While most Americans were packing up their Christmas trees and trying to stick to their New Year’s resolutions, the Ventucky String Band was on the road, bringing their “golden age of country music” to pubs and concert halls across Western Europe. It seems an unlikely place for an Americana band to find an avid fan base, but bluegrass, rockabillly and roots music has a huge following in Belgium and the Netherlands.
“There’s a strong rockabilly and roots scene,” says Matt Sayles, guitarist, frontman and co-founder of the Ventucky String Band. “They love American music. Radio stations still play Creedence Clearwater Revival. It’s a little time warp. People seem to appreciate an early genre of rock music.”
Some of that might have to do with the local film industry. “There was this movie that took off — it’s kind of like the Belgian version of O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Sayles explains. “It spurred an interest in bluegrass and roots music.” That movie would be 2012’s The Broken Circle Breakdown, directed by Felix Van Groeningen, which tells a story of love and loss through the eyes of a couple in a bluegrass band from Ghent, in the Flemish region of Belgium. The film was a hit at home and abroad, picking up a slew of awards and even an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
The tour should have been grueling: The band played 21 shows in two countries over 18 days. But the trio — Sayles, fiddler Lauren Donahue and bass player Bob Guidebeck (stepping in for banjo player Dave White and bassist Rick Clemens, who had scheduling conflicts) — found this to be a kinder, gentler tour. Booking agency Surfing Airlines provided lodging, transportation with drivers (who doubled as roadies) and some meals in addition to gigs across Belgium and the Netherlands.
It was a surprisingly homey kind of experience, a little education abroad mixed into the rock ’n’ roll. The band had a base in the picturesque village of Lichtaart, in a house that “was two times the size of where I live here in Ventura,” says Sayles. Owing to the close proximity of venues — the farthest the band traveled in any one day was four hours — most days, everyone could be back “home” to enjoy a hot meal and pints of good Belgian beer around the fireplace. A far cry from living on a touring bus and eating on the run.
“Having a place to go back to, it gave you a sense of an anchor,” recalls Sayles, noting that they got to know the local bartenders, and learn about the best hiking spots and local festivals. Spending so much time with their drivers, Sven and Jens, gave them a lot of exposure to the culture as well. “It was interesting to have that local interaction,” Donahue says. “It was really different from being a tourist.”
While the band did play larger cities like Antwerp and Bruges, and even a maximum-security prison, most venues were village pubs, which by and large tend to be locally owned family establishments. “You show up and set up your gear, and then they serve you a home-cooked meal,” Sayles says.
The crowds were typically small — usually around 50 people — but the shows were both memorable and rewarding. “We played a lot of smaller venues, but the crowds were great,” says Donahue. “In many of them, you could hear a pin drop. They were there to hear the music.”
Taking in the local music scene was enlightening as well. According to Donahue, most of the acts she saw were soul, R&B and singer/songwriter types . . . but the music being played wasn’t always faithful to its genre. At one gig in Amersterdam, Ventucky String Band played with two other acts billed as soul. “But they were more like ’80s English punk,” Sayles notes. “The interpretation of American music was really interesting.” Donahue agrees, adding, “Rock and roll is a much broader term over there.”
Even with so many shows, the musicians found time to do a little sightseeing. One memorable stop: Bobbejaanland, an amusement park in Lichtaart founded by a Flemish country-western singer and professional whistler (yes, really) that Sayles described as a “Belgian Dollywood.” And of course, in a land where most every town has its own brewery, much fine local beer was sampled. But it was the quiet, yet sincere, admiration of the Dutch and Belgian audiences that has stayed with the American bluegrass artists.
“Bands coming over from the U.S. — it’s a big deal,” Donahue says. “You’re really embraced. It’s a lot more welcoming. We felt very appreciated there.” Sayles agrees, adding, “People are less jaded or they’re just really enthusiastic about Americana music. When we came back and played [a show in the U.S.] it was almost painful.”
The European tour was a swan song for Donahue, who is packing up her fiddle for a much-needed break. Holding down a full-time job while living the musician’s life has taken its toll, and Donahue is looking forward to having free time for something other than band practice and shows. “I’ve given up a lot of personal time,” she says. “It’ll be nice to reinvest in people again.”
Ventucky String Band won’t be quite the same without her, but the picking goes on. The band recently released a new album, Ghost of the Damned, and has kept up a steady number of gigs stateside. Sayles is even starting a new concert series, Songwriters in the Round, coming to Ventura’s Saloon BBQ Co. this spring.
Sayles isn’t sure that the band will have a chance to revisit the Low Countries. But memories of warm Belgian hospitality, cold Dutch lagers and a European audience infatuated with American roots will no doubt stay with the musicians. And whether Donahue rejoins the band or not, they’ll always have Bobbejaanland.
For more information on Ventucky String Band, including music, videos and tour dates, call 541-693-4050 or visit http://ventuckystringband.com.