Toy Hearts stretch out

Toy Hearts have rocketed to a premier position among British bluegrass bands. In truth, their reach is more international in scope, with multiple trips to the US to perform, and regular touring on the European continent as well.

There is much similarity between Toy Hearts and many of the young acoustic acts in the US, with some notable distinctions. The band has a family makeup, consisting primarily of Stewart Johnson with his two twenty-something daughters, Hannah and Sophia. The girls are the focus of their stage show, and their image is more high fashion than down home, with something of the vamp in several of their songs.

And like many young bands, they are experimenting with influences outside the purely bluegrass realm. But the styles that inform their music remain uniquely American.

The group is working now on their fourth album, which is set to be completed in January. Guitarist Sophia Johnson tells us that the organic course of their evolving songwriting interests is leading the sound towards more of an Americana project, embracing elements of bluegrass, country western swing, rockabilly and blues.

“It is not going to be bluegrass per se – it actually has drums on every track (alert the police!). It will feature 7 new original songs and a selection of covers including songs by Bob Wills, Wayne Hancock, Ronnie Self and Bessie Smith. One of our original numbers is actually an homage to the Time Jumpers at the Station Inn!

Although we are doing the majority of the recording here in our home studio, we will then be sending the files over to the USA. David Mayfield is going to be producing again, and Eamon Mclaughlin will be playing fiddle. It will have all our bluegrass instruments as usual, but in addition Dad will be playing pedal steel and his triple 8 non pedal steel. I will be playing my Gibson arch top on a lot of the tracks as well.”

Sophia said that this new project is leaning a bit towards the western swing side, something evident in their live sets these days.

“We are continuing to develop our own sound and songwriting, and all the elements of American music that we love so much just creep into that!

Our live show has also changed in the last year. We now do our first set acoustic/bluegrass, and for the second set we ‘go electric’ – Dad plays steel and I play my arch top. Hannah stays on mandolin, and John Potter on bass.

We have been having great success with this formula and are looking forward to doing a big tour of Germany in February, then all across the UK April – June. The plan is to head stateside in the Fall of 2012.”

Given the opportunity, Sophia shared a good bit more about Toy Hearts’ drift toward swing, and how they feel about “crossing over” from bluegrass.

“Well, as has probably been evident from our first album, where we included Right or Wrong from the Bob Wills repertoire, we have always been big fans of swing music – and particularly both western swing and gypsy jazz in particular, although Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, Bille Holiday, etc have always been played at home.

I have remarked before about the similarities I believe there are between bluegrass and gypsy jazz. Briefly, Django called the hotclub of Paris ‘a mini orchestra without drums’ – and I guess to me that describes a bluegrass band pretty accurately as well. The pumping rhythm is a common feature, the drive coming from the bass on the on beat, and the mandolin/rhythm guitar on the off beat. There is also the fact that there are standard numbers in both genres – which everyone knows – and they provide a structured framework that people can jam to and improvise over.

I also believe that there are big cross overs with the repertoires of the European Hot Club bands and the American Western Swing bands – take numbers like Dinah and Sweet Georgia Brown for example which fit perfectly into both genres.

We (Dad, Han and myself) have made several trips to the USA over the years since 2005, making pilgrimages to see The Time Jumpers at the Station Inn if we are in Nashville, or the Hot Club of Cowtown if we’re in Austin. We decided at the end of 2010 that we wanted to try and incorporate some of this into our set. Although we have been playing swing on bluegrass instruments, since day one of the band, it wasn’t until 2011 that we started the western swing set properly, and made it the second half of our show.

The catalyst was dad buying a new steel guitar (he previously had a twin neck, but he obviously needed an upgrade to a third!) He got a 1952 Fender Triple 8 (non pedal), on which he uses three different tunings (C6, E13, and B11). Dad has always been a huge fan of players such as Buddy Emmons, Speedy West & Leon McCauliffe. In addition I had been on the look out for an arch top guitar. I remember Darren Vincent playing a lovely one when we opened for Ricky Skaggs, and while we were in Guthrie OK, I couldn’t resist getting myself a 1958 Gibson ES 125.

We were there playing at the Oklahoma Inernational Bluegrass Festival run by Byron Berline, who has a veritable treasure trove of instruments in his Double Stop Fiddle Shop! Anyway, he made me a great offer on the guitar and I have been engrossed with this style of playing ever since. I have Ranger Doug’s instructional DVD (I got it from Gruhns when we were recording Femme Fatale!) and Whit Smith’s DVD too -I am also a big fan of Austin Guitarist Redd Volkart, as well as loving the old greats Eldon Shamblin, Jimmy Bryant etc

One of the most fun things about including this set up in our live show is that we now get to play the classic Twin Guitar Special in the second half, which is currently my favourite number in the set.

Having said this  – we want to make it clear that bluegrass is still a huge part of what we do and we will never stop playing in that style. Although we don’t love the high lonesome sound any less than we used to, our love of swing has grown and grown, and now fans keep asking when they can buy a cd of this stuff  – so we decided to make one! However, as usual, the songs we have written have come out a in variety of different ‘feels’ – so it wont be a strict western swing record either.

I should also mention that anther thing on our minds is that we believe it is of paramount importance to get national radio play here in the UK if we are to survive and earn a living through our music. We are deliberately making a record that we hope will be a bit more accessible to mainstream radio. That is not to say we believe we are dumbing down what we do. In contrast, we believe that getting The Toy Hearts played on national radio, not just the specialist programmes, is actually a really good thing for bluegrass. It gets people to come to our gigs who have never heard bluegrass before, and when we sock it to them by opening our set with a hard driving Bill Monroe number, people are blown away. Often we get people asking about who we like and listen to, and we always try and spread the bluegrass gospel.

I know we have been accused of not really committing to one genre in particular – the ‘jack of all trades’ has been levelled at us before. We do acknowledge that some people might feel this way – there are purists in every genre – but I can honestly say the response we have been getting live is completely different.

We are still developing our own sound and don’t feel the need to make strict distinctions between the types of music that influence us – it all goes into our melting pot! People are enthused by the range of material we play and can see the connections between it all. They go away from our shows ready to look up Bill Monroe and Bob Wills – we think that can only be a good thing!”

With the question of radio play in mind, Johnson also shared this tidbit:

“A great thing just happened last week… Ronnie Wood played our song When I Cut Loose on his programme for Absolute Radio here in the UK. He described us as:  ‘Influenced by the Nashville guitar pickers and singers, they are two very sweet girls.’

What a great compliment to have a Rolling Stone as a fan!”

No name as of yet for this new album, but Sophia has promised to keep us in the loop.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.