Abrams Brothers: The Canadian trio in a bluegrass and folk family tradition

Wednesday 29th January 2014

Tony Cummings spoke to John Abrams of globetrotting exponents of rural music, the ABRAMS BROTHERS

The Abrams Brothers
The Abrams Brothers

Bands like Nickel Creek have ensured that the last few years have seen the banjo-driven rhythms of bluegrass music reach a vast international audience and long gone are the days when bluegrass was a folk art limited to rural musicians living in the shadow of the Appalachian Mountains. The Abrams Brothers are Canada's long established festival favourites whose music has a broad based appeal which has been described by Q magazine as sounding "as if Simon & Garfunkle were mountain folk." Born into a four generation touring bluegrass family, John Abrams (vocals, guitar, mandolin, keyboard, percussion) and James Abrams (vocals, violin) have been on stage in the family business since they were seven and 10. Together with their cousin Elijah Abrams (bass) they have established a major following. The Abrams Brothers became the youngest Canadians to perform at Nashville's Grand Ole Opry. In 2005, they were named Emerging Artist Of The Year at the Canadian Bluegrass Music Awards. Over the past few years, the Abrams Brothers have been a constant on the Canadian festival circuit and have shared the same stage with Feist, John Hammond and Dean Brody.

The past couple years have seen the much-loved Canadian trio rising through the ranks. In 2009 the band released 'Blue On Brown', an album of songs by Arlo Guthrie and Bob Dylan. The record was the boys' tribute to songwriters they had always admired, and even Arlo Guthrie commented they were "way too young to be playing that good." When the video for the band's next single, a cover of Coldplay's "Viva La Vida" made a splash on CMT in both the US and Canada, the band reached a larger audience yet. And in late 2010 The Abrams Brothers released a new video for the single "Mermaid Town" that went straight into medium rotation on CMT.

All three of the Abrams Brothers are committed Christians. Said John, "I think Christianity and bluegrass are just weaved together - bluegrass coming from Bill Monroe in the '30s. Gospel music was a big part of Bill Monroe's sound, so naturally the tendency with bluegrass is to hold fast to those traditions of the likes of Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers. Coming from the Bible Belt, that's a natural influence into the music. I think it goes hand-in-hand with a lot of oldtime songs: the only thing you could sing in a little church in the mountains. It wouldn't be much bigger production than a guitar, a banjo, a piano. I think there's a close, first-cousin link to gospel music with bluegrass. But the best way you could describe the music we play - certainly on our most recent record, 'Northern Redemption', released in the UK around a year ago - is bluegrass rock. We've combined those sounds with drums, bass, sometimes a Hammond organ behind us. We're taking influences from Neil Young, The Band, but trying to keep that tradition at the core."

John was asked if Nickel Creek had been an influence. "Absolutely. We grew up listening to Nickel Creek - took classes from the guys in the band when we were at fiddle camp in San Diego, California. They were phenomenal, and still today, in their own projects, are phenomenal musicians."

Abrams Brothers: The Canadian trio in a bluegrass and folk family tradition

One of the most surprising numbers in the Abrams Brothers' playlist is a banjo-driven version of Coldplay's "Viva La Vida". John explained how they got to record the song. "A few years ago, we thought it'd be good to try and get some online traction - this is back in 2008 - and we were really digging the 'Viva La Vida' record that came out. They're tremendous writers and composers. 'Wouldn't it be great to do a reworking? That song can really sit in another place, so let's just try it.' We came up with "Viva La Vida", our own version, initially just to get traction online. But it evolved into something more than that in the studio. Long story short, we ended up getting a music video for that, and we had to get the sync licence rights. We were able to get hold of them directly when they were on tour in Australia; they said they loved our version of the song: we could go ahead and have the rights, we didn't have to pay. That was a nice experience, one of a couple milestones in our career where we felt really encouraged by people we respect, and felt this is the right thing for us to be doing."

In recent times a growing number of Christian radio stations have started to pick up on the Abrams Brothers' music. What did John think of the CCM scene? "I've always been of a mindset that I don't think it's a healthy thing to try and restrict Christian music into one genre - packaging and selling and labelling Christian music as a genre of a music. You can tread dangerous ground there, because it tends to isolate; you create guardrails around the genre, and sometimes that does happen in Christian music. I really appreciate what you guys do in that you're trying to pull apart those constructs. The Christian mandate at its core is love, it's going out and being in the world and sharing that love Christ taught us. I don't think there's any place for isolation in that ideal. There's so much in 'Joshua Tree', for instance, that pulls incredible Christ images; at the same time you might hear a Casting Crowns song that's relatable as well. I think it's a wonderful thing you do because it's inviting. It needs to be a sanctuary to people as opposed to something they feel like they're confined within."

Many of the Abrams Brothers' compositions reflect their strong faith. Have the group found that such references put off a non-Christian listenership? John reflected, "There are a lot of people willing to listen to that - as long as it's deliberate in a way that's from a humble standpoint. That's what it's all about for us: we're just very thankful to get the chance to play music, to be able to sing and create songs from our heart. People are willing to listen to what we have to say, and it's a real blessing. We always try and come at it from that standpoint. I also have to say, some of the more prevalent interviews I've had in the UK, people have asked me what my faith has been. Any time we go over there we always feel very accepted in that aspect of our lives." CR

The opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those held by Cross Rhythms. Any expressed views were accurate at the time of publishing but may or may not reflect the views of the individuals concerned at a later date.
About Tony Cummings
Tony CummingsTony Cummings is the music editor for Cross Rhythms website and attends Grace Church in Stoke-on-Trent.


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