Joining in: a patchy but joyous history of Grass Snake

Once upon a time in the early years of the previous decade, one of the most popular bands on the Phnom Penh expat circuit was a bluegrass act called Grass Snake Union, who used to fill the upstairs at Equinox and make the people bounce up and down, or bring the party to Le Jardin on a Friday evening.  Times change, folk move on, venues change their names and styles, but the beat goes on.  On Saturday night Farm to Table (where Le Jardin used to be) celebrate their sixth anniversary with a performance by Grass Snake Trio, the latest iteration on the Grass Snake journey.  These days the Grass Snake core is Appalachia-born Marianna Hensley and English roots aficionado Joe Wrigley.  Leng Pleng sat down with Marianna to talk bluegrass, tradition, geography and collectives.

Marianna and Joe met on stage.  “Jon Banules pushed me on stage with Joe for one song in the spring of 2015, when Joe & the Jumping Jacks were playing at Muse Café, catty corner from the National Museum.  Then I disappeared into work for about a year and a half.  Eventually one Friday night I was trudging home from work, past Duplex on St 278, and I saw a banjo and a fiddle.  And my mind went: bluegrass!  It was not quite the what I anticipated – it was the Blueberry Moon Boys, so Joe with Richard Pearl and Steve Sutcliffe – but it was still delightful.

“During set breaks Joe likes to go around and talk to people in the audience, particularly to people who are paying attention.  He greeted me and we chatted a bit, and I reminded him that we once sang a song together.  He invited me to the open mic he was hosting at Paddy Rice on Thursdays – let’s do something – and I went, and we did, and that was the beginning.  Joe and I have done all sorts together in various forms and iterations, mostly duos and trios, over easily three and a half years.”

While their collaborations have taken in a broad range of Americana, they held back from fully-fledged bluegrass.  “I started pestering him about a bluegrass band.  Joe, we should do a bluegrass band, it would just be so much fun.  And he said sure, that’s fine, but we need a double bass.  I can recognise when I’m being put off, even politely.  Bluegrass, Joe?  Double bass.  Then almost exactly two years ago I was walking home from work, rounded the corner at 19 and 172, looked up and saw Dan Davies, freshly arrived from Darwin.  Dan!  Do you have your double bass with you?  Yes, yes.  Do you play bluegrass music?  Yeah!  Joe, Dan’s in town, he has his double bass and he plays bluegrass.  All of the stars were aligning.

Mark Chattaway (mandolin) and Chris Davis (fiddle), who both lived in Kampot at the time, were headed up to Phnom Penh for something.  And the guys don’t actually know this next part of it: I was contriving to give myself a birthday present, I wanted a bluegrass jam, not a performance, just players and singers, as a gift to myself.  You can do things like that without actually announcing it’s your birthday.  We got together on a Sunday afternoon at what was then LF Social Club, just to play and sing.  It was lovely, and before the afternoon was over Grass Snake Revival, as the latest iteration of the Grass Snake journey, had a gig booked and were out doing band photos.  That was truly not my intent – I just wanted to privately gift myself with some bluegrass music – but that’s the way it went.

“We did a joyous gig at Bassac Lane, and five or six weeks after that we undertook the not-to-be-forgotten, never-to-be-repeated St Paddy’s Day parade, starting at noon at Chinese House, and ending around midnight at Shenanigans.  Seven back-to-back gigs in one day.”

Grass Snake Revival, Bassac Lane, February 8, 2019

Maybe it reflects the spirit of the music, but the Grass Snake Union founder, guitarist and singer TJ Brown, long-returned to Colorado, tells a remarkably similar story to explain the original formation of the band.  “It’s almost ten years to the day that I met banjo player Jose Encinas at an FCC gig with Kheltica, and asked him if he liked to play bluegrass.  We ended up at Equinox picking and singing tunes until the early hours. We started semi-regular acoustic jams at my house, and added Borja Serrador on bass, Alex Leonard on vocals, Daniel Talstra on fiddle and Greg Lavender on drums.  Greg was last to join the jams, and he noted that we indeed had a band and would do well to book a gig.  Done and done.”

Here’s a taste of what the original Grass Snake Union looked and sounded like: video    audio            more video

photos – collated at anthonymrugacz.com

[NB special thanks to anthonymrugacz.com for these links on the Bands in Cambodia 2010-2015 page].

“I was extremely privileged to continue to play with many amazing and creative folks over the two years that followed under the Grass Snake Union banner,” TJ reminisces.  “We traveled around the region, collaborated with many other artists in Phnom Penh, all with a goal of playing some super-fun foot-stomping high-energy acoustic music.”  The original Grass Snake Union played their last gig where they started, at their spiritual home Equinox, in March 2013.

So is there a precise formula for what makes bluegrass music bluegrass?  “You’re asking the wrong person,” says Marianna.  “This is where the geography of my childhood gets misinterpreted as knowledge.  It’s very strings based: specifically banjo, mandolin, fiddle, double bass, maybe guitar.  Voices, but more than anything tight, tight vocal harmonies layered one on top of the other.

“I find bluegrass very gracious, there’s a lot of equality.  In bluegrass bands old and new, there might be a leader, but in performance solos get passed around, it’s communal.  While being collective it really highlights the individual players and their strengths in a very inclusive way.

“We like to throw around the term bluegrass with Grass Snake, but depending on the time of year, depending on who’s available to play, what you hear with Grass Snake might have more Celtic in it, it might have more country in it, it might have more folk-leaning material in it, along with the straight bluegrass.  But Celtic and bluegrass and mountain music and country music are all branches on the same tree, they share a lot of common roots, and one flows from another and then on back.”

Shenanigans at Shenanigans at the end of the not-to-be-forgotten, never-to-be-repeated St Paddy’s Day parade, March 17, 2019

So let’s dig into the geography of Marianna’s childhood.  “I grew up in the south western corner of the state of Virginia.  If you go any further west you’ll be in Kentucky and Tennessee.  I do a song with Joe that talks about that: Cumberland Gap, the place where the states of Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee come together.  It’s a gap in the mountains that Daniel Boone passed through to get into what was the Wild West at the time, Kentucky, and it’s in my county.  A lot of Scotch/Irish found their way to the southern Appalachian mountains, and a lot of ballads and old songs from the British Isles found their way as well.  In the early 20th Century, music anthropologists – song catchers – would go up into the mountains in Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky, visit people and sit out on porches and say: sing me a song.  And they were songs that could be traced back to England and Scotland and Ireland.  So that’s the roots from which old time music and bluegrass music evolved.

“The banjo gets a lot of, well – paddle faster, I hear banjos – and in the past it’s associated with white mountain folk, but the banjo actually has its roots in Africa.  It was Africans who were brought over as slaves who brought with them their musical traditions and instruments.  And while the banjo features very much in bluegrass music, and that kind of music is associated with a white face, the banjo is African in its roots.

“All along there have been some amazing black musicians through the traditional music, but in the last 10 or 20 years there have been groups like the Carolina Chocolate Drops and Our Native Daughters, and particularly Rhiannon Giddens with her passion for histories and stories and bringing back the true history of a lot of the music.  We find that the roots of a lot of the traditional music and the traditional instruments is more diverse than people might suspect.   You see that in the fabric of Americana music: there’s a little bit of country, a little bit of old time, a little bit of southern gospel, a little bit of black gospel, a little bit of blues, this wild tapestry.  Music isn’t a freeze frame, it doesn’t stand still, it evolves and cycles and becomes something new and comes back to what was old.

“I’m drawn to traditional music, folk music, regardless of the tradition.  I can think of several specific things here in Phnom Penh – Maki Orkestr, with the Russian songs, and hearing Son Cubano, with Dairon singing traditional Cuban songs, or Pervez playing the tabla.  I was talking with Andrey Meshcheryakov about some of the songs that Maki does, and he was saying: they told me come down for rehearsal, but I said I don’t need to rehearse these songs, they’re in my blood!  I appreciate that visceral knowledge and understanding of a particular musical tradition.”

Marianna’s face particularly lights up when she talks about the richness of the musical heritage in the region that she grew up in, reeling off the names of bluegrass and country greats that she feels a kinship with.  “In some ways it took moving out of the area to really fully realise how astonishing the place where I grew up is, in terms of the players.  Closest to home, about 35 minutes away from where I grew up, is the Carter Family fold, where you find AP and Sara Carter, and Sara’s sister Mother Maybelle and her three daughters – including June Carter, who met and married Johnny Cash, thus June Carter Cash – they are one of the pillars, part of the foundation of country music.

“If you go over the mountain about an hour and a half you get to Dolly Parton’s home town.  And I love Dolly.  I love to claim her by proximity.  We do several of her songs in Grass Snake.

Earl Scruggs was from Shelby, North Carolina, where my mom grew up, and he originally played with Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music.  The way Earl Scruggs played the banjo became the bluegrass style, as opposed to the traditional claw hammer style.  He’s from about four hours from where I grew up, but I claim him as part of my musical roots because he was from my mom’s home town.

Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys.  Cousin Ralph – he and my great grandmother were first cousins.  And again, I had to grow up to understand this.  He would be my fourth cousin I think.  He was known for his high tenor voice, that high, lonesome sound.  I’ve known for at least 20 or 30 years that I have a distant family connection with him, but it really hit me again watching the Ken Burns Country Music documentary.  They had some live interviews with Ralph Stanley, and it had been years and years since I’d seen any live footage of him, and when he started talking I burst out crying, because he looks just like my great grandmother, and he sounds just like my great grandmother.  It was the first time I felt like I actually saw the truth of what I had known; it was shocking to the point of being a bit unnerving.  I feel incredibly blessed to be from a part of the world that has so many remarkable musicians.

Leng Pleng asked about the impact of the Coen Brothers’ movie O Brother Where Art Thou and its soundtrack on the popularity of this kind of music in recent years.  “I was in the US when it came out, and it made sense to me, and it seemed only natural to me that where I was in southern Appalachia everybody loved it and was playing it, and were familiar with all of the songs.  It’s been surprising to me that that music has seemed to resonate and become the point of reference for so many people around traditional, particularly Appalachian music.”

A previous iteration of the Grass Snake Trio, with Todd Bazley on cajon, Farm to Table, September 20, 2019

So what should we expect from Grass Snake Trio on Saturday night? “The trio looks a little bit different from one performance to another.  This Saturday Graham Kemish will be joining us on fiddle, and that will be fun, we’ve not had a fiddle player with us in far too long.  I like to think of Grass Snake as a collective, because it’s whoever is in town, whoever is in the country.   The evolution and the enduring presence of Grass Snake, whether it’s a big presence, a loud presence, or a small and quiet presence is a bit like the history of mountain music and bluegrass music, that it continues over time, it changes because of who’s there and who isn’t there.  I hope it keeps going.  We have a lot of fun.”

And how does founder TJ Brown feel?  “It makes me so happy to know that the Grass Snake name is still bringing people together for live music in Phnom Penh.  I just wish I could join in!”

One more for old time’s sake: TJ Brown jamming with Troy Campbell at the Sunday Sundowner Sessions at Rubies Wine Bar, Sunday, February 17, 2013.  Photo: Guillermo Wheremount

 

 

 

 

 

 

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