Modern bluegrass often tows a fine line. On the one hand, there’s a need to respect the musical heritage and stay true to tradition. On the other, it’s essential to secure contemporary credence and find ways to bring it to an audience that’s often unaware of that history by making it interesting, essential, and intriguing enough to lure a mainstream audience.
It takes a rare group that can straddle that divide, so credit the Chicago-based band, Henhouse Prowlers, with a career that’s encompassed the better part of the past 17 years. They’ve not only found success here at home, but also managed to share the joys of bluegrass worldwide as one of America’s musical ambassadors, touring the world as part of the U.S. State Department’s cultural outreach efforts.
The band plays over 175 shows a year, thanks to tours that have taken them to more than 25 countries and the furthest reach of the cultural chasm, including Africa, Russia, and the Middle East. At the same time, they’ve managed to absorb these international influences into their own music, both by learning the languages, and finding ways to integrate those specific sounds into their own musical vocabulary. In addition, they’ve been actively involved in furthering education and awareness, a mission that remains an intrinsic part of their own ongoing efforts.
Henhouse Prowlers’ new album, The Departure, offers an astute example of the band’s versatility and vitality. The first with their current line-up — founders Jon Goldfine and Ben Wright on bass and banjo respectively, and more recent recruits Chris Dollar on guitar and Jake Howard on mandolin — it finds all four members sharing in the singing and songwriting. As always, the music is upbeat, inspired and occasionally tweaked with a fair amount of both attitude and irreverence.
Bluegrass Today recently had the opportunity to chat with Wright and Goldfine, and we asked them to share some perspectives — on their music, their careers, and their ability to create an important international connection.
Bluegrass Today: What’s the reaction to your music in those countries where you perform? Do those audiences appear to relate to it even at the outset? Do they perceive any kind of connection to their own indigenous music?
Wright: That’s part of our job on those tours, to make that connection. And so before we go, we almost always learn a song that people will be familiar with there. And we take the time and effort to actually learn to sing in their language. We learn songs phonetically. So that really makes this kind of musical rope bridge easier to cross for people when we can show up. We’ll play a couple of bluegrass songs, a couple of our songs, and then we’ll play something they immediately recognize. And it just closes the gap instantly. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, we learned a Saudi song, which was interesting, because when we went things had changed quite a bit since we went back in 2016.
Goldfine: In 2016, it was a very conservative Muslim country, and music wasn’t even legal. But we learned a song that was from the 1960s, before it became a super conservative country. And it was a song that was still in their collective memory. The funny thing is, the only place we could play because of the laws against public performance was actually on the property of the American government, the American consulates. So I am using consulates, but they’d have these big parties where they invite a bunch of people. And, you know, it’s still a very conservative place, but they’re still human beings. What we learned is that most people just do all the stuff that we do very privately in their homes. They have really good internet connections and can listen to music and watch movies and do all the things that we do, kind of without the eyes of the government on them.
One of my favorite stories to tell is when we were at the embassy in Riyadh, and after about our third song, this very conservative looking Saudi man dressed in his traditional Saudi garb motioned me over. So I kind of leaned in and asked, “Can I help you?” and he said, “Yes, will you play Country Roads by John Denver?” We hadn’t played it before. But our guitar player at the time was an encyclopedia, and we just pulled it out of our butts. Then the whole place went crazy because they knew the song. You know, there’s this almost cliche thing to say that the music is the universal language. We’ve seen it in person so many times. And it’s a cliche because it’s true. It transcends language and culture, and it’s something we share in common across humanity.
BT: So you actually learn these other languages?
Wright: We spend a lot of time memorizing these specific sounds. And then we come together, and the music is actually the easy part. Jon and I may disagree on that, but I think that once you know the words, getting the music right is the easy part. Memorizing sounds is way different than memorizing words,
BT: So how did you how did you connect with the State Department to get to get this gig in the first place? You know, knock on these doors, great connection?
Goldfine: There’s a program called American Music Abroad that’s been going on in some form since the early ’60s. It started when they would send jazz musicians overseas during the Cold War. The purpose was to try to extend American cultural influence. That program has evolved over the decades into what is now, American Music Abroad.
Wright: We auditioned for this program in 2013, and they liked us, and then sent us on a tour of four countries in West Africa. So after that, we were kind of in the circuit and other embassies started calling us. Like if there’s an embassy in Nigeria and they want a bluegrass band for their fourth of July celebration at the embassy, they’ll call us. People in the State Department only stay in the same post for a few years and then they move around. So someone might ask a friend in Mauritania, hey, do you know a good bluegrass band for our fourth of July celebration? And then we get recommended.
BT: Is it still exciting for you to be touring all these other countries after all these years?
Wright: Yeah, it’s still exciting. We were about to go to Cote d’Ivoire when things were starting to shut down. So that was a that was a big letdown.
BT: After 17 years of being so immersed in this, it would seem that these international encounters have really informed your music and your whole attitude towards what you do.
Goldfine: It has definitely changed the course of the band’s entire foundation. We realized that we had these opportunities to not only go to these countries, but also discovered that what we brought back was just as valuable as the experiences that we had when we were there. Once we learned the songs to play in these countries, they became part of our musical vocabulary. And so we played them when we got back home. And people loved it. It started these conversations with people about Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, and all these parts of the world that people barely could pronounce. We could have legitimate conversations with people about what incredible experiences we had.
We could go into schools and work with young kids and do the same thing. That’s what inspired our nonprofit Bluegrass Ambassadors program, which in turn was really inspired by the original Jazz Ambassadors program started by the State Department in the ’50s. That’s where the name came from. So now we’ve created these educational programs not only for kids, but we also give workshops at festivals. We can really speak not only about the music of these countries, but also about the cultures, because we’ve been there and have had direct contact with people, and had our minds blown repeatedly by places we never imagined we’d get a chance to go to.
BT: Do you perform any of that international music during your live performances?
Goldfine: Yeah, at every stop really.
Wright: We also recorded a live album from Kyrgyzstan. And we put a Ugandan song on that album. We’ve been to Russia twice, and by the second time, we had Russians requesting a Nigerian song! It’s about really taking those opportunities and flipping them back on themselves.
BT: How have these experiences impacted you personally?
Goldfine: On that first trip to West Africa, we had this evaluator with us. The State Department always wants to evaluate the programming they’re doing, because they spend a lot of money on this stuff. So sometimes they’ll send somebody to come along and handout surveys after the programs. We got to know this guy really well, and we were sitting on the banks of the Niger River, and I remember, he turned to me and said, “I’ve seen a lot of bands do this stuff, and you guys clearly love doing it.” He said he always wondered why bands don’t take more advantage of these opportunities as a way to do something interesting. And yet, even with these opportunities, so few bands will come back and talk about what they did. Maybe they think it diminishes their music, because they’re doing work for the government. So when he said that, it definitely planted this seed that was like, what can we do with this? These are life-changing opportunities. How can we bring it back home with us? We’re still good friends with him, and that conversation was pretty profound for our our direction and our careers.
Wright: I think we’re certainly one of the only bluegrass bands that gets up at a traditional festival and sings in Swahili.