There's a small but thriving bluegrass scene in the UK – one that Huddersfield musician Maria Wallace is working hard to promote and grow.
On Thursday, May 21, she is launching what she hopes will be the first of many acoustic and roots music concerts at the Lawrence Batley Theatre. And for the event she is featuring three musicians – two from America – who are virtuoso players of traditional bluegrass and modern jazz.
The Gordy, Somers & Walsh trio is currently playing a handful of dates in the UK and Europe and will be stopping off at the LBT Syngenta Cellar to bring the distinctive sound of Appalachia to a Yorkshire audience.
Last year Maria, who lives near Meltham, founded a music promotion company, True North, to stage Americana, bluegrass and jazz events. It is her aim to attract musicians from the genre to the region. Two previous gigs in Sheffield were sell-outs. As she explains, bluegrass has a loyal following but until now local fans have had to travel considerable distances to find gigs. “I wanted to be able to see bands closer to home, so I thought I’d give it a go,” she added.
At the Huddersfield concert her own band, also called True North, will support the professional trio, which comprises double bass player Ben Somers, from London; guitarist Grant Gordy, who is based in New York, and Joe Walsh, a mandolin player from Portland in Maine. The multi-talented musicians began playing together at festivals and while working as tutors at the Sore Fingers Music Camp in Oxfordshire, an annual event attended by bluegrass enthusiasts who want to improve their musicianship.
Maria herself has been a regular attender at Sore Fingers for the past seven years, which is how she came to meet the musicians and ask if they would make an appearance in Huddersfield. She explained: “The camp brings all the top players from the States to be tutors and there is a lot of collaboration between them, with them forming bands to play at the finale concert.”
Her own interest in playing bluegrass began when her husband gave her the gift of a bluegrass banjo for Christmas. Apart from learning the piano as a child, Maria had no musical experience and so signed herself up to her first, aptly-named, Sore Fingers camp. After that she found a teacher closer to home and started attending festivals. “And that led to playing with other people,” she said. “Then I got interested in playing the fiddle, started fiddle lessons – and starting singing.” She also learned to play the guitar.
True North, the band, is comprised of Maria (lead vocals and rhythm guitar) and three other local musicians – James Munroe (double bass and vocals); Neil Diffley (lead guitar) and John Beevers (fiddle). They musicians have played at Holmfirth Festival of Folk and Hepworth Live.
As a genre, bluegrass developed in the Eastern American region known as Appalachia. Its roots, however, came from the folk music of the British Isles and arrived in the US with the settlers. It is also influenced by African-American traditional music and is often improvised, like jazz.