The sun has set on another excellent weekend of bluegrass, old time and folk music in the appropriately rustic and historical setting of the Ulster American Folk Park, just outside Omagh town in Co Tyrone, N Ireland. Despite the inclement weather (we had some rain!) hordes of music fans and families turned up as usual to enjoy some well established names as well as to discover some (as yet under the radar) future stars.
Top of the bill undoubtedly was the wonderful Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers - a traditional bluegrass band from the US, on their first visit to Ireland. Joe has been steeped in bluegrass from the cradle, since his father ‘Moon’ Mullins was a bluegrass musician and radio presenter. The ‘gift of the gab’ has certainly passed down from father to son (and ‘Mullins’ is, of course, an Irish name!). As well as being a much awarded 5 piece band who write many of their songs, the boys can turn their hand to all of the standards. Joe is a gifted banjo player and singer, but he allows his band members also to shine on their own instruments and to take vocals, so that overall it is very much an ensemble performance. In addition to peppering the band performances with interesting anecdotes, Joe Mullins was interviewed for the annual McConversation by festival MC Frank Galligan, in the intimate and scholarly atmosphere of the Mellon Centre library. He regaled the lucky audience with fascinating tales of what it was like to grow up in a home where musicians like JD Crowe, The Osbourne Brothers and many others were regular visitors; and where he had access to a huge record collection, courtesy of his father’s radio stations.
Songwriter and broadcaster Chris Jones returned to the festival from the US with his band, the Night Drivers. Formerly here with the ever popular Special Consensus Band, Chris fronts the band with his inimitable laidback style, quite a contrast from the hard driving bluegrass style of the Radio Ramblers. The emphasis is on Chris’s songwriting, but he also features his uber-talented companions: Tristan Scroggins is a very special mandolin player and composer, who has already played Ireland many times with his father’s band, Jeff Scroggins and Colorado; banjo player Gina Furtado, who got to feature some of her own swing flavoured compositions from her forthcoming solo project; and the renowned bass player Marshall Wilborn (Johnson Mountain Boys, Michael Cleveland, Lynn Morris).
The surprise hit of the festival was the Californian band, Front Country. Already breaking through in the Americana music genre, this difficult to classify stringband certainly impressed this reviewer and even most of the bluegrass fans. A sound perhaps best described as a cross between Fleetwood Mac and Woody Guthrie, lead singer and songwriter Melody Walker described it as “making our own kind of music, just as Bill Monroe did when he created the new bluegrass music”. Melody is the ideal front person, with her incredibly powerful voice, skilful rhythm guitar playing and charisma. Her fellow band members, while they can all play bluegrass, incorporate country, jazz, pop, and folk influences into their unique sound. As well as performing their own songs, they also covered a judicial selection from Utah Phillips, David Olney and the aforementioned Woody Guthrie.
Absent for many years, this year featured the welcome return of Appalachian cloggers in the form of the wonderful Bailey Mountain Cloggers from N Carolina. A rare treat outside of America, this troupe were an instant hit in their many performances over the weekend.
Another unknown to most of the audience was US three piece Bill & The Belles. They excel at reviving and injecting new life into the country/vaudeville/old time sound of the 20’s - 40’s. They certainly made many new fans thanks to their spirited retro sound and 3-part harmonies.
Other visiting acts from home and abroad included regulars like the Broken String Band, Northern Exposure, Watery Hill Boys; Hoot & Holler (US), Martha L Healy (Scotland), Buffalo Gals (UK) and Paris Texas (Belgium).
NB the festival dates are moving to a new slot from 2020 - put May 22-24, 2020 into your diary now.
Review and photography by Eilís Boland