Cheap Trick’s “I Want You To Want Me” may not be a song you expect to hear from a string band, unless it’s The Greencards and then it may well be exactly what you’ve come to expect. The Greencards have been stretching the boundaries of bluegrass and taking Bill Monroe’s music to new heights for more than a decade.
Monroe’s rabble-rousing spirit is alive and well in their all-encompassing embrace of American music. “We’ve always been concerned with not being genre-specific,” Kym Warner, the group’s mandolin player, told me recently. “If we like a song we’ll play it whether it’s a pop song or a folk song or whatever. Carol’s the singer, so it mostly depends on whether or not she can feel it.”
Carol Young is the bass player and lead singer. She met Warner in Sydney, Australia, in a house the two were sharing with a number of other like-minded musicians. Young grew up in Sydney. Warner moved there from his native Adelaide because in the 1990s Sydney was the center of Australia’s music scene. These days, according to Warner, the center has shifted to Melbourne and the audience for the acoustic music they wanted to play has largely disappeared.
Winner of the Australian National Bluegrass Mandolin Championship four times in a row, Warner wanted nothing more than to be in a band playing bluegrass. Young felt the same way, so in 2001 they shipped out for the U.S. landing in Austin, Texas, where they hooked up with Eamon McLoughlin, a young fiddler from the U.K. In order to stay and play in the country they each had to apply for a green card, hence their name.
After growing up near the ocean, you might think they felt a bit land-locked in Austin, but according to Warner they felt right at home. “We landed in this west Texas town, there were cowboys and people were playing country music and, you know, I grew up with all of that.”
The three players formed a tight unit but they were never able to find a permanent guitar player. They had what Warner calls a “rotating roster” of players joining them for gigs and recordings, but only on a casual contract.
That all changed when McLoughlin left the group in 2008 and they joined forces with guitarist Carl Miner. A gifted flat picker, he was just 16 when he placed second in the annual National Flatpick Championship in Winfield, Kan. A year later he took first place. With Miner the group was again a tight-knit trio, but this time without a regular fiddler. But that hasn’t proven to be a problem according to Warner. “Things are much easier now with the core of the band being the rhythm section,” he said.
They work with a rotating roster of fiddlers including Tyler Andal, Luke Bulla and Christian Sedelmeyer, who will be with them on Saturday night. According to his bio, the five-string fiddler has been influenced equally both by Neil Young and the legendary Nashville fiddler, Stuart Duncan. Like Duncan, he’s a sought after session player and sideman capable of playing in a wide range of styles. Miner is an equally versatile player adding bluesy string bending and a jazzy Tony Rice-style counterpoint to Tyler Andal’s fiery fiddle and Warner’s nimble mandolin runs on rapid-fire instrumentals like “Adelaide” on The Brick Album.
The group’s sets—like their albums—are a mix of that kind of classic string-band fare with Warner’s Brit-pop influenced songs. Their most recent album also included a couple of songs by John O’Brien, a young songwriter they met during the sessions for the record. “Naked On The River,” one of two songs by him on the album is an example of what Warner meant by Carol Young “feeling” the song. The song extols the joys of a lazy afternoon lazing on the water. Young’s drowsy vocal caresses the words as the fiddle curls around her voice and the mandolin plays a percussive string-damping vamp. It sounds like a classic Kinks ballad sung and played by Joni Mitchell with Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli.
“Mrs. Madness,” like most of the songs on the album, was written by Kym Warner. It’s another drowsy ballad that would have fit comfortably on any of The Kinks albums in the mid-’60s. While “Here Lies John,” another John O’Brien song, is a showcase for their stellar playing. Young’s airy falsetto floats over a locomotive guitar figure which becomes ever more insistent as the train in the song picks up speed. The fiddler adds a series of stretching, keening notes evoking the train whistle’s long winding wail before picking up speed and providing a pizzicato counterpoint to Young’s mounting despair as the song fades.
Listening to their most recent, and most inventive album to date, is like listening to David Grisman trading ideas with Paul McCartney. The result is a sometimes languid, sometimes intense, but always melodic and inventive hybrid of classic British pop and string-band swing.
Richard Winham is the producer and host of WUTC-FM’s afternoon music program and has observed the Chattanooga music scene for more than 25 years.