Edinburgh may seem like a long way from the Appalachian mountains, and possibly the last place you'd expect to find a bluegrass band. However, if you trace your music back far enough you'll find that the Scottish and Irish immigrants that went to America brought with them a fine heritage of Celtic folk music. This music slowly made it's way down through the land of the free and would become known as Kentucky bluegrass. Over the last seven years Ed Henry and Steve Clark have been keeping part of that tradition alive with their band Old Dollar Bill; a modern bluegrass outfit which encompasses blues and rock into the mix, but all played on acoustic instruments.
Ed was regularly running Sunday Celtic music sessions at The Whiski bar in Edinburgh's historic Royal Mile. Ed tells me,“we'd play mostly Scottish and Irish jigs and reels to entertain the tourists. We invited people to turn up and play, one night this young man arrived with a mandolin and it was Steve. He used to back comb his hair so he looked like John Cooper Clarke and we thought what are we letting ourselves in for letting him play?” It turned out, Steve was not only a mandolin player but also a multi-instrumentalist and vocalist. Ed was mainly playing drums or cajon in blues and rock based groups, but Steve was deep into bluegrass and roots music.
As luck would have it the both musicians were going as far as they could creatively go with current projects. “When things came to an end between our two respective musical partners, we decided to have a chat and get together. I had a few gigs to fulfill and said 'why don't you do it with me' and he came along without any rehearsal and we did his bluegrass set. It just worked a treat. It was surprising to both of us.” Seven years later that initial spark is still going strong, although there have been some ups and downs along the way. “We've been taking things slowly, going from a two piece to a three piece to a four piece, to a seven piece and back to a two piece. It's been quite tempestuous as the years have gone on, but you can't hold on to the same people all the time.” Despite members coming and going the core style, sound and even the merchandise and branding of the band is down to Ed and Steve.
Currently playing as a three piece the band have just released their latest single Mr Kohl is inspired by their friend and champion of the band Jeff 'JFK' Kohl. “He's from America , a big hairy biker type and he came to see us years ago as a duo and loved what we did and has always been an ambassador for us, putting forward different ideas for gigs and getting people to come to see us play.” Inviting the duo to play at his wedding was a turning point in their friendship and led to some initiative promotional ideas, as Ed explains. “We thought it would be cool if Jeff designed a t - shirt for us. It worked out really, we've been selling them at gigs and our online shop. From that he (Jeff) suggested that we did our own You Tube presentations. The last one we did was at Jeff's tattoo parlour 'Hotter Than Hell'. We took the audio from that live show and made it into a live EP and took it to France on tour and it sold out within a week.” These Old Dollar Bill t-shirts are also proving to be hot property and also frequently sell out at gigs too, which is hardly surprising given their propensity for playing as much as possible. Since they came back from a tour in France they have played ten gigs in fourteen days!
Old Dollar Bill's musical style is as idiosyncratic as their merchandise. Steve's voice is unique, their songs quirky and even Ed's percussion style using brushes on a snare is different as he is keen to share, “what I'm doing with my right hand on the snare is the technique used on a bodhran. I've adapted it to make that style my own.” With so many bands out there vying for an audience, Old Dollar Bill have certainly approached their music and publicity from an original angle and as a result, they are gaining more and more fans every time they play. Following on from the new-grass movement that was born in the 70s with the likes of Sam Bush, Dave Grisman, Ricky Scaggs, John Cowan “ they took the traditional styles and turned the whole thing on its head and introduced different music sounds, different techniques, some of them are very percussive.” This invigoration of the genre with different styles and sounds is similar to what Old Dollar Bill are attempting to do with their own musical fusion. Ed is adamant that people should be open minded to other genres and styles out there and not be quick to dismiss them. “What I can't abide is people who say 'I'm a rocker and I'm staying a rocker and that's all I'll be.' or 'I'm a punk, that's all I'll be' - It's such a shame for these people, they should try and sit down and just let these other types of music wash over them; and try to appreciate what else is out there. They'll probably find that their own heroes are adept at other styles of music and they just don't know it.”
Needless to say, the band have ambitions to take their sound over to the States. “It's something that we'd love to do. Steve went over to Nashville for ten days and spent a few days with John Cowan. There's actually going to be a You Tube video of them rehearsing socially in music shops in Nashville. Steve played a wee session with John and Glen Campbell's daughter (Debby), which was filmed, so hopefully something will come from that.”
If Uncle Sam does call, he may have to wait as the band is pretty much in demand over the next few months with Ed defining his scheduled as 'pretty frantic'. Although they have plans to record an album later in the year, for now, they are focussing on performing as regularly as possible, including playing at the Edinburgh Festival. Ed tells me for the last five years the band has played an astonishing minimum of 26 nights in August! They better tell Jeff to get some more of those funky t-shirts printed!