Cup O' Joe
People migrating to America in the 1600s from Ireland, Scotland and England brought basic music styles generally considered to be the roots of bluegrass music. The Bluegrass Heritage Foundation explains that as Jamestown settlers moved into North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, they wrote songs about the day-to-day life in the new hills. That said, it’s no surprise that one of the hottest bluegrass bands—Cup O’ Joe– hails from Northern Ireland.
Siblings (and avid coffee drinkers) Benjamin, Reuben, and Tabitha Agnew live on a small farm in a small farm house on the countryside in County Armagh, where, according to Tabitha, they often get distracted by visiting tractors, cattle escaping from neighboring fields and donkeys straying into their yard!
“Our parents are both musical, and continue to both play a little bit from time to time,” Tabitha explains.
“They brought us up to attend festivals and gigs from a very young age,” like the International Piping festival and the Northern Irish Bluegrass Festival at the Ulster American Folk Park Bluegrass Festival. “Their enjoyment of music is strong, whether it be supporting festivals and gigs or our dad collecting (almost fully functioning) instruments.”
Hearing Cup O’Joe, one would be hard-pressed to believe they had no formal training. “We started out by just picking up a few different instruments, like mandolins, guitars and bohdrans (an Irish Drum) that we had lying around the house,” says Benjamin. “We didn’t really start to devote much time to our respective instruments until Reuben and Tabitha were both about 12 years old and I picked up the bass a little bit after that.”
Since there were no local or regional music teachers, they studied books, YouTube videos, and played tunes they liked over and over.
“Our earliest moments of performing could probably be traced back to the early days, when we would play in our little family band around local church halls when we lived on the North Coast of Northern Ireland (close to the Giants Causeway),” says Tabitha. “We would often all sing together and play with our parents providing the backup.”
Playing on their own “doesn’t come naturally to any of us,” Tabitha adds, “as we always have each other to bounce off of. But it is something that we are all trying to get better at.”
While the siblings like to think they have an equal footing, Benjamin says, “to be honest, I would say the ‘leader’ status would belong to Reuben or Tabitha.”
Why bluegrass? Tabitha laughs. It’s a question they still ask themselves. “As I’m sure your readers might think, there isn’t a huge scene for bluegrass or progressive acoustic music in Northern Ireland, Ireland or the UK.”
Their dad first introduced them to bluegrass and old-time music through the albums of Alison Krauss & Union Station to Riley Baugus & Dirk Powell.
“We were taken to the Ulster American Folk Park Bluegrass festival every year from the age that I was two. I think we grew up thinking that bluegrass was ‘normal’ and what other kids our age listened to.” Festival favorites were The Lonesome River Band, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, Kenny and Amanda Smith and Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. Amid the Irish-American scenic setting of the Festival, these acts “helped us absorb the music,” while seeing young musicians at the Ulster American Folk Park Bluegrass Festival encouraged Tabitha to think that she could play bluegrass music professionally someday. She believes one reason Northern Ireland takes an interest in bluegrass is because its roots trace back to the old Scots-Irish who moved to mountain regions in the Southern United States (specifically Appalachia) with old tunes and traditions.
“It’s pretty cool to have visited a small area of these regions and to see the similarities culturally and musically.”
With the release of their EP “Bluebirds” in 2016, “we started to reveal a taste of our original material, described to be ‘gentle bluegrass’ with elements of folk and more progressive acoustic music coming out,” says Reuben. They had gotten hooked on the music of Django Reinhardt and Stéphane Grappeli, which reflects a small dose of Gypsy Jazz. Their original, ‘Bluebirds,’ is “a little bit ‘wacky’ to some, but it’s fun to play. With that song, each of us contributed to different parts of it, to where we pieced all of the suggestions together to create it.”
This EP features four originals (Bluebirds, Homesick, Blackwaterfoot and Tell Me Darling), one traditional (Pretty Fair Maid), and one early swing song (Black Coffee). Tabitha says they are pulled to old swing and early jazz, with favorites like ‘Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree’ and ‘Mr. Sandman.’ People respond to these old songs “when played with an alternative twist.”
Reuben and Tabitha bring most of the potential band material to the band. “Usually one of us will come to the other with an idea, whether it be a melody or some lyrics, and we will work together trying to create an original product,” says Tabitha. Being siblings removes any pretense of politeness and allows honesty and opinions. Writing can be quite testy, “but over the past year we have come to realize our different roles and responsibilities in the writing process to make it work.”