Talk about that high lonesome sound. The boys of bluegrass quartet Illgresi have searched every hummock and holler in Iceland looking for likeminded musicians, all to no avail.
“We were on a radio program a couple years ago,” recounts Guðmundur Atli Pétursson, a 33-year-old lighting technician for RÚV and also Illgresi’s mandolin player. “We just said, ‘Hey, if anybody’s out there playing banjo or fiddle in this style, please let us know.’ We didn’t hear from anybody.”
Now surely no one thought it would be easy to find enthusiasts of bluegrass—a syncopated string-based folk music that originates in America’s Appalachian and Southern states—in the northernmost capital of the globe. But could it really be that difficult?
On a recent fishing excursion to Meðalfellsvatn in search of some of the first brown trout of season, Guðmundur and Arnbjörn “Björn” Sólimann Sigurðsson, Illgresi’s guitarist, discussed the band’s history, its struggles as the country’s sole purveyor of bluegrass and its mission to plant this unique musical genre in Icelandic soil.
Old Times Are Not Forgotten
Back in 2006, Björn found himself hooked on a newly discovered style of music. “I had been learning jazz guitar in music school,” he recalls, casually casting his line into the placid lake. “I always loved acoustic music, though, and when I finally heard Clarence White and his flatpicking style, it changed my life. I haven’t touched my old electric guitar since.”
The natural next step was to form a band, so Björn recruited his oldest friend, Eiríkur Hlöðversson, to pick up double bass. Another friend, Vignir Þór Pálsson, was easily convinced to try his hand at banjo, arguably the most important part of any bluegrass group. The hand proved adept, and before long Vignir was playing Scruggs style, a three-finger picking method perfected by North Carolina bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs that is at once the lifeblood and the crowning glory of the genre. When Björn, Eiríkur and Vignir happened on Guðmundur by chance at a now-defunct Celtic music session, they knew they had found their final missing component. So the quartet was born.
Vignir’s proficiency on the banjo soon introduced a hazard into the equation, however. “The first tune Vignir learned was ‘Groundspeed,’ by Scruggs, a really fast tune,” Guðmundur chuckles, reeling in an unbitten hook stuck through his soggy bait. “So we started out playing crazy fast. We were playing way faster than we could manage.” The bandmates, focused more on the music than the image of being a blazing fast string band, reined in the tempo. “It’s hard music to play,” Guðmundur observes. “We wanted to play better, so we had to slow it down.”
Before long the band was gigging around Reykjavík. In the six years since they started playing together, the capital region has remained their primary haunt, but they’ve ventured farther afield as well, playing in Siglufjörður and at the Kántrýdagar (“Country Days”) Festival in Skagaströnd in 2012.
Workin’ It Out
There are some truly existential challenges to playing old-time and bluegrass music in Iceland. Besides finding others familiar with the genre, there’s the simple task of securing decent instruments. According to Guðmundur, if you’re looking for a quality banjo or mandolin, you better start looking someplace else. His own search for the right mandolin in the storefronts of Reykjavík seemed so hopeless that he ordered a customized model from an artisan in Oregon. “I looked around and never found one with all the specs I needed—F5 body; banjo-sized frets; a radiused fingerboard,” he says. “I wanted a certain tonal quality too, a full, bluegrass sound.” Four years after the purchase, he’s suffered no buyer’s remorse.
Once the instruments are secured, the next step is making sure people know what they are. “Everyone thinks Guðmundur’s mandolin is a banjo,” Björn says when I ask about typical reactions to their music. The questions about his “banjo” became so frequent that Guðmundur put a sticker on his mandolin case to clear up the confusion. It’s as droll as it is informative: “Not a banjo.”
The lack of familiarity with the style in Iceland presents another problem as well. In the US, bluegrass offers a comforting lap of tradition for musicians to lay their heads in. In a country like Iceland, that tradition doesn’t carry over, so any attempt to recreate or operate within it is fraught with peril. I ask if they write any of their own music. Björn perks up. “I had a tune once,” he says. “The more I thought about it though, the melody was kind of familiar. Then I was like, ‘Hey, it’s ‘Stony Lonesome.’ With traditional music, it’s hard to hit on a melody that hasn’t already been done.” Indeed, it’s hard enough just getting the traditional tunes right. “We haven’t written much original material yet, since we’ve been busy studying the songs and trying to keep them true to the style,” Guðmundur says.
Then there’s the typically Icelandic challenge of fishing. Not the kind we’re doing in Meðalfellsvatn, but actual industrial-scale fishing, like the kind from which Björn makes his living. “It runs in the blood,” he shrugs. “My father and both grandfathers were all fishermen.” Trips take Björn out to sea for weeks at a time, making practice schedules erratic and concert planning difficult. The hard work of fishing in the freezing North Atlantic also takes a toll on the hands—something clearly problematic for a guitarist, especially one who needs to pick fast bluegrass tunes. But fishing also offers its advantages. “I learned all of my bluegrass stuff at sea,” Björn says. “You don’t have tons of time, but you have privacy. You can just focus on the tunes.”
Will The Circle Be Unbroken?
What motivates Björn and Guðmundur to keep playing this music, despite its alien status in Iceland? Part of it is an obsession bordering on monomania. “Our experience with bluegrass is that once you really get into it, you’re hooked,” Guðmundur says, paying as little attention to the pun as the fish are to the mutilated worms speared at the ends of our lines. “We’re constantly thinking about what we can do to improve our playing,” Björn agrees. He pauses a beat before doubling down. “We can’t stop thinking about the music. We’re awake, reading about it. We’re asleep, dreaming about it.”
The other big driving force is a sense of mission. Just as there are few bluegrass pickers in Iceland, there are few fans as well, or even just people in the know. “I really want folks here to give at least one good listen to this music, to become familiar with it,” Guðmundur says. I ask if Icelanders have any exposure at all to bluegrass in popular culture. “We get requests for “Dueling Banjos” all the time,” he laughs, referring to the popular tune featured in the 1978 film ‘Deliverance.’ “I dig that though,” Björn springs in. “A lot of guys, like my dad, when they saw that movie, they were hearing this music for the first time and absolutely loved it. You see it played more or less live in the movie, which is important, because the form is meant to be enjoyed live.”
Down The Road
All of a sudden, Björn heaves out a sharp “dammit” followed by a deep sigh. “I had one,” he says. “He bit my line, but then he must have swum off.” It was the closest any of us would come to catching a fish on this trip, but it hardly mattered. The views alone around Meðalfellsvatn made the drive more than worth it. We were also able to console ourselves with the knowledge that rod-and-reel fishing has never really been about catching fish anyway.
As we close out the afternoon, Guðmundur reflects on the upshot of his experience with bluegrass in Iceland, all the searching for instruments, study sessions on the old masters, sweating over gigs and tough first steps required to teach one group of stubbornly traditional people the musical form of another group of stubbornly traditional people. “To grow a bluegrass band, it takes years, decades,” he says.
It’s a lonely row to hoe for Illgresi, but who knows? They’ve already seen the appeal of the form, especially when played live. With some more digging, perhaps they’ll find their native soil fertile after all.
The Icelandic bluegrass band Illgresi was formed in the summer of 2009 when the band members were searching for someone to pick some bluegrass.
For fishing gear and further information about fishing around Reykjavík, contact the tackle shop Veiðiportið at veidiportid.is, firstname.lastname@example.org or 552-9940.