Anyone who’s delved into the history of popular music knows that there’s always been a free exchange of ideas and influences going back and forth between the US and the UK. One link began early on, when the English adopted and adapted blues and rock and roll, and took those seismic sounds originating from the United States and subsequently reimagined them with their own British branding. The so-called “British Invasion” that transpired in the early to mid ’60s brought the music back to the States, and found American bands reshaping those sounds in ways that emulated those new influences.
The exchange has been going back and forth ever since.
Of course, bluegrass can claim its own exchange. The Old World sounds that impacted Appalachia courtesy of the immigrants that came to those realms of the US during the 19th century had a profound impact on the lifeblood of American music. It’s not surprising then that the music that emanates from the American heartland should go full circle and find a home back in the UK.
The latest example of that import/export exchange can be found in the efforts of The Often Herd, a band that makes its home in Newcastle on Tyne. As they themselves explain on their website, their approach resembles that of an American string band, “complete with driving energy, tight vocal harmonies and dazzling instrumental interplay,” but…”their vibrant, transatlantic sound is deeply colored by their surroundings; the striking natural and industrial landscapes of Northern England.”
It’s a stirring combination to be sure, one that garnered them the title of Best European Bluegrass Band 2018 at the prestigious La Roche Bluegrass Festival in France.
Guitarist Rupert Hughes and mandolin player Evan Davies write songs from a personal perspective, while drawing from a wide range of influences that span from traditional music to psychedelia. American-born fiddler, Niles Krieger, and former jazz bassist, Sam Quintana, add their unique instrumental skills to the mix, creating a soaring sound that that’s both dazzling and distinctive. It’s this adept combination of grassicana influences and contemporary creativity that gives the band its singular style.
“Our sound combines the energy of traditional, driving bluegrass with the nuance and insight of the singer-songwriters of Laurel Canyon,” Quintana explains. “Expect intricately arranged harmonies, instrumental interplay and spontaneous improvisation!”
Hughes and Davies have known each other since childhood, and they spent their later teenage years busking together on the streets of their hometown. Even after Davies moved to Leeds to study at university, the pair managed to stay in touch and continue to make music together. Davies later met Quintana while in Leeds, and then they began performing together. Meanwhile, back in Newcastle, Hughes had come across Krieger at a local jam session. Eventually all four coalesced as a unit during what they describe as a “ramshackle gig” on the Isle of Mull in 2014.
“Collectively, our influences reach far and wide,” Quintana continues. “However the band owes a lot to the great bluegrass groups of the ’70s — The Seldom Scene, Old And In The Way, The Tony Rice Unit, and Bela Fleck’s Drive band.”
Prior to COVID, The Often Herd managed to maintain a busy performance schedule, with extensive gigging up and down the UK. They’ve also performed in Ireland, France, Holland, Belgium, and Germany. “We’ve done a lot of touring and spent countless hours on the road crammed into a Ford Fiesta with all of our instruments,” Quintana notes. “We’ve been fortunate enough to play at a host of brilliant festivals in the UK and further afield. The UK has a very supportive bluegrass scene, and pre-pandemic we would embark on a yearly festival circuit that would take us from the Cornish Coastline to the Gower Peninsula. Our most notable appearances have included slots at La Roche Bluegrass Festival, Rotterdam Bluegrass Festival, and Fire In The Mountain.”
Quintana says that it’s those festival gigs that have allowed them to share stages with a number of US bluegrass notables, among them, Molly Tuttle, Mile Twelve, and Della Mae.
“Back home we’ve been fortunate enough to be booked for some great support slots where we’ve opened for Special Consensus and Tim O’Brien,” he adds.
The group continues to maintain its momentum, Quintana says. “We’ve received radio play, encouraging reviews, and have even been on television once or twice! Over the years we’ve managed to grow a supportive following and thanks to our wonderful fans, we were able to crowdfund the production and the release of our debut EP.”
A link to that EP can be found online.
“We focus mainly on original material, but also play an array of bluegrass/old-time material which we enjoy putting our own spin on,” Quintana explains. “We throw the odd cover into the mix too, and we’ve arranged songs by The Byrds, The Beatles, and even King Crimson!”
Quintana is also quick to offer an answer when asked why bluegrass enjoys such international popularity. After all, he’s witnessed it from a first person perspective.
“There are a lot of reasons,” he surmises. “The repertoire is honest, heartfelt, and relatable, steeped in tradition and at its best when performed with outstanding musicianship. Bluegrass concerts and festivals always have such a welcoming atmosphere, and the jam session ethos that comes with the territory is always so inclusive and appealing. What’s not to love?!”