The pandemic has had and is still having a considerable effect on people’s lives and lifestyle with many performance arts, including bluegrass music, severely restricted with no audiences for well over a year.
As the impact of COVID-19 appears to be under greater control (at least in some places), ‘live’ performance with people allowed to attend festivals and concerts are becoming more commonplace. That is the case in the UK just as much as it has been in the US and other countries where bluegrass music is popular.
One such event was the Battlefield Bluegrass Festival, Naseby, Northamptonshire, originally scheduled for May, that took place from July 22 to 26, 2021.
The concerts featured a variety of bands, among these were …
The Fountaineers, a quartet from Glasgow, that plays a mix of bluegrass and roots music. They formed through a shared love of bluegrass music in the summer of 2020, as a result of socially distanced interactions during lockdown. Their shared musical heroes include Flatt & Scruggs, Alison Krauss & Union Station, and Tony Rice.
The band released their debut single – the Mandolin Orange song Old Ties and Companions – in September 2020, are working on an EP, to be available soon, and will showcase virtually as part of the international offering at the 2021 IBMA Bluegrass Ramble.
For their appearance at Naseby only three of the group – Michael Wright (vocals and guitar); the classically trained Jeri Foreman, from Australia, (vocals and fiddle); and Callum Morton-Teng (mandolin), a graduate of the prestigious Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, where he spent some time in America during an exchange program studying under the mandolin legend Adam Steffey at ETSU – participated, offering their version of Ridge Road Gravel (Norman Blake and Tony Rice) and Done Gone.
The Bow-Legged Skeeter has been a five-piece band since 2010, with some personnel changes along the way. The band name comes phrase from an old-time fiddle tutor, heard at a Sore Fingers music camp.
The band members – Richard Filleul (vocals and guitar); Pete Minkey (vocals and mandolin); Lindsey Cole, who has been singing for eight years, (vocals and bass), Tim Hextall (fiddle) and, guesting on banjo, Richard Holland (due to Mick Franks being unavailable) – are based across adjoining counties Dorset, Hampshire, and Wiltshire, in southern England.
Their set included When You Go Out Walking (Lonesome River Band) and the classic Carolina Mountain Home.
Brian Dowdall, The Rocky Road Pilgrims’ guitarist, founded the Battlefield Bluegrass Festival after driving through Naseby, a few miles south of where he lives, and noticed the village hall and wide expanse of grassland alongside; somewhere ideal for such an event.
His bluegrass odyssey includes playing in The Double Eagle Band (with Tom Wolf) in the early 1980s, performing at the Berkshire Mountains Bluegrass Festival, recording with Foxchase Bluegrass Band before forming his current band.
Other members are Richard Loeber (tenor vocals and bass); Peter Viner (banjo); Richard Partridge (fiddle), who, like Embery, was a part of what is considered to have been the strongest line-up of Monroe’s Revenge, and more recently the bass player for the New Essex Bluegrass Band; and Phillip Lewis (mandolin).
While initially established as a bluegrass Gospel group, the host band’s set included another classic Lester Flatt/Earl Scruggs’ song On my Mind….
The Welshpool, mid-Wales-based close-harmony duo, Willow Station – Luke Day and Jordan Lea – was formed around January 2021, about 15 years after they first met. They never actually sang together until they did so spontaneously in local bars from around eight years ago. Having found shared musical interests with Day, a big Johnny Cash fan before gravitating to bluegrass music, and Lea, a life-long Patsy Cline fan. She’s a Grade 8 singer and has many years of experience singing in a variety of genres, including Motown, northern soul, and, most notably, country music, although no stranger to bluegrass music.
Already a proficient picker of Irish traditional tunes, Day first heard Tony Rice around the age of 18 and has since devoted 10 years to learning his style and the wider bluegrass vocabulary.
The band name is a combination of the word “willow” from the Patsy Cline song, Walking After Midnight, and “station,” which is where they first met. It acknowledges the Skaggs and Rice recording of the Carter Family song Bury Me Beneath The Weeping Willow also.
In this video the duo showcases its harmonic skills with their version of Jimmy Martin’s Hold Watcha Got.
Banjo Bounce, based around Winchester, Hampshire, consists of Richard Holland (banjo), and singer-songwriter Rick Tarrant (guitar) who, over 25 years ago, both played in the band Contraband. They are fellow veteran s of North Drive. Holland,s influences include Earl Scruggs, Ron Block, and a local picker, Richard Collins, while Tarrant’s principal influences are Doc Watson and Tony Rice.
This clip shows the duo performing their version of Johnny Bond’s I Wonder Where You Are Tonight.
Opening the evening concert were the winners of the single mike competition, The Boatswain Brothers (The Boatswain Brothers and the Pitch Hill Boys) and friends – 16-year-old Oscar (banjo) and Harley Boatswain (the 14-year- old guitarist). Together they play a variety of instruments – banjo, guitar, mandolin, bass, violin, and piano. Influenced by the Scotch-Irish and American folk tunes that their grandfather would play on the piano with his country dance band, the brothers have played music together from a vey early age.
They attended the Naseby Festival for fun and when they realised there was a competition, they put together a scratch band by touring the tents recruiting willing individuals, who assisted during their stage performance also. The impromptu band featured veteran Dick Embery, substituting for the brothers’ regular bass player Alfie Clarke, Pez Rylance (mandolin), and the outstanding Jimmy Van Lin ‘The Funky Fiddler,’ currently with The Biggin Hillbillies and Captain Swing.
Their 25-minute set included their versions of Della Mae, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, Rock Salt and Nails, Cripple Creek, Dear Old Dixie and for the rousing encore, Rollin’ In My Sweet Baby’s Arms.
Molly and the Blackbriar Band started in the Wallington (south London) area about seven years ago.
Molly Lucey – a powerful singer from County Cork in Ireland – is a great fan of country music, Texas swing, as well as bluegrass music. Accompanying her are Mike Artes (vocals and guitar) a long-standing member of the UK bluegrass music family, having played bass with Orange Blossom Sound, who in the 1960s and 1970s were very successful with appearances on radio, TV, and at many of the top venues of the day, and two LPs; Dick Embery (bass), another well-established musician on the UK bluegrass scene, having played in bands with most of the current top performers, including a stint with Monroe’s Revenge; Jimmy Van Lin (vocals and fiddle); and Hilary Gowen (banjo), an enthusiastic newcomer to the bluegrass world.
Shame on You is a Western Swing song written by Spade Cooley and became his signature song ….
The New Essex Bluegrass Band was formed in 1994 as a quartet, and added a fiddle player in 2005. From the outset they adopted the single microphone for their stage sound. They appeared throughout Britain as well as a few countries in Europe. The band played together for the last time at The Orwell Bluegrass Festival in May 2019.
However, co-founders Paul Brewer (guitar) and Terry Hymers (mandolin) have continued to perform together, keeping the name current by dubbing themselves the New Essex Bluegrass Brothers.
Their set featured James B. Coats’ The Sweetest Gift and Steve Earle’s I Am Just A Pilgrim.
Sence Valley, from Leicestershire, is another lockdown band formed by good friends and two near neighbors whom Guy Rogers, guitarist in the band, has known through teaching for 15 years; songwriter Darren Jones (bass); and Ben Storer (reso-guitar).
Multi-instrumentalist Rogers has been performing acoustic music for over 40 years, with 15 years’ experience singing lead and harmony vocals and playing mandolin and guitar in the award-winning Down County Boys. He has taught both banjo and guitar at Sore Fingers Summer School and has for many years served as a BBMA representative.
Sing Me A Love Song was penned by Rogers.
Other bands that performed during the concerts included the Morris Boys, The Dog House Ramblers, The Vanguards, The Grove Band, Leen Valley, and One Tree Hillbillies.
Video credits: Geoff Clements (backporchpicker).
The performances of so many talented young pickers and singers bodes well for the future of bluegrass music in the UK.
The first Battlefield Bluegrass Festival took place in May 2016 and, as well as UK acts, it included the Schutt Family Band from France and the Stroatklinkers from The Netherlands. In subsequent years, as sponsorship was available, the international representation included the fabulous Purple Hulls, from Texas; G’Runs & Roses, and Ralph Schut and Radek Vancat from the Czech Republic; Matt and Ruben and the Truffle Valley Boys from Italy.
Listed in the Doomsday Book, Naseby is famous as being close to the site of an English Civil War battle. The Battle of Naseby took place on 14 June, 1645, during the English Civil War. In the area called Broad Moor, a short distance north of the village, the Royalist forces, commanded by King Charles I, battled the Roundhead army commanded by Thomas Fairfax, 3rd Lord Fairfax of Cameron. The battle resulted in a decisive Royalist defeat.