into the rhythm of the music and that they enjoy the happy-go-lucky vibe,” Kjerrman reflects. “At least that’s what they tell us. Plus, at every gig, people ask us the name of the small eight-stringed instrument that we play, referring of course, to the mandolin.”

Although the band has recorded several songs, Kjerrman said their main focus remains on live performance. Nevertheless, their recording experience has served hem well. “The studio sessions have been more of a way to learn and find out what we actually sound like on the receiving end,” he explained. “We’ve learned a lot from that.”

So too, while a small percentage of their material is of an original variety, Kjerrman said that lately, they’ve been focusing more on a traditional template. He offers Georgia Rose and Kentucky Waltz as examples.

Kjerrman sees bluegrass as an antidote to the distance and distress people are experiencing nowadays, and he’s happy to offer a few reasons why. “Today the world seems to be full of all kinds of noise,” he notes. “On the other hand, there’s a scarcity of honest acoustic music that’s played with an individual twist and authentic expression. Our band doesn’t depend on having a great PA. We can get close up to our audience, with a good bass rhythm to lean on. At that point, away we go. All we really need is each other, and we simply love doing what we do.”

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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.