Bluegrass Beyond Borders: The Mary Lee Family Band, from Brazil to Berlin

It’s a big leap for any outfit to relocate from Brazil to Berlin, especially when an indelible impression has already been made in their native home. Nevertheless, when vocalist and guitarist Mary Lee, her husband — drummer, vocalist and washboard player Mauro Montezuma — and their children made the move across the world in 2016, they were fortunate to make a relatively smooth transition. Having been dubbed the “Brazilian Loretta Lynn,” Mary Lee was an established honky-tonk pioneer in her native Brazil. Despite their change in locale, they were able to enlist double bassist and vocalist Allisson Big Bull, who the couple had known in Brazil since 2011. The addition of fiddle player and backing vocalist Sorcha Thompson, a native of Ireland who herself had relocated to Berlin, completed the combo.

Their most recent album, and their second effort to date, Fighting Demons, was released under their name they were known by in Brazil — Mary Lee & The B-Side Brothers. It shares the trials and tribulations common to most people today, as viewed from Mary Lee’s personal perspective. 

Given the fact that their previous band remained in Brazil, Mary Lee and Montezuma initially began gigging in Berlin as a duo, at least until they were able to coax Big Bull into joining them. They then found Thompson through Facebook. The group has only recently begun to tour in Europe, having made their debut at Belgium’s Muddy Roots Festival. They’ve since made appearances at other popular European gatherings, including the Rotterdam Bluegrass Festival, Kids ‘n’ Billies, and Rustic Stomp.

“When the band started, the plan was to prepare our own original songs before we’d start touring,” Mary Lee explains. “We didn’t want to be another cover band, so we did that for one year, and after that, we started touring all over Brazil until our first European tour came about in 2014. That time, we did Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland. The experience was so good that we kept coming back and eventually we decided to move to Berlin in 2019. These days, it seems we are always on tour!”

Mary Lee describes the band’s sound as “a mix of bluegrass, honky tonk, old time music, punk, and everything in between.” She goes on to cite Loretta Lynn as a prime influence, and specifically, the artist that originally inspired her to pursue a sound spawned from archival origins. “She was the one who put me on this track,” she recalls. ‘I previously had a ska/punk rock band, but when I was introduced to her music, my mind was expanded by the melodies and the string instruments.”

She goes on to name Doc Watson, Bill Monroe, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, June Carter, Ralph Stanley, Willie Nelson, Bob Wills, as well as any number of newer bands, as having left her with a lingering impression. 

“It’s a long list,” she insists.

Happily, their sound was well received, especially back in Brazil.

“It was a very good reaction,” she notes in retrospect. “Even though our style is not so popular in Brazil, the scene there is very nice. There are so many good bands with similar styles, and people really seemed to like our performances.”

Not surprisingly then, Mary Lee has her own opinions as to why bluegrass can claim such worldwide popularity. “I believe it’s because it’s honest music,” she suggests. “If it’s dark and profound, it says a lot, and if it’s happy and fun, it also says a lot. We can be truthful to ourselves, saying whatever we want or whatever we feel. I believe that most people can relate to those feelings too.”

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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.