Music & concerts

Blue grass

Blue Grass Boogiemen have been playing authentic bluegrass on the guitar, double bass, banjo, violin and mandolin for over 30 years. Now in dB’s, this Utrecht band will pay homage to one of their greatest heroes: country legend Hank Williams.

text: Machiel Coehorst
photography: André Dieteman

A poster of the American country singer has pride of place in the living room of singer/guitarist/violinist Arnold Lasseur. ‘I bought it in London when I was 18 and it’s moved with me ever since. The poster is now older than Hank Williams himself ever became.’ Hank Williams, who died of an overdose of morphine and alcohol at 29, is considered to be one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. ‘The first time I heard him, it felt like a slap in the face – in a good way. He sounded uncompromising and direct, traits I’ve always admired.’

You can hear the same directness in the music you make with the Blue Grass Boogiemen.
‘You’re right. The in your face feeling, as it were. I was playing in a punk band (also uncompromising music by the way…) when I discovered that acoustic music could also sound good. My father used play a lot of Irish music, and it was so beautifully sad! I was particularly in awe of the way the tones of an acoustic instrument made me feel. That was the start of my ongoing love affair with acoustic music. And it’s why I love bluegrass.’

Tell me about the origins of bluegrass
‘It’s acoustic music, classified as traditional country, but usually played much faster. The American singer-songwriter Bill Monroe is the founding father of this genre. His weekly performances in the amazingly popular Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in the 1940s made him a huge star in the USA. Monroe had a particular sound in mind, and experimented with the formation of his band. Around 1945, a banjo player who played in the style Monroe was looking for joined the band. So together with the double bass, mandolin, violin and guitar, the blueprint for the bluegrass sound evolved.’

What makes you enjoy playing it so much?
‘It’s really fast and I have to give everything I’ve got. You never completely master it. I practise every weekday and I don’t mind admitting, it’s hard work. I only used to do this to learn new things, but now it’s to keep the old songs up to scratch too. Our repertoire is expanding so there’s more to remember. And I have to sing so high that only the dogs can hear me. Haha.’

How did you roll into the genre?
‘I started playing bluegrass as a street musician. At the time, I played 1950s country and rock ‘n roll with the double bass player Aart Schroevers, and bluegrass, but without the violin and mandolin. We met the other musicians of what would later become the Hillbilly Boogiemen (the predecessor of the Blue Grass Boogiemen) during our street shows.’

Where does the name bluegrass come from?
‘Bill Monroe called his band the Blue Grass Boys, a reference to the State of Kentucky. Every US state has a nickname: Texas is the Lone Star State, Tennessee the Volunteer State, etc. The grass in Kentucky had a blueish tinge, hence the name. Fun fact: in the 17th century, they called this Dutch grass, probably because  they thought that the grass came from the Netherlands. Around the millennium, we toured the USA with the Blue Grass Boogiemen several times. Although our music is nothing new there, people really appreciated a Dutch band playing authentic bluegrass music as opposed to the modernised version now common in the USA.’

Is this music popular in the Netherlands?
‘When we started the Hillbilly Boogiemen, it was widely viewed as conservative hippy music or redneck music. This all changed with the film O, Brother Where Art Thou? in 2000, when bluegrass suddenly became socially acceptable. MTV’s Unplugged sessions, with Nirvana for example, also added to the appeal of acoustic music. People started asking us about the instruments at gigs. We recently played at an annual bluegrass festival in Rotterdam, which always attracts large audiences. We performed there with Douwe Bob.’

Your partnership with Tim Knol was a great success.
‘Yes, Tim grew up with bluegrass music. His father still plays old-time, which predates bluegrass. Tim first saw us perform when he was 12 and his father took him to see us in Tivoli. A few years later, we invited him onto the stage and this planted the seed for our joint album Happy Hour. It was an unexpected, instant success. We’ll be working on a follow-up this autumn.’

> Hank Williams’ 100th Birthday Bash with Blue Grass Boogiemen & The Wieners
17 September, dB’s

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