Bluegrass isn’t the sort of genre you just venture into on a whim. The country offshoot hardly beckons as a cool new look or a way to impress the ladies. No, it’s more likely that bluegrass players have been passionately interested since childhood or are drawn in by a spiritual affinity.
Melbourne four-piece Mustered Courage have quickly become one of the country’s most talked-about bluegrass acts in recent years, yet guitarist Jules Abrahams was only superficially aware of the genre when the band started in 2011.
“I actually knew nothing about country music, to be perfectly honest,” he admits. “I was playing a bit of mandolin and that got me interested. I was just writing some songs on the mandolin.”
Prior to Mustered Courage’s inception, Abrahams and vocalist Nick Keeling played in the funk/hip hop outfit Casual Projects. Transitioning from hip hop to this boisterous branch of Americana is a decent leap, but there are some unifying characteristics.
“[Casual Projects] was pretty heavily influenced by jazz,” Abrahams says. “I was playing lots of jazz licks on guitar and there were solos. It was like a party hip hop jam band. Bluegrass is really improvisation-based and [there’s] all the solos that are going on. Nick and I have always been into crazy solos and we both like metal as well. So bluegrass is kind of the metal of country music – the faster, the better; the more notes, the better.”
Mustered Courage will soon bring their showy ways to Sydney, and it could be the last chance to see them for a while. The four-piece popped over to Nashville to perform at the Americana Music Festival late last year, and they were scooped up by US management group Sterling Artist Management. In July they’ll head back to the States for an extended tour, which will really test the strength of their Americana homage.
“We’re going to be over there for about two-and-a-half months,” Abrahams says. “I don’t think there’s any way you can avoid getting on the ground and just playing shows and getting that face-to-face interaction with a crowd. So we really have to get that ball rolling in America and show them what Mustered Courage is all about.”
One might speculate that bluegrass looked like a worthy genre experiment because of the potential to build a large American following. But Abrahams says entering the world’s biggest music vortex was really only an afterthought.
“It just snowballed so quickly. We never had any thoughts of getting American management or going to America to do this music. We pretty much wanted to be a pub band and play some gigs in Melbourne and get a following around town and just have a bit of fun. It’s just been more and more serious every day, but more enjoyable as well.”
The group’s growing fortunes at home and the budding overseas prospects indicate that, even though it was unknown territory at first, they’re actually quite suited to bluegrass. Mustered Courage’s second LP, last year’s Powerlines, verified them as bluegrass maestros and it’s no surprise to hear they studied up on the genre before entering the studio.
“We kind of immersed ourselves in the style and really learnt what the tradition is and really understand what that means now,” Abrahams says. “From that I’m going backwards even further and listening to traditional country music and honky-tonk and really getting into the vibe of the whole thing. I never thought I’d be a country musician but I’m starting to really love it.”