Deep South Bohem

It’s finger pickin’ good

The members of Sunny Side sing with one microphone between them. There's a mic at waist level to pick up the instruments, and another at head level for the vocals; when the time comes for a chorus or a line of back-up singing, they rush forward and lean their heads together as close as their ten-gallon hats will allow.
It looks like a demanding routine: Even the guy with the standing bass has to be prepared to move fast and then get out of the way for the frontman.

But the sound is great. Sunny Side's vocal harmonies are textured and deep; they suggest a three-dimensional space, and evoke a time when having even a single microphone was pushing the frontiers of sound technology.
Their look is pretty evocative as well. Ci-5, the Smichov country bar where Sunny Side sometimes plays, has spared no expense in creating the mood of a mythological American West, decorating with liberal doses of rawhide and antique weapons. You're supposed to feel as if you've stepped into Tombstone, Arizona. But the bluegrass players wear serious black suits with their string ties; if they've stepped out of America, it's an America of at least 50 years ago, and not the West but the Appalachian hills.

Bluegrass music is country music's truly country cousin. When country music went off to seek fame and fortune in the glittering lights of Nashville, bluegrass stayed at home, picking its teeth with a piece of straw on the front porch of a one-room shack. Country music started tampering with newfangled instruments like the electric guitar; bluegrass stuck with the time-tested banjo, fiddle and mandolin. Both cousins like to sing about their troubles, sometimes to comic extremes. But country likes to drown its troubles in whiskey and dancing, while bluegrass sings about looking forward to death, when its soul will be freed from these mortal chains of woe.

It's a difference you can hear in the voice of Pavel Handlik, the young man fronting Sunny Side. Handlik sings in a clear, sweet, genuine tenor, free of country twang and irony. He'd make Bill Monroe jealous. He'd also make him wonder what in the world such deeply traditional, deeply American music is doing here in the Czech Republic.

Tramping Out

Bluegrass isn't only here - it’s very, very good here. Czechs play more and better bluegrass than any other non-Americans, with the possible exception of the Japanese. Last year, the Czech group Reliéf was named band of the year at the top European bluegrass festival; it also won two years ago. The Petr Brandejs Band, also Czech, took top honors in between, while Sunny Side picked up a separate international award. Bluegrass may play second fiddle to its cousin in terms of radio airplay or audience size, but the virtuosity with which it's played here suggests an unexpected connection between the Czech Republic and the United States.

“Bluegrass music is a bridge to America,” says Zbyněk Podskalsky, Sunny Side's banjo player. How that bridge came to be, he’s not sure, but he does mention one possible link: "These are the only two countries with tramps."
In the Czech and Slovak meanings of the word, tramps are men - and, less often, women - who participate in a slightly anti-authoritarian tradition of outdoorsmanship, what the Boy Scouts would be if they were dissidents and drunks. Like outdoorsmen everywhere, tramps hike, camp and canoe, dressing up in cowboy gear or US military surplus, building teepees, holding rodeos and panning for gold in the Vltava. It’s a cultural niche that paved the way for a strong local interest in American music.

Even before communism spurred a widespread interest in all things associated with the free West, Central European tramps were already looking to the Old West. In its beginnings in the 1920s, tramping was an escape from bureaucratic and bourgeois urban life; under German occupation and Communism, unsupervised assembly in the wilderness offered a taste of freedom and rebellion. Throughout, tramps added an air of frontier drama to gatherings in the gentle Bohemian hills by pulling slang, activities and fashion out of whatever western culture was available: Jack London's novels about tramps and hobos riding the rails; early western movies; even the cowboys-and-Indians fantasies of German writer Karl May, who never set foot in America.

“People were interested in America as a way to dream about free life,” says Pavel Hubka, a self-described tramp and, with his brother Jiří, an amateur historian of the subculture. Tramping, he says, has always been “a way to escape ordinary life.” Tramps may not have been overtly political, but they thumbed a collective nose at the communist authorities by adopting a romanticized set of western images and fusing them into a uniquely Czechoslovak culture of campouts, campfires, pow-wows and drink-a-thons. Likewise, the soundtrack that accompanied the pastime was for many years an eclectic blend of Czech and Slovak folk songs, country music that slipped across the border, pop and jazz standards - anything suited to the portable instruments one could play around the fire. The body of music assembled by guitar-strumming hobbyists came to be known as just what it was: “tramp music.”

In the mid-‘60s, though, tramps and others were electrified by a totally unfamiliar sound: old-time American music played by a local band whose members copied tunes they heard on US Armed Forces Network radio out of West Germany. That band, the Greenhorns, “didn’t exactly play bluegrass,” Pavel Handlik says. But they imitated the American recordings’ close vocal harmonies, and added an instrument Central Europeans had never seen or heard: the five-string banjo. Greenhorn Marko Čermak, having heard the rapid-fire banjo melodies on the radio, built his own instrument by studying a photograph of Pete Seeger, taken when the visiting folk legend played the five-string for a captivated Czechoslovak audience in 1964.

"I think most of us who play bluegrass now started with listening to the Greenhorns," says banjo player Petr Brandejs. "They were so good, their lyrics were great, they had a huge impact on the population." To accompany their exuberant Americanized instrumentation, the band translated English-language songs into Czech, or loosely interpreted them to better fit the native tongue - well enough that listeners thought the Orange Blossom Special had always been Oranžovy Expres.

Tramp music fulfilled the eclectic tastes of its rebel cowboy outdoorsmen, but in traditional American music they found something that satisfied their romanticism and nostalgia. And bluegrass brought new energy to acoustic music, with its blues-influenced scale and driving rhythm. Ivo Drbohlav, the leader of Early Grass Revival and a physicist in his free time, was so fascinated by the sound that he started studying English to make sense of the words. In 1973, when Czech fans launched the Banjo Jamboree, Europe’s first bluegrass festival in Europe, those who understood the lyrics and background of the music were able to appease Communist functionaries with a simple explanation. "We told them it was the music of the poor people, of the working-class," Drbohlav says. That satisfied the party sensibility enough to keep the festival going year to year, provided the songs were translated into Czech and approved by a committee.

"Of course,” Drbohlav says, “we didn't tell them that it's the music of the racist south.”

From Kentucky to Moravia

From the ‘60s to the ‘80s, Sunny Side’s Zbyněk Podskalsky says, “we were proud to be playing American music.” Singing in English about a western way of life was forbidden in public settings, but bluegrass and country players brought out the originals in private, like a fine slivovice reserved for guests. But without the flavor of subversion, Podskalsky says, “it’s not such a hot theme now.” Czech bluegrass players continue to win acclaim internationally, but few of them make a living at home as full-time professional musicians.

Tramping is facing troubles of its own. In the early years after the Velvet Revolution, Pavel Hubka says, “on Friday afternoon every train station in Prague was totally green with people dressed for tramping.” Now, he says, the numbers have fallen, especially among the young generation. “I don’t think kids see any romanticism in it. And that’s a big part of it.”

“Maybe it’s better,” Jiři Hubka cuts in. “Now only the hardcore is left.”

As far as most bluegrass players are concerned, American mythology is better left to tramping outings, country bars or dude ranches like Westernove Mestečko Boskovice, where one can eat knedliky in a shotgun saloon. The musicians are more concerned with getting the technique right. “They treat bluegrass like a science,” Handlik says - and sometimes to a fault: “Some other musicians are surprised when we play a solo different than it was on the album.”

That purism may be part of what prevents bluegrass from winning a broad domestic audience. Country music, slick and capricious, has won its buckskin-clad following by ingratiating itself into local culture and language; even at Vinohrady’s Country Saloon Amerika, the bands sing in Czech. But Jakub Racek says his band Monogram has trouble landing local gigs at broader folk/country/tramp festivals, where organizers are reluctant to book “that band that sings in English." Monogram is working on its first album of Czech-language original numbers, but some groups, like Early Grass Revival, sing exclusively in English, preserving the rhythms and vocabulary of the standards even when they write originals.

Ironically, while such purists play to small like-minded crowds at home, the few Czech bands that have made modest inroads into bluegrass’s home have done so by taking traditional music into uncharted territory. The Petr Brandejs Band, well-received in Europe, plays “bluegrass as it’s supposed to be played,” its leader says. But Brandejs’ other band, Poutnici (Pilgrims), plays what he calls “our own kind of acoustic music.” The instruments - banjo, mandolin, standing bass - are the same as those played by the Greenhorns 40 years ago and by Appalachian workers before that. But Poutnici uses bluegrass as a jumping-off point into a jazz/rock/folk fusion that has earned them some positive notice and tour dates in the States. In Poutnici’s case, bluegrass may have stayed at home, but it couldn’t keep the neighbors off the porch.

Another band, Druha Truva (Second Grass), has probably gained as much celebrity across the Atlantic as any Czech act in any genre, earning attention in the US music press and cutting an album with Peter Rowan. (The band now plays in the Czech Republic as Robert Křest’an and Malinaband, due to a lineup change, but retains Druha Trava internationally to avoid confusing its American audience.) Banjo player Luboš Malina - a professional cellist and clarinetist before his bluegrass conversion by the prophets Greenhorn - says the band brings Czech and Eastern European folk into the mix. “We’ve never thought about clarity of style,” Malina says. “We always tried to do it our way, because we’re from a different country.” As for the other players in that country, he says, a little contemptuously, “They try to sound like American bands. They play, pretty much, bluegrass.”

Many musicians would take that as a high compliment. Strict tradition may sound unimpressive to the innovators, but Poutnici and Druha Trava first tuned in to American roots before heading into new territory. Some players and fans keep looking westward - and backward - for inspiration; others make the music their own. But, as Brandejs says, “no matter what they think of America and Americans, they are connected with the American tradition through the music.”

Margot Buff is at letters@pill.cz

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