Bluegrass for the masses

The Abrams Brothers, who recently performed in Israel for their fourth time in six years, are working hard to revitalize the genre for a new generation.

The Abrams Brothers370 (photo credit: Sarina Penn)
The Abrams Brothers370
(photo credit: Sarina Penn)
Earlier this year, just off the shore of the Sea of Galilee, a young Canadian bluegrass outfit was taking the stage at the Jacob’s Ladder Festival for the first time – in 2013, that is. At the ages of 22 and 20, this was the Abrams Brothers’ fourth time headlining the festival since 2007, when they had still routinely shared the stage with other family members.
Back then, even as cherub-faced adolescents, the brothers had come to Israel as accomplished, seasoned musicians who for years had toured extensively around the United States during summers off from school, spring break and weekends. They even performed at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry in 2005, making them the youngest Canadians ever to do so (an oft-cited fact that still bears repeating).
At that point, the Abrams Brothers’ style had been pure, straight-ahead bluegrass: They played a raft of traditional covers, and there were no electric instruments or percussion in sight.
Now, armed with a wealth of original material, they perform a sharply executed blend of bluegrass – what John calls the “root” of their music – and heavy doses of rock and folk, which demand a more modernized sound that necessarily breaks the unwritten rules of the genre. At Jacob’s Ladder, for instance, they were backed by bassist Jason Mercer and drummer Cam Giroux.
“I think it was important that we focused on bluegrass growing up, being able to really excel at one discipline,” says John.
“Because now, when we create our own music, we have a general sort of guideline as to how we want to go about that.” But their influences are diverse, he says, and “playing with drums or playing with upright or electric bass – sort of a more rock style – it’s just natural for our generation.”
The frenzied young’ns in the dance section next to the Jacob’s Ladder stage would probably attest to this. As John (on guitar) and James (on fiddle, banjo and piano) strummed, finger-picked, harmonized, jumped and head-banged on stage, a sea of long hair, beards, peasant skirts, cowboy hats and Aladdin-style pants bobbed, leapt and twirled down below.
“I think in order for bluegrass to continue to grow, it shouldn’t be preserved,” says John, who started on violin at age nine and picked up a few other instruments before more settling primarily on guitar in more recent years. “Any time somebody tries to put some sort of preservation on art, it usually stays with that age group or it just stays in the past.”
“There’s no such thing as ‘corrupting the art,’” he says.
Younger brother James, who began playing at age six and writing songs at around nine, describes the path away from rigid bluegrass structures as a natural process of sorts. Earlier on, he says, he had been surrounded by an abundance of simple, “very straight,” major-key bluegrass tunes – and that “forced” him to want to write in the minor key and generally stretch the limits of the genre.
John notes they’re also exploring music that “has a lot of space,” like Coldplay-style atmospheric rock – most obvious in their intriguing bluegrass-flavored rendition of the Coldplay hit “Viva La Vida,” off The Abrams Brothers’ 2011 release Northern Redemption. “I think that’s where we really kind of try to take bluegrass and open it up a little bit,” John says. “Bluegrass is usually, in its traditional form, very direct music.”
Yet because it is “already such a pulsing acoustic music,” he says, they “saw a natural fit – a harmony” between that style and “the arena-rock drum beat that pulses forward,” he says, demonstrating by slapping a driving beat on his knee for a measure or two.
All in all, John says, their latest original material “feels most like our music – it’s music we were sort of meant to play.”
Tracing back to the very beginning of their musical development, gospel is “really where we come from,” says John. Their father Brian, a lawyer-turned-judge, had been rooted in that style as a musician before he gravitated toward bluegrass later in life – which he then passed on to his sons. “And of course the harmonies in Southern gospel music relate a lot to bluegrass harmonies. So there was a natural fit there when we started playing bluegrass.”
For the brothers, music “has always been a family thing,” says James. “I feel like my musical future... is with us working together.
And I think that anything outside of that wouldn’t feel right to me.”
These days, says James, the brothers write “constantly” in emulation of other prolific artists who produce great songs. He particularly cites the example of Arlo Guthrie, who penned the liner notes for The Abrams Brothers’ 2008 album Blue on Brown, a tribute to Guthrie and Bob Dylan – the making of which initially sparked the brothers to begin writing their own material in earnest.
“It’s very much a collaboration,” says James on the songwriting process. “We do everything else together. And so why not write together?” The brothers still live in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario, where both attend Queens University – and neither is studying music. John is focusing on film and English, while James is going for economics and biology. “I did miss that element, [using] that side of my brain,” James remarks.
Given his need to play several instruments, James still drills on the fiddle, banjo, piano and bass whenever he has time – “whenever I’m not eating or learning.” At the same time, he emphasizes that performing, in whatever form it takes, is a crucial form of practice and education in itself.
“I suggest this to anyone who’s even starting: When you learn your instrument to the point where you can perform, perform as soon and as often as possible.”
The Abrams Brothers have certainly followed that credo. Yet, even with all the years of touring they have under their belts, John calls the Jacob’s Ladder Festival “one of [our favorites] if not our favorite festival to play in the world. And I do not say that to everybody.”
The festival “feels like a big family,” he says, with “beautiful, wonderful people.”
Beyond that, for these devout Christians, Israel carries “a wonderful significance to our background, to our faith, to many faiths,” he says.
“The fact that I could sit last night and play charades with my friends with my feet in the Sea of Galilee – having grown up in Sunday school, reading these stories, hearing this history – there’s a whole other level of profound when it comes to playing this festival specifically,” he says.
Toward the end of their second and final performance here, John asked the audience whether they could come back again. Predictably, the crowd roared its happy assent.