Michigan’s Upper Peninsula may not be where most folks would go looking for bluegrass. Set in amongst the Great Lakes, the region was settled first by the Algonquin tribes, and later by European immigrants in search of a fortune mining copper in the 19th century. It spent time under both French and British control before being admitted as part of the state of Michigan in 1837.
But there is bluegrass in the U.P. in the form of The Johnsons Bluegrass Band. They are four siblings from a family of 12 children who caught the bluegrass bug in 2012 when someone loaned them a DVD from a festival showing many top bluegrass acts on stage. As soon as they heard it, they fell in love. But with no access to other bluegrass pickers in their region, they had to start from scratch, learning what they could by listening to CDs.
The Johnsons were a musical family, with both parents schooled in music, but this foreign style was new to all of them. Lydia, now 21, picked up the fiddle soon after hearing bluegrass, and her sister Hannah (23) grabbed the guitar and mandolin. Oldest brother Samuel (24) gravitated to the banjo, and Simon (18) is learning the bass.
All four are enjoying getting out and sharing their music with listeners new to bluegrass, which Hannah says has been a big part of the charm for her.
“It’s a fun music to play, because it’s very heartfelt. Del McCoury once said, ‘The most important thing about going onstage is if you can touch some folks with a song.’ And bluegrass really does seem to touch people. There’s a simplicity and candor about it that everybody can identify with. That’s a big goal of ours as a group—to uplift folks, whether it’s with a happy, peppy song or one that identifies with their sorrow. It makes us the happiest when it picks up somebody’s day.”
With a new single released, The Johnsons hope to connect with even more listeners through bluegrass radio. The track is an original song that Hannah wrote called Cloudy In Kentucky.
She says it grew out of her habit of sharing stories with her brothers and sisters.
“I’ve always been a storyteller. I would make up these TV-serial style stories with all these characters and keep my siblings entertained with the latest installments. And in one of them, a musician and a young lady had grown fond of each other—but she and her mother had to move to New York City. All of a sudden this song hit me. It reminds me of a ‘download.’ I could hear it, beginning to end, in my head, and it fit my story perfectly.”