Part of the magic of attending World of Bluegrass is meeting new people and often quite randomly. I was meeting some friends in the very noisy Marriott hotel lobby and happened to meet Martino Coppo, mandolinist and vocalist with the Italian bluegrass band, Red Wine. I talked with Martino about having seen Red Wine at the Strawberry Music Festival in California, and their plans to come back stateside for the upcoming Wintergrass 2020 in January. Martino is very outgoing, and has the unique ability to give you his full attention even in boisterous environments such as this. We talked, said our farewells, and that was that… or was it?
Later at the California Bluegrass Association (CBA) showcase in the downstairs Marriott ballroom that replaced the old packed upstairs CBA suite in room 322, there was an amazing lineup on tap. It included, of course, Red Wine, alongside North Country Blue, AJ Lee and Blue Summit, Laurie Lewis, Jerry Wiseman, Gina Furtado, and others. After a rousing set by Red Wine, I found Coppo in the hallway where we chatted some more, exchanged contact details, Gilchrist mandolin series numbers, and finalized plans to make this interview happen. Thanks to Martino and Red Wine, the original international bluegrass pioneers.
Hello Martino, it was great seeing you at IBMA this year. How long have you been coming, and what has changed since you first came over?
I did my first US tour in 1986, with my banjo pal Silvio Ferretti, playing in a European band called Freewheelin’. Then we started touring regularly in the US as Red Wine in 1995, when we were selected for the first time as a showcase band at the IBMA World of Bluegrass (WOB), held in Owensboro, KY. Since then I’ve found the bluegrass scene becoming bigger and bigger, and particularly, more and more young, talented musicians making big breaks in the business.
Tell us about the bluegrass scene in Genoa and Italy?
Since 2009, Red Wine has hosted a special yearly event in our the hometown of Genova, Italy called The Red Wine Bluegrass Party. In 2018, the fortieth anniversary of the band formed in 1978 by Silvio Ferretti, the party celebrated ten years. It’s a unique show where we shared the stage with some US or European artists, working on an almost completely new repertoire each year on a specific assigned theme. We’ve had several special guests like Tim O’ Brien, Peter Rowan, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Laurie Lewis & Tom Rozum, The Kruger Brothers, Kathy Kallick & Annie Staninec, an Irish singer-songwriter, Shane Sullivan, plus a long list of other Italian or European musicians
There is also an annual bluegrass meeting in Cremona, hometown of Stradivari and capital of violin making luthiery, in September, held as a part of an international luthier fair called Mondomusica. Usually, about ten to twelve Italian bands gather to play, jam, exchange, etc…and often are joined by some European or occasionally US artists. Last year John Jorgenson performed there.
How has the international bluegrass scene changed since you started many years ago?
I’ve seen a continuously growing bluegrass scene in Europe, especially in some Eastern countries like Czech and Slovak Republics, but also in Spain or Slovenia. In Italy, there was quite a big scene in the eighties, with a bluegrass and old-time festival which was held for about four years near Milano, with some major US acts performing there including New Grass Revival, Bluegrass Cardinals, Mike Marshall & Darol Anger, Mike Seeger, plus many Italian and European bands. This scene had almost disappeared in the nineties, but it’s been slowly coming back in the past ten to fifteen years or so. Switzerland, Germany, Netherlands, France, UK, and the Czech Republic host many bluegrass festivals or shows every year.
When do you think you might get back to the states? Are there any festivals here that you would like to play but haven’t?
We’ll be back in February 2020 for another short tour, playing again Wintergrass Bluegrass Festival in Bellevue WA, where we played in 2012, plus some other dates we are still working on.
There’s a long list of great festivals we have never been to, and we still dream of playing someday: MerleFest, Rockygrass, Telluride, Newport Folk Festival, Edmonton Folk Festival, Freshgrass, 3 Sisters, High Sierra, and Kerrville Folk Festival are some of them. We’d love to return playing Hardly Strictly Festival in San Francisco, Grey Fox, NY, Bean Blossom, IN, Old Settlers, TX, Mountain Song, NC and Joe Val’s Bluegrass Festival in Massachusetts.
Your Italian medley was a big hit. Are there any more of those Italian songs that work in the bluegrass treatment?
Thank you. Our Mamma Mia medley, recorded on our CD, Red (RW 2012), is based on 4 songs: That’s Amore (Dean Martin’s hit) – Buonasera Signorina (Luis Prima recorded a great version) – Malafemmina, very popular song in Italy written in 1951 by famous Neapolitan actor, comedian and writer Totò (Antonio De Curtis) – Ohi Mari, another Neapolitan folk song made popular also in the US by Luis Prima, and it seems to work well especially with non-Italian speaking audiences.
We have also recorded another Italian song in bluegrass style, Il Cielo d’Irlanda on our CD, Winter’s Come and Gone (RW 2008), which works even better in bluegrass style, having a sort of Irish groove. There’s another Italian medley of more swing kind of songs on our older CD Italian Cats (RW 2001).
Tell us about the new album, Carolina Red?
It was a long-time dream project to be able to work with our good friend, Jens Kruger, as our producer, an amazingly talented musician, and human being. When the opportunity came, we jumped on board immediately! We felt that a European musician with an impressive career in the US acoustic music market incorporating some of his old-world music and culture heritage, would help us find a more ‘original’ approach, and make us sound different from other bluegrass bands in the US, which we would do anyway!
In 2017 Jens came to visit us shortly in Genova and we started pre-production on the project. We booked a short US tour in February 2018 and spent a week arranging and recording thirteen songs at the Kruger Brothers Double Time Studio in Wilkesboro, NC, sitting in a circle and playing mostly live, with little overdubbing. It’s been a wonderful musical and personal experience to be able to work in a studio with Jens, along with his equally talented pals, brother Uwe and Joel Landsberg. We can’t thank him enough for his hard work, precious advice, great expertise, powerful inspiration, and generous hospitality.
Tell us about the selections.
Songs on the album come from very different sources. Originals from our banjo player Silvio Ferretti: the instrumental McCaleb dedicated to our late good friend, Billy McCaleb, and Nancy Ann, which he co-wrote with singer-songwriter Gary Ferguson, featuring Jens Kruger on banjo. The ballads like Henry Hill and Back To You, co-written by our Irish friends, Shane Sullivan and Gary Ferguson. Evergreen by Micheal Hearne, Susan Gibson and Monica Smart, and Little Steps again by Shane Sullivan. An old-timey groove song, Sad Parting, Sad Goodbye by our friend, fiddle, guitar, mandolin player, and songwriter Chris Brashear. An original song we co-wrote with another good friend, US songwriter, Si Kahn, Hometown Boy. Start Sawing on The Strings, another original by Christoffer Olsson from Swedish G2 bluegrass band, plus a few covers: Norman Blake’s Randall Collins, Tom Petty’s American Girl, and Merle Haggard’s Somewhere Between. Also, one by one of the most famous Italian songwriters of all time, and from our hometown, Genova, the late Fabrizio De Andrè, called La Canzone dell’Amore Perduto (The Lost Love Song), sung in Italian by the only other guest, our good friend Kathy Kallick. The cover was hand-painted by Genovese artist Roberto Zizzo and all pictures are from our photographer, Stefano Goldberg.
What’s coming up on your schedule?
We are currently working on our Bluegrass Party XI° edition, scheduled for November 16th, and entitled The Other Woodstock. We’ll celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of the most iconic musical events of our times, presenting songs and artists that performed at Woodstock, of course in a bluegrass/folk context. Our special guest will be another long-time good friend, Lowell Levinger ‘Grandpa Banana’ from California, on guitar, banjo, and keyboard. Lowell, the former guitar player for ’60s rock band, the Youngbloods, which was invited to play Woodstock but for some curious occurrence did not. Lowell is today a full-time member of Little Steven’s rock ’n’ roll super-star group, the Disciples of Soul.
Then we’ll be back in the US in February 2020 to play the Wintergrass Bluegrass Festival in Bellevue, WA, which we played in 2012, plus more dates on the west coast. We also have a project for an album of all Italian original songs with an Italian famous singer from the sixties, which should be released late in 2020.
Wow, thanks for bringing us up to date on your wonderful story Martino, Alla prossima!
Thanks a lot Dave. I hope to see you again soon, ciao!
You can hear Redwine’s music on AirPlay Direct and the usual streaming services.
Additional photographs by Dave Berry.