BEFORE there was a burgeoning bluegrass revival, there was The Coal Porters. Katy Wheeler speaks to the band’s frontman about bringing the sound home.
For the past two decades, Sid Griffin’s fast fingers have been fanning the flames for a musical movement which is now soaring.
Back in the 1990s when Sid, a singer, songwriter, guitarist and mandolinist, formed The Coal Porters – hailed as the world’s first alt-bluegrass act – few, if any, young people would be rushing to a music shop to buy a banjo or fiddle.
Today it’s a different story as the old sound enjoys a new lease of life.
The Coal Porters have demonstrated the power of fiddle, mandolin, banjo, acoustic guitar and doghouse bass when matched with three-part harmonies and memorable melodies – and taken this up-tempo sound around the world.
Sid, formerly of American country act The Long Ryders, says the genre holds an appeal on many levels.
“It distills a vacuum of something honest and soulful,” he said.
“To get competent, it’s like skiffle, you can learn a few chords, but to reach that higher plane is a different level altogether. So that’s one reason it’s popular, it’s easy to do.
“The second reason is that it’s so soulful.
“The third is that it doesn’t take a lot of equipment. In a rock band you need drums, guitar, electric cables, pedals, symbols, snare drum, the list goes one.
“But in bluegrass it’s relatively easy – you could have one banjo, one big double bass, one fiddle – just three or four pieces and that’s your band. It takes a certain musical competence. You could learn simple harmonies, four chords, and you could do a 45 minute set. It won’t get you on the cover of NME, but it’s an introduction to the world of performing arts. Further than that is hard, it’s a steep learning curve.
“And the fourth reason is that it’s just very fun. It’s jolly and up-tempo.”
Over the years, The Coal Porters have recorded many albums. Their most recent, Find The One, was produced by industry veteran John Wood, producer of Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, Squeeze and Beth Orton.
Sid, who was born in Kentucky, but now calls London home, said: “What the scene needs is a breakthrough band. The Beatles were the breakthrough act for Merseybeat, which led to bands like Gerry and the Pacemakers.
“With punk it was the Sex Pistols and The Clash, other bands came through in the wake of these acts.
“In America it’s huge. In New York, in Brooklyn, you have these urban hipsters and a lot of them aren’t playing hip hop. They are walking round with beards and handlebar moustaches playing banjo and fiddles.
“Over here if you mention a fiddle or a banjo in a pub it’s a turn off. But it’s losing its squareness in America and that’s gradually happening here too. Go into a music shop in the North East and talk to the guys and they’ll be selling banjos.”
As well as playing Shadforth Village Hall in Durham this month as part of their autumn tour, the band will also fit in a set at The Smugglers in Roker, Sunderland. “We had a hole in the tour so the night before we play Durham we’re playing The Smugglers in Roker,” explained Sid. “We’ve played at Glastonbury where there’s been 100,000 people, in Lisbon where we’re ants on stage in front of a crowd of 75,000. But even if there’s just 75 in the room, like at Smugglers, it still works.”
Sid says there’s a quality to bluegrass music which speaks to North East people.
“There’s something in the DNA of Anglo Saxon and Celtic people which makes it appeal to them,” he said. “American folk music is a variation on a theme of music from the North East and the Borders. It’s been altered, slowed down, sped up, but it’s something that came over on a boat 240 years ago.”
*The Coal Porters play Shadforth Village Hall, South Mews, Shadforth, Durham on September 27. Tickets are £15 in advance from wegottickets.com or £17 on the door.
*The band will play The Smugglers, Roker Promenade, on September 26 from 8pm. Entry is free.