Last year NSW based bluegrass and old time band The Plough made their debut at The National Folk Festival and very quickly became one of the most talked about bands of the event. The Plough are back at The National again this year so we sat down with singer/fiddle player/mando player John Healy and guitarist Francis Duffy to talk about what we can expect from the band second time around.
Gareth Hugh Evans: You guys are playing at The National this year which will be your second time around for that festival.
John Healy: Yeah, it will be our second year in a row. We were pretty surprised to be picked up a second time. It was so good last time.
Francis Duffy: We had a great time last year. We’re pretty chuffed to be going back there again.
GHE: I went to a few of your sets at The National last year and it felt like each show there were more and more people there and you were building a bit of a buzz. Did you feel that from the stage.
JH: Well Francis reckons the first gig was good [laughs]! But yeah, I felt that. The last gig was awesome! We weren’t used to playing in front of so many people – it was quite overwhelming and pretty fun.
GHE: I also saw you guys pretty heavily involved in the Session Bar as well. For me the Session Bar is the heart of The National – it’s a place where you get to play with all of these amazing artists. What drew you to the Session Bar
JH: We’re so used to playing our stuff we want to expand and learn more actual old timey and bluegrass tunes. And just see our friends. Francis got to play with Gordie [MacKeeman]. He got to do…
FD: “Wagon Wheel”
JH: Yeah, “Wagon Wheel” with Gordie.
FD: That was my big moment.
JH: I think I got to play “Old Joe Clark” with Gordie. That was cool.
GHE: So tell a little bit about the origins of The Plough. Has it come out of the picking and jamming sessions in Sydney?
JH: Sort of. We started playing music together as friends and then came across the Bluegrass and Old Time Society and started going there a lot. We’d learn three songs to play at that gig – every month we’d learn three more songs. And we slowly built up a set and we ended up having enough to do a gig on our own. It was pretty slow but also really nice. We got to participate in the Bluegrass Society and also develop the songs we wanted to play and learn songs from other people.
GHE: So what solidified you as a band?
JH: I think the Bluegrass Society made us a band.
FD: I think at [the Bluegrass and Old Time Society], playing the three songs, is quite challenging. I think some musicians say they get up and play, even though they’re very competent, as it’s a good place to practice. You’re playing in front of an audience of musicians. And it’s a very supportive environment.
GHE: I’ve never been because it intimidates me.
JH: It’s not intimidating at all! It’s actually quite beautiful. You develop relationships with people and I guess you gravitate towards certain people to learn things from or people offer their advice to you while you’re playing. Like I remember we were playing one particular tune – “Goodbye Liza Jane” – and this guy walked over and he pointed out the note that we were missing. We added it in and it sounded really good.
FD: People are very supportive and encouraging. When you go there you want to go back and try and get better. It’s good having that monthly get together – I think John and I are quite religious about being there.
GHE: It nurtures community as well. There’s a very obvious, tight-knit group of people who have come out of the Bluegrass and Old Time Society in Sydney.
JH: It’s a really great community. And the nice thing about it is it’s kind of from old to young – it’s not just one bunch of people. That’s where I first started playing the fiddle. They have a sinners group – Safety In Numbers. A big group of people in a room learning a few songs. So I got to just scratch away on fiddle – it’s a really safe and open place to expand your use of an instrument.
GHE: So last years you guys headed to Europe for a tour of Sweden and Ireland. How did that come about?
JH: It sort of just fell together. Francis hadn’t been back to Ireland for a few years and he really wanted to go back. And I said “well I’ll go”. Then Daniel, who plays with us and is Francis’ son said “ok, I’ll go”. So then we thought we could go as a band and we saw that there were these festivals available, we called them up and they said “sure!”. We booked into a festival in Ireland and then we were on our way. We didn’t want to go straight to Ireland and we thought it would be great to stop in Stockholm [for a festival]. So we rang them up and they said “yeah, sure” and they put us into their lineup. And then I have a nephew over there and he booked a lot of smaller gigs for us. It just came together.
FD: It was really good and Sweden was beautiful. It was such a nice vibe, lots of great international bands. It was summer time so there was 24 hour daylight. It was very therapeutic – very pleasant. We played in this huge barn that could house 1000s or people. Being in the one spot for a few days and having that focus was quite nice – we’re all together, we hired a car together, we drove around together. We did the same in Ireland. It’s not like being on a holiday.
GHE: Was bluegrass and old time music popular over there?
JH: Not really. Just at the festivals. I think people liked what we did in the pubs but it was probably more novelty than anything. I think in Ireland country music is popular. We noticed we played a lot faster than the Irish bluegrass bands because they’re more country.
FD: Their choice in bluegrass is always leaning on country.
GHE: And the trad celtic stuff is obviously quite popular.
JH: Yeah, especially where we went to in Galway and the west. You’re tripping over it there. It was great to watch.
GHE: So what’s happening after The National? Any more overseas trips in the works?
JH: We’re thinking next year. There are a lot of other European festivals and I think Sweden would have us back. We’d really like to do it again because it was pretty easy and it was so much fun. Otherwise we’ll just apply for a lot of festivals and see which ones we get into.
GHE: Well thanks so much for chatting today! I’m really looking forward to seeing you guys at The National.
Jh: Thanks Gareth.
Thursday 24th to Monday 28th March – National Folk Festival, Canberra, ACT
– Friday 6:50pm – Bohemia Bar
– Sunday 1:20pm – Scrumpy
– Monday 10am – Scrumpy