Toy Hearts tell Stefan Kucharczyk why bluegrass music is cool again
It is probably no surprise that the twang of the banjo, odes to ole Kentucky and the other unmistakable sounds of bluegrass country and western music are not currently rocking the nation’s iPods.
Whether you love it or hate it, bluegrass is tarnished with redneck-related jest and remains a jarring anachronism alongside the dance and pop acts of the mainstream.
However, one Birmingham band is currently turning heads by bringing a contemporary edge to a tried and tested formula.
Following the release of their debut album If the Blues Come Calling, bluegrass six-piece the Toy Hearts are bringing the sound of the American Mid West to the English West Mids.
Many families bond through a shared activity – some may enjoy canoeing, painting or rambling (literally, in my family’s case).
But, inspired by Bill Monroe, who conceived Bluegrass by infusing Celtic folk music with jazz and blues in 1940s Bible Belt America, sisters Hannah and Sophia and dad Stewart Johnson of Kings Heath have channelled their shared musical passion by forming country and western band, Toy Hearts in 2001.
Since then, the Toy Hearts – incidentally named after a Monroe song – have firmly established themselves on the UK’s country and western circuit adding Jamie Fekete, Howard Gregory and Rick Butt to their line-up on mandolin, fiddle and bass respectively.
They have held a weekly residency at the Roadhouse country club in Stirchley since 2003.
Meeting Toy Hearts’ vocalists and leading ladies Hannah and Sophia before their show last Sunday, they insist that the strong family bond is behind the band’s growing success.
"I don’t think we ever intended to start a band", states Sophia, aged 24. "A lot of people think we might have been pushed into this, but we have grown up listening to bluegrass and rock and roll."
Wielding an impressive, almost encyclopaedic knowledge of the roots and lore of country music, it is impossible not to be charmed by their impassioned enthusiasm.
"It is a lovely working dynamic – I think bluegrass really thrives on blood harmonies," adds Hannah, aged 21, who is currently studying for her A Levels.
"Of course we fall out sometimes, but it is just normal. We are a regular family away from the band. We enjoy watching The Sopranos together and things like that."
Perhaps an empathetic relationship with another organised family.
Dad Stewart has been a widely respected banjo and dobro player for almost 50 years, whilst his daughters have been raised on a diet of playing and appreciating country music – Sophia first picked up the guitar aged seven after falling in love with Michael J Fox’s Johnny B Goode routine in Back to the Future.
For those of you still in the dark, the traditional framework for bluegrass music includes acoustic guitars, a banjo or two, fiddle, bass and mandolin led by harmonising vocalists. But whereas Toy Hearts have embraced these elements, it is the influence of a younger generation which lends the band a more progressive and accessible sound.
"Bill Monroe is a guru for all bluegrass musicians," says Hannah. "But we listen to other music as well. Alison Krauss, Dixie Chicks and even Elvis are all big influences on us."
"What I love about playing country is that you can’t fake it," says Sophia. "All the instruments are acoustic – nothing is manipulated. You have to be able to get up there and play."
"It’s an organic thing," adds Hannah. "It feels like this is how music should be performed."
But isn’t a Midlands family singing about lonesome hearts in Tennessee a little misplaced?
"We went to Nashville in August to promote the album," explains Sophia. "Some people found our take on the music quite strange. I don’t think some of them could get past our English accents."
"We have our influences, but for us, Toy Hearts’ is a British interpretation of bluegrass."
Impressively, their debut album neatly avoids a string of reworked country hits of yesteryear and is almost wholly their own work.
Key track City Girl is a fitting example of how Toy Hearts are taking a contemporary approach. Although it has the familiar aspects of the bluegrass sound, the lyrics about the rigours of urban life have a striking effect.
"Bluegrass usually gets a negative response. People think it is all rednecks and hillbillies, checked shirts and people shouting ‘yeehaar’," they admit laughing.
"Slowly people are turning around. We are starting to get younger crowds coming to see us."
It is not just wishful thinking, either. Venturing along to their first gig of the year, I could be forgiven for expecting a scattering of snoozing old men, but the place is packed out and the young, hip audience is definitely in the majority.
So, is 2007 set to be the year of the banjo?
"It seems in the last few years, bluegrass has suddenly become quite cool," observes Hannah. "We are meeting more and more people who enjoy it."
"Even the success of the Cohen brothers’ film O Brother Where Art Thou has helped give it a greater popular appeal."
If the last 12 months are anything to go by, the next year offers serious promise.
As well as their weekly gig in Birmingham, Toy Hearts have toured around the UK and were even invited to perform at the Royal Opera House last August.
The girls are tight-lipped over their long-term ambitions, however. "We are looking to spend the next year promoting the album, but I don’t think we would be ready to hand over everything to a record label just yet," says Sophia.
"We want to keep working hard and just keep enjoying playing for ourselves."
"It is strange for us because we are not playing on Sunday – for the last three years Sunday night has been band night," she adds.
"What will we do instead? Probably rehearse. Or maybe we’ll watch The Sopranos."
If the Blues Come Calling is available through www.toyhearts.co.uk