We Banjo 3 on the Celtic Ties to American Bluegrass

We Banjo 3
We Banjo 3 Photo by David Norton
We Banjo 3, which originated in Galway, Ireland, plays a fusion of traditional Irish, old-time and bluegrass music that has been dubbed "Celtgrass."

The band comprises two sets of brothers — Enda and Fergal Scahill and Martin and David Howley. Their debut album, Roots of the Banjo Tree, was released in 2012, followed by Gather the Good in 2014; String Theory, which climbed to number one on the Billboard Bluegrass chart in 2016; and their most recent CD, Haven, which was released in July of this year.

Members of the group have captured "All Ireland" accolades on the banjo, fiddle, bodhrán (frame drum) and guitar. In 2016, We Banjo 3 performed for President Barack Obama at the annual "Friends of Ireland" luncheon in Washington, D,C. Obama praised the band's show, calling it "great music and an incredible performance."

Along with Skerryvore, an award-winning eight-piece traditional Scottish outfit, We Banjo 3 will perform at the Oriental Theater on Sunday as part of the group's Celtic Brotherhood tour. Every show on the tour includes a set by each band followed by a combined finale that invites the audience to decide which is better: bagpipes or banjo?

caught up with WB3 lead singer and guitarist David Howley, to talk Celtgrass and how it relates to the American roots-music tradition.

Westword: Hi, David. Am I getting you in Nashville?

David Howley: Indeed you are. I've been living here for the last few years.

Are you originally from Ireland?

Yes, I'm from Galway.

Is that where the whole band met?

Yes, we all grew up around County Galway.

How old are the bandmembers?

We're all in our late twenties to early thirties, I think. I'm the youngest at 27.

What is your background in traditional, or what we might call bluegrass or old-time music?

How the band got started was that we were all banjo players who were inspired by traditional Irish culture and music. Once the group got going, I took on the guitar...but that's another story. Irish and Celtic music has had a lot of influence around the world on styles including country, bluegrass and even American folk music. Our sound has come to represent a cross-pollination with bluegrass. Irish music includes a huge amount of energy, while bluegrass has incredible instrumental pyrotechnics. "Celtgrass" is the term that has been coined for that blending of the drive of Irish music and the instrumental style of bluegrass along with the heart and soul of folk music.

How do you like living in Nashville?

I like it. I do a lot of writing here and a lot of learning. But we're on tour about six or seven months a year, so the amount of time that we get to spend at home is pretty short.

You were saying that you play the guitar for the band?

I cover the guitar, the singing and the bass, which I do on the low strings of my guitar. Apart from the fiddle, we all know how to play a bunch of instruments, including mandolin, banjo and guitar — though we all play in very different ways. There's a lot of cool technique in Irish music, and we're used to playing at about 150 miles per hour. A lot of bluegrass players are impressed with the speed of our picking hands and the rhythms we play. It's been a cool meeting of the two worlds that way.

Do you still play in Ireland a lot and in Europe?

Ireland is a pretty small country, so we don't play there all the time, but we do try to perform at least a couple times a year there. My parents still live in Ireland. It's special to us, so we try to get there as often as we can. It's a beautiful place, even when it's raining. We do a thing every couple years where we bring a tour bus full of our American fans there and we drive around to different places. It's fun to be a tourist in your own country. We tend to tour a lot in the United States, but we also tour in Canada, South America and all over Europe.

Do you like American bluegrass?

Oh, yeah, I love it. Living in Nashville, I tend to be around people who regularly make me want to burn my instrument. The mutual respect between the Irish and the bluegrass world is fascinating. We have gotten to hang out with a lot of cool people. One of the guys who played upright bass on our most recent album is Scott Mulvahill. He's the ex bass player for Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder.

We aren't really bluegrass players, but we have a huge amount of respect for bluegrass music. We share similarities with bluegrass in terms of how we view and appreciate our music. It's in our blood.

Bryan Sutton
co-produced our album and plays on a couple tracks. Sierra Hull sings a bit on the album as well. I also became friends with Ron Block, who has been a mentor and friend over the past few years. Ross Holmes is another artist who was influential in our coming to America and introducing us to people. We've spent time on the ground just playing with these people and made some great connections. It's very nice to be a part of this community.

Do you get a good audience response to your music?

Yes, though we never think of the audience as coming to see us; we think of them as coming to be with us. They're almost more important than we are in that equation. We don't play to an audience; we play with them. The energy of a crowd is essential to a show. We can go into a room with twenty people or 20,000 and the show doesn't really change that much. You can get as much out of twenty people as you can out of 20,000. You just have to be willing to really place yourself in the moment.

Have you been out to Colorado before?

Yeah, we played in Pagosa Springs, at the Four Corners Folk Festival, earlier this year. Sam Bush, the grandfather of mandolin, joined us on stage there. It was truly incredible.

Can you tell me about your latest release?

We recorded it last January. It's called Haven. We're touring it now. The world is a pretty crazy place these days, and we feel that people need music more than ever. One of the things we often hear people say is, "I had the worst week, and I came here tonight and I was able to forget it all."

We think of what we do as providing an escape for people who need a release or just a safe place for people to be people. I see all different kinds of folks who come to hear us, from the fifty-year-old ladies to the thirteen-year-old teenagers, and they're all singing the same lyrics. I see people from all different religions and backgrounds together who are there to hear and feel the music and to be connected for two hours. That's what it is for me, too.

I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety as a teen, and a big part of my therapy and of who I am is being on stage. That feeling you get when everyone connects through the music is like no other. Music provides a haven for us, and that's what our latest release tries to convey.

  • We Banjo 3 and Skerryvore, 7 p.m. Sunday, October 7, Oriental Theater, 4335 West 44th Avenue, $29.

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    Nick Hutchinson writes about music for Westword and enjoys playing his guitar when not on deadline.
    Contact: Nick Hutchinson