International Bluegrass at Tir Na Nog

Tir Na NogOccasionally, International Bluegrass has been a touchy subject with complaints that organizations like the IBMA have not paid sufficient attention to the requirements of those outside the borders of the USA.

But to me, the international bluegrass music community has, for the most part, seemed fully inclusive.

Enda and his wife, Geraldine, from Dublin, were always made welcome at Edale and were great company.

Celebrities such as Charles Wolfe, Pete Kuykendall and his wife Kitsy, ventured across the Atlantic Ocean to see and enjoy European bluegrass music.

The Edale Bluegrass Festival attracted foreign bluegrass bands right from its early days, besides all the star bands from the USA, there were bands from Scandinavia – Grasset Groer around 1980; Cop – from what was, at that time, Czechoslavakia and the Hillbilly Boogie Men – the Netherlands, among many others.

Meeting Irena Pribylova, a Czech student of bluegrass music, at Edale from the late 1980s onwards was something to look forward to. Both of us were invited to participate in an international seminar at the IBMA’s WoB in Owensboro, in September 1988.

Also invited were Canada’s Bob Roller; Toshio Watanabe from Japan; Jan Johansson, born in Sweden but then, as now, resident in Wake County, North Carolina; French banjo player Jean Marie Redon; and Bob Cornett, who, in 1974, with his wife Jean, founded Lexington’s Festival of the Bluegrass, the oldest bluegrass music festival in the bluegrass region of Kentucky.

The reason for this reflection is fiddle player Jan Johansson’s announcement that his international band will be performing at Tir Na Nog in Raleigh during the IBMA World of Bluegrass, Wide Open Bluegrass showcase events.

Johansson confides …….

Jan Johansson“The line-up is going to be made up by good friends from around the world.

It’s interesting how we – in the bluegrass music community – seem to be connected… If we look at the musicians playing with me we have Toshio Watanabe on mandolin. He was and still is a member of Bluegrass 45 – a band from Japan that travelled over here in the early 1970s, recording a couple of records for Rebel. I brought their albums back when I was in Japan – two stints between 1976 and 1978. Later on I met him at IBMA in Owensboro and learned about his and brother Saburo’s Bluegrass & Old Time Music – BOM – with the magazine June Apple. When I was having my heart attack at Owensboro 1994 he was one of the last people I talked to before leaving for the hospital.

I have a pretty strong bond with the Japanese people and would have stayed there for the rest of my life if it wasn’t for a brown envelope that was forwarded to me. The sender was the Swedish Army Signal Corps and they told me they needed me to report to a certain regiment at a certain time. That was the end of a good period of my life.

We had mandatory military service back then and it wasn’t much you could do about it unless you were either gay or a Jehovah’s Witness.

Several years ago I played some gigs with Butch Robins on his International Bluegrass Band tour and made several life-long friends. One of them was Sean McKerr – He is a fine fella and a soul mate in music. He played with me last year at IBMA and I asked him to join me again this year. A very fine bassist and mandolin player and a great sense of humor.

Scott McBride – representing the U.S – is an old fiddle student of mine that unbeknownst to me was a natural singer. To me he is one of the best kept secrets in bluegrass. He is going to Sweden with me, Gena Britt, Spencer Mobley and Julie Elkins for a tour in July next year. He loves Jimmy Martin, Larry Sparks, Carter Stanley and Monroe. Scott is also a Kenny Baker fanatic.

Jens Kruger and I have another type of soulmate relation. We are both from countries that start with the letters S and W. Most people here don’t know the difference of the countries but that’s fine. Neither of us are THAT important in the big scheme of things. As immigrants we have made similar observations as lovers of the music of the south. I came here with a fiddle and a back-pack and people took me right in.

Jens had the same type of experience – he felt welcome and connected via the music. We were both sincerely into the bluegrass and the people in the mountains soon realized that we didn’t have any preconceived notions about the South that some Northerners might have.

I used to spend a lot of time in Madison County, North Carolina. People in Asheville would tell me, ‘don’t go there – there are some rough people there… you might get shot at.’ One of my students drove over there to find some old fiddler and got back to Asheville with bullet holes in his car that had a New York license tag.”

The international bluegrass band will be playing at the Tir Na Nog Irish Pub, 218 S. Blount Street, in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Saturday, October 3, at 6:45 p.m.

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.