JigJam and We Banjo 3 — Continuing Irish Incursions into American Roots Music and Bluegrass
With many concerns about the Corona virus now receding, Americans are again embracing the return of live music by returning to concerts and music festivals in droves.
Mid-year 2022 industry statistics showing the sale of 15.6 million tickets for the top 100 American touring artists through June 30, 2022, compare quite favorably to pre-pandemic sales of 16.9 million tickets for the top 100 acts through June 30, 2019.
The rebound in concert and festival attendance crosses all types of music, with fans finding lots of opportunities to again enjoy live performances within the folk, Americana and Bluegrass genres.
The resurgence in live music gives us an opportunity to step back and consider how different musical styles have influenced and interplayed with music in America. The reflections here touch upon historical and current Irish influences on American roots genres, as well as the continuing crossover into those genres by contemporary artists. For examples of the latter, we’ll take a look at the Irish bands We Banjo 3 and JigJam.
Irish Influences in American Roots Music
Irish influences on music in North America date back to the first waves of immigrants arriving across the Atlantic during the 1700’s. Irish immigration accelerated exponentially in the 1840’s as a result of the Great Famine, where 75% of the nation’s potato crop failed leading to massive starvation. Today, it is estimated that over 32 million Americans can directly trace their roots to Ireland.
Early Irish musical influences were felt especially on the East Coast, particularly in Boston and, from those areas, began to spread throughout those countries as migrations began outwards to new areas of the country.
While there are virtually no musical genres untouched by Irish music, distinct examples of this influence can be found in American roots music, including folk, country, blues, and the catch-all singer-songwriter category of Americana.
These influences can be found not only in the styles of music, but also the instruments themselves. Traditional Irish musical instruments, including the fiddle, the accordion and even the flute, play a huge role in Bluegrass, folk, country and zydeco music.
There has been some debate about the extent to which historical Irish music influenced early emerging Bluegrass, given its origins in Appalachia where limited Irish immigration occurred. Nevertheless, as Bluegrass moved beyond the Appalachian mountains, Irish music often became intertwined with Bluegrass through common musician interactions and friendships. Those genres in America have grown up and matured together through their many common styles and themes.
With the increase in intercontinental travel and the mixing of cultures following World War II, Irish influences on American music also continued with the American folk revival during the 1960’s. Many US singer-songwriters paid tribute to their roots by incorporating Irish lyrics, styles, and songs into their own work.
At the same time, music in Ireland was being strongly influenced by American artists and musical styles. One notable example exists with American country and folk singer, Steve Earle, who wrote the song “Galway Girl,” while in Ireland. While that song may not be too familiar with US audiences, it has made Earle virtually a household name in Ireland, where it has been covered by countless Irish artists.
We Banjo 3 and Celtgrass
We Banjo 3 is distinctly a genre-busting band. Or perhaps they can be described better as a genre-defining band. Combining traditional Irish folk music with Bluegrass and Americana, We Banjo 3 has developed their own style that they term “Celtgrass.” The result is a high-energy fusion of solid string instrumentals and introspective lyrics that envelop their fanbase into a massive worldwide family.
We Banjo 3 is a mainstay on the Irish American festival circuit, which occurs from July through the end of September throughout the Midwest and East.
With their unique style of Celtgrass, We Banjo 3 has also been steadily expanding its US fanbase well beyond the Irish festival circuit. They have been appearing at Bluegrass and Americana festivals across the country including 2022 appearances at Old Settler’s Music Festival and ROMP Fest alongside artists like the Del McCoury Band, Rhiannon Giddens, Tommy Emmanuel, Punch Brothers, Railroad Earth, Sierra Hull, and Leftover Salmon. They will be appearing at the Outerbanks Bluegrass Festival in North Carolina on October 22nd.
We Banjo 3’s album releases have also enjoyed huge popularity, with their 2019 Roots to Rise Live album debuting at #1 on Billboard’s Bluegrass Albums Chart and their 2018 album Haven spending 3 weeks at #1 on that chart. We Banjo 3’s US summer tour circuit coincided with the release of their 8th album, Open The Road.
We Banjo 3 was one of the headlining bands at Milwaukee Irish Fest, which spanned 4 days during the third weekend of August. Having made their US debut at Irish Fest in 2012, the band has been a festival favorite virtually each year since then.
We Banjo 3 is comprised of two sets of brothers, David Howley (lead vocals, guitar) and Martin Howley (tenor banjo, mandolin, vocals) and Enda Scahill (tenor banjo, vocals) and Fergal Scahill (fiddle, viola, dobro, bodhran, guitar, vocals). Originally hailing from Galway, Ireland, each had successful solo careers before teaming up as a band. Each member has achieved multiple accolades and awards. The band has released 8 albums in their 13-year history, including 2 live albums and an album of Christmas holiday music.
The band’s songs range from sweetly wistful to all out rollicking with the band literally jumping around on the stage as they interact with their audiences.
We Banjo 3’s messages are about empathy, love, and hope. Many of their songs reflect a need for healing with some based on personal struggles of the band’s members. Their music evokes a kind of palliative spirit in an emotional sense by easing the listener’s cares and concerns. We Banjo 3’s music is joyful and envelopes their fans within a community of loving and caring.
JigJam—an Up-and-Coming Irish Bluegrass Band
Another Irish band making inroads in the Bluegrass and Americana scene is JigJam, which has been described as “Ireland’s answer to the New Grass Revival.”.
JigJam’s blend of traditional Irish music with Bluegrass and Americana can be labeled as a new genre of ‘I-Grass’ or Irish-influenced Bluegrass. JigJam captivates its audiences with technical virtuosity and intense high-energy performances.
Also a mainstay of the Irish American Festival circuit, JigJam is enjoying increasing exposure among traditional Bluegrass and Americana fans. JigJam’s 2022 Bluegrass festival appearances include the Walnut Valley Festival where they have appeared alongside Bela Fleck My Bluegrass Heart and Sierra Hull.
From the Irish midlands, JigJam’s core is comprised of Jamie McKeogh (lead singer, guitar), Daitha Melia (guitar, 5-string banjo, dobro), Cathal Guinan (fiddle, tin whistle), and Gavin Strappe (tenor banjo, mandolin). JigJam has also included Glasgow-natives Calum Morrison on double bass and Danny Hunter on fiddle. Prior to forming JigJam in 2016, each member honed their skills resulting in numerous national appearances and awards.
JigJam’s music is dominantly banjo based. Their lyrics include tight harmonies and soaring solos. Their songs include heart-rending ballads as well as a playful joyfulness. Their tempos range from a free-flowing ease to an absolutely frenetic pace.
The band has released 3 albums of original music along with a live album. The band’s Phoenix is their most recently release from 2019.
We Banjo 3 and JigJam at Milwaukee Irish Fest
We Banjo 3 and JigJam each played 3 separate sets over the course of Milwaukee Irish Fest’s 4 day run. In addition, We Banjo 3 led a collaborative tribute set to Scottish rock music along with all of the other bands appearing at Irish Fest. This tribute itself highlighted much of the crossover between Celtic music tastes and mainstream American music as the selections played included songs by AC/DC, Rod Stewart, Annie Lennox and Stealers Wheel.
During each of their sets, We Banjo 3 and JigJam were enthusiastically received by the adoring crowds. David Howley and Jamie McKeogh expressed many times how happy the bands were to reconnect with their American fans after the Covid-forced hiatus.
Large parts of the success of We Banjo 3 and JigJam relate to the precision and virtuosity of the band members in performing their songs. Their stringed instrument skills are truly amazing to behold. Combine those skills with their on-stage energy and witnesses to their music will come away quite satisfied.
Milwaukee’s Irish Fest is no stranger to the draw of Bluegrass. The festival first returned to a live format after Covid during August 2021. However, due to Irish Covid-related travel restrictions, Irish performers were unable to attend the festival.
As a result, as the festival highlighted American Irish and Celtic roots, it turned to Bluegrass mainstays Molly Tuttle and Sierra Hull in 2021 to help fill out the festival’s schedule. Informal discussions with event planners suggest Irish Fest may again look to traditional Bluegrass performers for future festivals.
At its heart, American roots music was strongly influenced by Irish traditional styles and instruments. Contemporary Irish artists, such as We Banjo 3 and JigJam, offer US audiences tastes of the continuing crossover and influence of Irish music in Bluegrass and Americana.
Keep an eye on We Banjo 3 and JigJam for future tour dates and check out their music on your favorite streaming services.
Find more on We Banjo 3 here: https://www.webanjo3.com
Discover more about JigJam here: http://www.jigjam.ie/tour/
Keep track of Milwaukee’s Irish Festival here: https://irishfest.com/Milwaukee-Irish-Fest