Netflix’s “Swap Shop” Stars JP and Fiddling Leona Bring a New Edge to Bluegrass
For JP and Fiddling Leona, bluegrass is not just about enjoying themselves; it’s about sharing the music they love. With the married couple’s new status as TV personalities on two seasons of the Netflix series “Swap Shop,” new avenues for promoting music have crossed their paths. It seems they’ve made lots of new people tune in and take a listen to the kind of music they’ve made most of their lives.
“We’ve just had season two of the Netflix series,” JP Mathes said. “It’s been a really interesting experience.”
On the show, the couple scours their region for collectibles that have resale value or a solid cool quotient.
This banjo player and fiddler married back in 2010, and according to Mathes, music is like a magnet that attracted a guy from Tennessee and a girl from Japan. Today it still serves as a strong glue, holding together two musicians from different cultures who came into their instruments differently.
“Yeah,” Fiddling Leona added, “keeping the tradition is a very important thing, but also to have to adjust to the age group…or times…in order to keep it going. A lot of the time younger people have the thought of, oh, that’s just ‘old people’ music.”
With that in mind, this couple is—well—kinda edgy, maybe a little bit cool (we might as well add in the phrase “cute as a button” for good measure). They offer a kind of forward-thinking diversity in a genre that, while improving, tends to have the slow-to-change approach common to many mountain communities worldwide.
The example of this young pair indeed shows that music is the universal language, and it’s a language they are, in a small way, teaching some viewers of “Swap Shop” to begin speaking for the first time.
The couple describes their new popularity from the TV show as a great platform for achieving their primary goal.
According to Leona, despite a lifetime of performing and touring across the world as JP and Fiddling Leona, before the show aired, she hadn’t been able to garner much media interest personally. The Bluegrass Standard is the first bluegrass magazine to feature her, and she said the first interest in her as a TV personality came from Netflix executives. They chanced across her Instagram account before interviewing her and JP and eventually offered them a role on the show. Now, viewers are attracted to the same thing those executives found intriguing: The interesting fact that a classically-trained violinist from Japan could become so immersed in and enamored with traditional American music. The viewers like it, and she and her husband get constant messages from fans.
“She’s been getting love letters,” Mathes laughed, with his fiddling sidekick giggling.
“Our dream would have been to inject some Appalachian culture into pop culture,” Mathes explained. Thanks to “Swap Shop,” that dream has become real.
The convergence of their paths had been years in the making. Leona claims it began before she was born.
“My father is a guitar player in Japan,” she explained. “Basically, he influenced me even when I was in my mom’s belly. Then my parents would play some sort of fiddle music when I was a baby because I would sleep when it was on.”
At age three, the little girl asked her parents for a fiddle. She, of course, started the way most do in Japan, where bluegrass isn’t widely known. She took classical violin lessons. Inspired by her dad’s work, she transitioned over to fiddle-style at around age 13.
“He put me on an airplane when I was 15, so I could attend a fiddle camp in California,” she said. “I realized I actually loved dance music.”
As for Mathes, his trajectory was what one would expect from a boy raised in the southern Appalachia of Elizabethton, Tennessee. He grew up with his grandparents taking him to Saturday night barn dances in Virginia. Still, he didn’t get truly hooked on the banjo until age 12, after driving through the mountains one day with his uncle, listening to his new CD of The Osborne Brothers’ “From Rocky Top to Muddy Bottom.”
He learned to play on an old family heirloom banjo made by a great, great grandfather back in the 1920s.
He ended up traveling the globe performing with a college group and eventually became a teacher, serving as an associate professor at The Kentucky School of Bluegrass & Traditional Music. He said teaching taught him a lot about how people choose their instruments.
“After teaching so long, I realized a lot of people who are really good at their instrument; it kinda matches their personality,” he explained. The same applies to him, with his outgoing manner. He said his instrument of choice can be “loud” and “abrasive,” and “It never gets to rest…it’s always doing something.” Kind of like this busy couple who are bringing their music to new audiences in a way they could never have anticipated just a few years ago.
“Our mission statement,” Mathes said in summary, “is to push bluegrass and traditional music to as many people as possible.”
It seems to be working.