Cup O’Joe performs at the 2017 World Of Bluegrass convention – photo by Frank Baker
As a veteran of many trips to the IBMA World Of Bluegrass convention, I’ve learned that there is no way to do it all. There is just too much music, too many friends to try to see, and far too many instruments to play to ever hope to take it all in.
My own answer has been to focus on seeing the younger groups, especially those from outside my area, and try to enjoy the festivities through their eyes.
Cup O’Joe is a band I have had my eye on for some time. They first came to my attention on YouTube, where the three Agnew siblings would post videos of themselves jamming at home. First there were covers of popular bluegrass numbers shot in their parlor, but before long original songs began to pop up, with vocals, and shot in a variety of striking outdoor settings.
Tabitha Agnew on banjo was especially entrancing on banjo, playing with an air of confidence and professionalism while still a young teen. Her brother Reuben was also a strong guitarist, and eldest brother Benjamin played a fine bass. They had clearly mastered the elements of bluegrass music, and had done so from their home in County Armagh in Ireland.
As they got a bit older, the group began to play at shows across Ireland and the UK, and at larger festivals across Europe. They mixed a bit of swing music into their repertoire and released an an EP called Bluebirds in 2016. So when they were invited as a Bluegrass Ramble showcase act at WOB this year, I knew that I had to catch them live.
The three Agnews added a fiddler for the trip, Niall Murphy, a fellow Irishman who was already in the States working on a number of different projects. When I caught them late one evening in the Marriott Hotel, they had been playing almost non-stop for a solid week.
All their material sounded as fresh and lively as I had heard on the various video and recordings, and though their audience was a bit small, they were enthusiastically received by WOB attendees. The only down moment was learning that my favorite song from Bluebirds, a tender love song called Tell Me Darling, was actually written by Tabitha about her donkey!
Once they returned home after IBMA, I contacted Cup O’Joe to get some feedback on their experience in Raleigh. It was actually their third trip to World Of Bluegrass, and Tabitha says that, “We love it more every year we return!” They came to perform on the Youth Stage in 2014 and then again unofficially in 2015 to play on the various international showcases.
The Agnews’ first trip to the US was in 2013, for a family vacation in South Carolina, which led to them attending their first American bluegrass festival in Myrtle Beach.
We asked how differently it felt to be part of the IBMA convention as a showcase act.
“Coming to the states and being a part of the Bluegrass Ramble definitely has been a highlight for us as Cup O’Joe. It gave us the chance to play and be billed alongside many musicians and friends that we look up to. We were recognized as being one of the only International ramble bands, and were given some really interesting opportunities, including being featured on a PBS recording about IBMA that will air next year. Another highlight of this year for us was to get to record a session in the Deering Banjos ‘The Julia Belle’ room, located right beside the Sir Walter Raleigh Statue. Tabitha got the opportunity to play the Julia Belle banjo with the backdrop of a John Hartford river scene in the background, this was a definitely a memorable scene from IBMA 2017.”
How about attention from US promoters and labels?
“We definitely have made a few good contacts with people in this field. This was especially a very nice aspect being an official showcase band this year, as often when people hear that you’re from outside the US they might treat you as more of a difficulty to transport and cater. Whereas, this year we definitely felt encouraged and welcomed into the scene in the US.”
And what about socializing with other young bluegrass pickers?
“Absolutely! This has to be the highlight of IBMA for us each year. Making new friends and reconnecting with friends is one of the privileges of our time at IBMA. It seems to be a place where reunions happen and lifelong friends are made. This year it was especially fun to meet new friends that were a part of the Ramble such as, High Fidelity. Also getting to hang out with some of our good friends from Mile Twelve (as well as many other wonderful people!) was great. We definitely miss the interaction in person with folks whenever we head home. We usually hang on to the IBMA blues for a few weeks afterwards, and we can’t wait to hopefully return again to the US in the coming year(s) and catch up with them all.”
Keep an eye on these talented young musicians. Hopefully there will be a full-length album in their near future and additional opportunities to tour in the US.