Today is an interview with Ronnie Norton, a 2012 graduate of Leadership Bluegrass.
Ronnie is a Dublin-based photographer who describes his involvment with bluegrass as “a vocation rather than a hobby.” He is part owner and creator of Lonesome Highway, a combination of radio programs, Roots Americana magazines, and website. His Lonesome Highway radio show on World Wide Bluegrass includes—along with plenty of bluegrass—influences from Celtic, European and singer/songwriter styles.
CS: How was your experience with Leadership Bluegrass? Were you surprised by anything?
RN: Lets leave the educational aspects aside as it would take a month just to sing the praises of the whole Leadership Bluegrass programme as a method of raising the professional bar in the Bluegrass world. LBG was an emotional roller coaster of friendships forged and renewed with some of the most influential names in bluegrass music. As a relative newcomer to bluegrass it came as a big surprise to me just how involved all the team members became in each others learning process.
I have been involved in corporate learning for many years as both a photographer and digital educator and this past week for me was as good if not better than any courses that I have attended previously. World class speakers and presenters delivered tight and informatively up to date. Nancy Cardwell, Staff Sergeant Trisha Tubbs and all the IBMA crew deserve every praise that’s lavished on them.
CS: How do you think the Irish bluegrass scene is faring?
RN: The Irish Bluegrass scene is hard to separate from the whole Roots Americana scene. Although there are quite a few dyed in the wool hard line grassers, the majority audience at a visiting bluegrass band gig would be drawn from a mainly Irish Trad and Acoustic Country crowd. Irish audiences are much more open listeners than US or Eastern European bluegrassers. The scene is healthy enough for bands that are interested in visiting often and building up a regular following.
Special Consensus would be a great example as would Gary Ferguson as a solo performer and with his current trio of Janet Holmes and Colin Henry. Most Irish musicians with the instrumental skills to form a bluegrass band would get more regular gigs on the trad or soft rock circuits. But those who have the patience and perseverance to stick to bluegrass will always find an appreciative audience.
CS: Has the recession affected the bluegrass scene in Ireland?
RN: The recession has decimated the live music scene over here for the small to medium gigs, but Alison Krauss or the Transatlantic Sessions or Gillian Welsh can fill major theatres at any time. Folks are just much more selective on where they spend their ticket money these days and Dublin audiences are spoiled rotten with the best of international talent available here on a regular basis.
Major festivals like the Johnny Keenan Banjo Festival or the Ulster American Bluegrass Festival or the Shannonside Winter Music Weekend draw great crowds and are loved by visiting musicians for their total chill out and relaxed atmospheres. The Irish audiences are not really going to let the shortage of funds keep them from whatever live music they need for their listening fix.
CS: What do you think about the way Americans celebrate St. Patrick’s Day?
RN: Why would I stand in the way of our colonial brothers enjoying themselves and keeping a strong Irish American awareness going. Where would our economy be without the millions of ex-pats maintaining their contacts, memories and fantasies of our green and mystic isle.
On the other hand, two things really irritate me. There is no such person or entity called St.Patty. Patty is a short and affectionate name for girls called Patricia and green beer and rivers make our red blood boil. But I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t hide their objections and happily jump a plane to join in the festivities in New York or Savanagh for a mad weekend of music and Oirish lunacy.
CS: What would you like Americans to know about Irish bluegrass?
RN: As I said earlier there’s no Irish Bluegrass. Bluegrass is the american offspring of Celtic roots music and various other ethnic music ancestors. Bluegrass in Ireland has its devoted fans and fanatics the same as anywhere else worldwide but there is a freedom of musical expression here that sees bands like Mountain Heart or Blue Highway or Claire Lynch or Balfa Tojours as equal listening entertainment.
Every visiting band will have its front row devotees but the majority of the crowd could have been at a Hank III or Jason and the Scorchers or Brad Paisley Gig the night before. Potential visiting bands could look to loosening their string ties and playlists and taking the opportunities to push the musical envelope a bit further than they might at home.
From my point of view I have been very lucky to have drifted from my folk club beginnings through Country and Country Rock to settle in Bluegrass after a programme director on my first radio station demanded a rigid Bluegrass playlist and forced me to research and collect bands and CDs that have become my staple diet ever since. But strange as it seems my listeners on my www.worldwidebluegrass.com and www.cmrnashville.net Lonesome Highway programmes are expecting a good smattering of Celtic Crossover to supplement my pure bluegrass output. To such a degree that I’m convinced that there is a huge US audience for a radio mix that includes nostalgic singer songwriters, soft country rock, hardcore Hank and Merle and of course a large helping of quality and I stress quality Bluegrass.