The most promising group to emerge in recent traditional bluegrass is, ironically, a trio of expatriates who relocated from the far reaches of the British Empire to the center of Texas a state with a long tradition of making things difficult for foreigners. In Texan you might say that if queer was dirt, it could cover an acre.
"Sure," admits the Greencards' mandolin player Kym Warner in the thick accent of his native Australia. "Musically and culturally, central Texas is a long way from where any of us once called home."
Warner himself hails from Adelaide, where he grew up the son of an American folk zealot and multi-instrumentalist father. As a teenager he devoured his dad's records mostly in the high-lonesome tradition of Ricky Skaggs, Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe and David Grisman and spent some time touring with the Aussie equivalent of Garth Brooks before relocating to Austin.
It was there that the long-winding paths of the band's other two members British violinist Eamon McLoughlin and dishy Australian bassist Carol Young had crossed.
"During those first times we played together, everything felt right," Warner says, talking about some initial jam sessions.
A regular Sunday gig led to four nights a week, and by the time they released their debut, 2004's Movin' On, they were earning airplay in Texas and a spot on Americana charts. The band's sound a signature combination of original songs and bluegrass standards decorated with heart-wrenching harmonies caught the ear of the roots scene in Austin and Nashville.
"As players we felt a bit like outsiders," McLoughlin says. "Our common ground with each other was the way we learned the music exclusively from studying recordings, without being able to see the music firsthand. Because of that, I think we have a different approach to playing in this style. When you can't go see the way it's done properly, and you have to figure things out yourself, you learn the material in a different way and you just kind of make it up when you can't figure it out."
Their second effort, the aptly titled collection of plaintive rainy-day nugrass called Weather and Water, shares musical common ground with Alison Krauss and Union Station, which helped, as did a tour opening the Bob Dylan-Willie Nelson double bill. At the center of Wind and Water is the expert string work of Young and McLoughlin (who, as a graduate of London's Royal School of Music, is every bit the band's violinist as he is fiddler) and the deliriously sweet vanilla of Warner's vocals. When they go for a high three-part vocal harmony over the spare acoustic instrumentation, it's every nostalgic country road you've never been on, and every God-fearing Christian girl in good jeans you've never met.
And that is why the Greencards, in the not-so-big world of acoustic roots music, are getting so big.
"It's true that things for us have gotten on the verge of something," McLoughlin says, citing the success in unexpected places as well as roots-music strongholds. McLoughlin knew something was different when they sold out a room in Nashville. "It's really difficult to make an impression on people there," he says. "They've seen everything a million times before."
Everything, maybe, except for three Aussie- and Brit-accented players picking some of the most chilling Americana ever made.
Friday, March 17, at the Ark, 316 S. Main, Ann Arbor; 734-763-8587.Nate Cavalieri is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]