The bar was bustling in Raheen House Hotel after Foghorn Stringband had finished playing. They were rubbing shoulders with people who had been singing along with them half an hour earlier. Gerry Lawless who runs Clonmel World Music was explaining why, after travelling the length and breadth of Ireland to catch bands and attend gigs, he had decided to start running his own shows; why he had started to bring music like Foghorn Stringband to his own town. “You need a place for music,” he was telling us. If you have it in a pub, half the f****** are talking. They pay to drink at the bar.” He was laughing at the thought of it. We were laughing at his pain.
The packed room at Raheen that night had listened, and whooped a bit, sung along, and started the spontaneous clapping that accompanies people being swept along with the music – in this case from a band that conjures the best of North American folk with its old-time music, classic country, bluegrass, Cajun, and more. A sweeping array of American roots; plucked and twanged, fiddled, sung and harmonised, with a proud grasp on their heritage.
“Five guys started the band together,” co-founder Caleb Klauder told me. “Two of us are still here 15 years later.” Stephen ‘Sammy’ Lind (vocals, fiddle, banjo) is the other survivor. “But we always call him Sammy,” Klauder continued. “Our old banjo player decided that Stephen wasn’t a fiddle player’s name, but Sammy was.” Over the years they have been joined by Nadine Landry offering belting, haunting vocals and rhythmic double bass, while Reeb Willms’ guitar and vocals epitomise the tradition on display, and the skills behind that tradition.
Caleb Klauder grew up on Orcas Island in Washington State with a childhood friend who shared his passion for music. The pair were writing songs together as teenagers, but it wasn’t until they left the island for university that they formed the band which was eventually to become the seven-piece Calobo. With fellow band members including Jenny Conlee and Nate Query (Decemberists), they travelled across America, and were particularly successful in the Pacific Northwest playing original songs “along the lines of Crosby Stills and Nash or Jackson Browne … a big sounding folk rock band.”
In the middle of all this though, Klauder’s musical ear was gradually starting to veer in a different direction. “I was a little more into country acoustic,” he explained. “I really love the acoustic sound of the guitar but yet we were this big band that was all plugged in and electric – big production. The songs I was writing were coming more and more from a country angle rather than this poppy vocal groovy thing. It was the mid-90s, everyone was playing jam band music, and in the States everyone wanted to groove out.”
“So I was writing these things and musically I started to stray from the middle line of the group. At the same time I was studying music at university, and simultaneously fiddle and mandolin popped into my life via different little avenues.” He took extra fiddle classes “from a teacher who was teaching traditional old time music and Irish music with nothing written down, just playing it … that was just the way that he taught, which is the way I had been learning music. I had done a little reading of music, but most of it was in my mind, and in my head, and in my ears. I would hear stuff, and I would imitate things, and I would make up stuff. So it was perfectly up my alley to listen and play, I love that.” He started to go to bluegrass sessions in Portland where he was living. “And at the same time I started writing songs that kind of needed to go on a different album.”
In 2000 Klauder recorded his first solo album, Sings Out, a collection of bluegrass, rock, country, and folk songs. It was produced by renowned Portland producer and musician Luther Russell, a central figure in creating “that Portland sound” associated with the likes of Fernando and Richmond Fontaine. (Indeed Fontaine’s Freddy Trujillo is credited with bass and vocals on the album). By this stage Klauder was playing with a traditional stringband called Pig Iron. “Well Pig Iron would play any time there was an old time music event in Portland,” Sammy explained. “It was a small community at that point and there would be a few tunes afterwards. We just became really good buddies and started to get together informally. Then we got together a bit of a repertoire, so we started the Foghorn Stringband.”
“The bass player and the banjo player in Pig Iron, and myself, were also in Foghorn,” Klauder explained. When Pig Iron “collapsed,” Foghorn Stringband rose from the ashes. “It was really just a drive and love for traditional tunes,” said Sammy. “That’s how Foghorn started, and now it has developed, it all feels like it has come natural, you know? “
Through the sessions they played, and the material they worked on, they gradually developed a repertoire. “We were playing a lot of square dances with the aid of a square dance caller called Bill Martin,” Sammy continued. Martin, who has since sadly passed away, was passionate about square dancing. “The same way that we go and play old style music, he was all fired up and just excited to play tunes for dancers. So that really got us going and all of a sudden we were playing these dances.”
Sammy grew up in Minnesota, “which you don’t think of as a hotbed of traditional music but that’s where Bob Dylan came from.” (And Charlie Parr, The Jayhawks, Hüsker Dü, …) long years ago, as Minnesota became home to numerous communities from around the world, each brought their own customs, their own music. Swedish, Norwegian, and Finnish music merged into Scandinavian music, looked on now as a type of old-time music. “I grew up listening to Doc Watson …. And so I really got into guitar when I was really young and then I eventually started to meet people who were playing this kind of music … And I always loved Irish traditional music. When I was ten years old my brother gave me a record of The Pogues, and that led me to listening to bands like Planxty, Altan, and The Bothy Band.” The die was cast.
Nadine Landry on the other hand is from the Gaspé Coast of Eastern Quebec. She’s inspired by a plethora of folk singers from the area, and while taking her influences from doyens of their craft like Hank Williams, a very specific inspiration came from bluegrass pioneer and mighty advocate for coal miners and general workers, Hazel Dickens,. “I try to sing like that,” Landry explained. “Singing songs that existed before microphones existed. So you just have to kind of belt it out. That’s kind of how I see it. I have to picture a room. I have no microphone, people are dancing, and partying, and drinking, and fighting. I’ve got to be louder than that, so …”
She had been following Foghorn Stringband round the festival circuit as a fan for a few years when, in 2008, she was asked to stand in for Sammy. “He had hurt his hand” she explained. “I was dancing and he asked ‘maybe you can play guitar?’ So I played guitar all night. And that was it.” Seems she was a fully paid up member from that point.
I wonder had Sammy really hurt his hand though? Maybe this was some kind of cunning plan. Either way, it was her musical upbringing, with “a grandma, who taught all the kids to play guitar and piano,” that set her on her on that path in the first place. On growing older she decided to visit her aunt in the Yukon, the most north-western corner of Canada. She went for two weeks, and stayed 17 years. While there she was playing some guitar and a bit of mandolin, and then she heard that a friend was selling their double bass. “Being where we were, if I had ever wanted to buy one the shipping costs would have been as much as the bass itself. So right away I jumped on the opportunity. I told people I’m going to buy a bass and they said ‘Oh! I didn’t know you played.’ I said ‘Oh! I’ve never touched one.’ It seemed like a good idea,” she laughed above the chatter at the bar in Clonmel. “It was a good idea” she carried on, nodding emphatically and laughing at the same time.
At that point guitar player Reeb Willms came over to join us. There was something reminiscent about the story from Willms. A native of the vast Eastern farmlands of Washington State, Willms too had her musical career forged from a musical upbringing. “My dad and uncles played guitar in a country band when they were younger, so I’ve seen them play guitar and sing. Maybe that’s why it seemed like an obvious thing to do.” She too had been a Foghorn Stringband fan for a long time, and was in an “old-time band that we played casually around town.” The band “had various names over the years,” she laughed. At one stage it was called The Shadies, but “the most recent name was the Country Messengers. We played classic country, but like all of us we had day jobs and we just played for fun.” They knew “Foghorn’s music and we became friends with them through meeting at festivals. Eventually I guess there was one summer when the [original] guitar player … he couldn’t make it on tour. So they asked me to go along to play guitar for this festival. I went along and played for them and later in the year they asked me to join them full time.” The band hasn’t looked back.
The babble at the bar was waning as people started heading home. It was time for the troubadours to hit the sack.
Check out Clonmel World Music for their new season programme of events.
Monday 16th Oct.: Tom Crean Antarctic Explorer (Aidan Dooley)
Tuesday 17th Oct.: Tom Crean Antarctic Explorer (Aidan Dooley)
Thursday Oct 26th: Slocan Ramblers (Canada)
Thursday 09th Nov.: Eilen Jewell Band (USA)
Wednesday. Nov 15th: The Paperboys (Canada)
You can reserve tickets by PM on Facebook or contact Gerry Lawless on (086)3389619.