My Bluegrass Journey

Discovering Bluegrass

While I was studying at Leeds College of Music, I met a fiddle player, Ian, who would become one of my closest friends. Our friendship was cemented by a busking tour of Europe when i finished college in 1982, and we returned to Leeds to start ‘real jobs’. Ian decided to move to London, and established Kick productions, composing music for animation, commercials, documentaries and films, while I stayed in Leeds and became a van driver (for a short period of time).

I remained in regular contact with Ian while he was in London, and for many years we went skiing together in the Alps. His violin playing had dried up while he was concentrating on Kick, which was a shame, as he is a very good player, so I was happy to be told in the early 2000’s that he had started again, having discovered something called ‘bluegrass’. He played a lot of it to me one winter when we were skiing, and to be brutally honest I wasn’t really that interested in it – it all sounded much of a muchness.

A couple of years later, Ian let me know that he would be coming to Yorkshire for a weekend festival – the long running but sadly now finished Yorkshire Dales Bluegrass festival. We met up over the weekend and he told me that he had had an idea for a website, but was surprised by how much it would cost to build. When he told me the details, I confirmed that it was a reasonable price for what was not just a straight forward site, and moreover, it was just the sort of thing I did professionally. The next step was obvious – I joined with Ian to create the Bluegrass College.

The idea behind Bluegrass College was that it would be a fun way of learning to play Bluegrass, which is all about playing with other people. We would build up a library of standards, which would be available at different speeds – Slow, Medium and Fast. Each tube or song would be available for each instruemnt with mixes with and without the instrument, as well as the instrument on its own. Each arrangement would feature two solos, and easier one followed by a more advanced one. Finally, all the music would be played by top bluegrass professional musicians, mostly American.

When you consider that the site supported the six core bluegrass instruments (Fiddle, Banjo, Bass, Dobro, Guitar and Mandolin, and each tune was available at three different speeds, with three mixes per speed (with the instrument, without the instrument and solo) it gives an idea of how complex the operation would be. As if that wasnt enough, we would also video the players at the different speeds.

Ian had interested a top American fiddle player in the idea, who would be able to get us access to players in the USA, and also brought along Andy, a well known UK producer and bluegrass guitarist, to manage the recording side. The four of us each put in some initial investment, formed a company and set about our respective tasks. I concentrated on building the site, while Ian and Andy started organising the content, flying out to the US to record and film the musicians that Brian had assembled.

In the course of creating the site, I started to listen to a lot more bluegrass music, and realised that I had been somewhat hasty in my dismissal of the genre as ‘all sounding the same’. I particularly liked the fact that there was a big emphasis on playing and jamming together, and that there were lots of sessions that one could join in with. Ian used to organise a weekend get together every year, and I suggested that I came and brought my drum kit. I was told in no uncertain terms that drums were not welcomed in bluegrass, neither were keyboards (my other suggestion). It seemed that I would need to learn a new instrument.

Sore Fingers

I had always liked the sound of the banjo, and the more I heard of bluegrass, the more it grew on me. I also discovered that ther was an annual residential week, Sore Fingers Summer School, (confusingly held every Easter holiday) which took place at a public school in the Cotswolds. Ian was a regular attendee, and suggested that I get a banjo and come along. This led to my first proper bluegrass experience as a player rather than a listener, when I attended the Banjo beginner class in 2007.

Sore Fingers was something of a light bulb moment for me. For those of you who don’t know, its a one week residential course held at a public school I the heart of the Cotswolds, where professional tutors come and teach classes for all the different Bluegrass and Old Time instruments. Everything is held on campus, and there is no need to leave (although some escapees do make it as far as the nearby village pub). The outside world disappears and you can just emerge yourself in music and playing. In addition to the tuition, there are mentored scratch bands, with a student concert towards the end of the week, and as much jamming as you can stand in the evening. There are apocryphal stories of sessions continuing until dawn breaks, but the latest I have ever made to has been 4am.

The first time I went, I was a beginner banjo student, keen to experience the music I had heard while creating Bluegrass College. I persevered with banjo for three years, never really mastering it, until a ‘road to Damascus’ experience led me try the Bass at one of the shorter October weekend courses. I was hooked, and suddenly I was a banjo owner, but a bass player. The bass has become my main instrument since then, and I have got more heavily involved with Sore Fingers, transitioning onto the teaching staff through initially teaching evening sessions to demystify Music Theory, and from 2022, being on the full time teaching staff.

The scratch bands are a major part of Sore Fingers for many students. They are formed into bands on Monday, and then perform two songs in a concert on the Thursday. In between these two times there is a frantic amount of rehearsal and all of the other things that make a band – fallings out, musical differences and the rest, but a great experience, and although I didn’t feel brave enough to do it the first year, when I returned in 2008, I resolved to take the plunge.

What makes or breaks a scratch band experience is the other students that you are working with. There are horror stories of bands where the first meeting has degenerated into shouting matches, with people storming out, but I have to say that I never experienced this myself. There are a team of mentors who help the bands to form their set, and they also tend to know most of the people who might be troublesome. My first band were lovely, and perfectly happy to have a fledging banjo player amongst them, which led to my first appearance on the Sore Finger stage.

I’ve been lucky enough to perform many times since I started playing, on different instruments, and in many different genres, and in general I don’t suffer from nerves, but I don’t think I have ever had stage fright as badly as when I walked onto that stage, my banjo hung awkwardly around my neck. (Tip to all beginners – practice standing up sometimes, because if perform, that’s what you are doing!). One of my tutors described me as ‘rabbit in headlights’.

Since then, I did scratch bands every year until I joined the teaching staff. There is a strict rule that teachers cannot play in scratch bands – unless it is an emergency, and then they have to play in drag. Besides the pleasure of the scratch band experience, its also a good way to meet other people, and in my case led to me joining two different bands over the next couple of years, Cowbaby and The darling Coreys.

Didmarton Bluegrass Festival

The festival circuit is an integral part of Bluegrass, and attending them is a logical step after learning to play an instrument. The UK festivals differe in size, but one of the largest and most long runnng is the Didmarton Festival (confusingly not in Didmarton, but about 15 miles, at Kemble). Prior to Covid, this festival was run by the same people that run Sore Fingers, and, like most festivals, there is a team of volunteers who help to enable the event. The same year that I went to Sore Fingers, they were looking for additional people for the stage team, so I offered to help out. For the next few years I was a member of the stage crew, helping to build the stage before the event, cfrewing during it, and then tearing down afterwards. Although I had performed a lot in the past, I had never really been involved in the production of a professional event, and found the logistics fascinating, starting with an empty field and a marque, and then building a stage, running in power, lighting and PA, then putting it all away at the end!

At this stage, I was still very much a beginner bluegrass player, and decided that one of my aims would be to play at this festival. I managed to do so a couple of years later with Cowbaby, and have been able to perform there several times – twice with Cowbaby, several times with The Grove Band and Dalebilly, and most memorably, with Haley Carlyon, in 2019 (one of all time favourite performances).

Leeds Bluegrass Club

One of the longest running bluegrass clubs was in Leeds, at the famous Grove Pub1. The Grove was built in the Victorian era, surrounded by streets of terraced houses, which have long disappeared, and now sits in the ‘becoming-trendy’ Holbeck area (Leeds answer to Shoreditch), and on the last Thursday of the night was host to the Leeds Bluegrass Club, run for many years by Kevin and John, who also ruan the Yorkshire Dales Bluegrass festival. Both the club and the festival were very important in my discovering bluegrass. It was the Festival that Ian came to, and led to me being involved inBluegrass College, and hence learning a bluegrass instrument, but it was at the club that I first started to jam with other people (apart from at Sore Fingers – see above).

  1. Sadly, The Grove suffered an arson attack in 2023 and is currently closed, unlikely to reopen. ↩︎