New Essex Bluegrass Band: History page
The band name comes not from the mountains of New Essex, but from the advance publicity for their first public appearance. Despairing of their inability to advise her of a name, Joan Gifford advertised them in the press as 'a new Essex bluegrass band' for their 1995 debut at the Wivenhoe Folk Club. Despite well over a decade of intense combined mental activity they have never managed to think of another. What they have achieved is to become one of the UK's foremost traditional bluegrass bands.
The New Essex Bluegrass Band started when two former members of the Chelmer Valley Bluegrass Band, mandolinist Terry Hymers and guitarist Paul Brewer, needed a banjo player for a barn dance in the autumn of 1994. With no known local pickers available, in desparation they agreed to risk the unheard Greg Wright, who had played guitar for square dances, but had never played bluegrass banjo in public.
As soon as they heard him Terry and Paul were amazed at both his skill and ability to blend in perfectly with the bluegrass band style. All three realised they shared a love of the same type of traditional bluegrass, and soon began picking regularly together, becoming much in demand at clubs and barn dances.
The band prefers the traditional approach in their instrumental and vocal style. The material comes mostly from the early bluegrass bands, including Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Reno & Smiley, and Jim & Jesse, as well as more modern bands who are creating fresh new work in the same tradition. Strong banjo, fiddle and mandolin are featured, but are never allowed to overpower the authentic duo and trio vocal harmonies, which the band believes is at the heart of bluegrass music. Paul takes care of most of the lead vocal duties, with Terry usually singing tenor. Since Mike joined the band on double bass, he has been the regular baritone voice on trio numbers.
Further evidence of the band’s commitment to tradition is their use of the single microphone. They believe that this also enhances their ability to perform as a truly tight bluegrass unit, as their proximity to one another on stage helps them both to hear and respond to each other’s efforts. Audiences attest to how this technique works, and adds to the excitement of a live show, due not least to the intricate choreography required by individual band members as they weave in and out of the microphone to take the lead part.
Appearing originally as a regular four-piece group, the band has been fortunate to call upon the assistance of several bass players. John Pearman, who runs the highly successful East Anglian bluegrass events in Steeple Morden, was with them the evening Terry and Paul met Greg Wright, and played with them on and off until 1998. From October 1995 until June 1996 their regular bass player was the fine tenor singer Jesse Taylor. From 1998 Mick Bird, with whom Greg Wright also played in the ‘Dangerous Snakes’, was their regular bass player. After a hugely successful appearance with them at Didmarton in September 2000, Mike Stanhope joined as full-time bass player and baritone singer.
With Mike’s arrival the band seemed to have a stable & committed membership, but in October 2001 they suffered a major disappointment when Terry decided to go to Holland to live and work, following the band’s visit in May of that year to the EWOB festival in Voorthuisen. This meant the band was largely inactive for the following year, although they did play the 2002 EWOB and Yorkshire Dales festivals, but had to refuse the many requests for bookings, which followed these appearances.
The absence of Terry, widely admired as one of the most solid and powerful mandolin players in British bluegrass, and whose vocal harmonies with Paul had made the band recognised as perhaps the best interpreter of ‘brother duets’ in the UK, left a major question over their future as a performing band.
With no sign of Terry’s permanent return the band decided to invite Joe Hymas (an uncanny similarity to Terry’s surname) to join them as mandolin player and tenor singer. Since Joe’s first appearance with them at the London Bluegrass Club in December 2002, where his virtuoso mandolin playing stunned the unsuspecting assembly, the other members of the band and their audiences were looking forward with confidence at their continuing future as a paradigm of traditional bluegrass.
Then, in March 2003, Terry decided to return to the UK. This presented the band with something of a dilemma: Paul, Greg and Mike had enjoyed rehearsing and playing with Joe and were delighted to have his exceptional mandolin virtuosity on board, but it was Terry’s contribution to the vocal harmonies – a key ingredient of the band’s sound – which, after much agonizing, settled the matter. Joe’s talents now enhance the the likes of Monroe’s Revenge and the Morris Boys, as well as other outfits outside the bluegrass scene. Long may he run…
Further disruption was caused late in 2004 when Greg Wright decided he could no longer give his full commitment to playing with the band, although he continued to appear occasionally.
During 2005 the band was joined on a number of engagements by Greg Smith on fiddle, on loan from the Cambridge-based Radio Cowboys. In case you are wondering where the hats have gone, the picture to the left was taken on the Sunday morning of the Guildtown festival in 2005. This was a gospel session, so no hats (and the fiddle was only allowed by a special dispensation!)
Later in 2005 the band was invited to play at the Cornwall festival. As Greg Wright was not available, the band borrowed Kenny Baker, also of the Radio Cowboys, for the festival. The success of this full five-piece line-up persuaded the band that they should adopt it on a permanent basis. Greg readily agreed to become the regular fiddle player but Kenny had too many other commitments to give the band the time it deserved.
In 2006, after a lengthy period without a permanent banjo player, the band had the good fortune to be introduced to Dixon Smith. Dixon had been living in the Cambridge area since 1994, after leaving his native USA where he had earned his living playing bluegrass banjo for twenty years. It was instantly apparent that his style of playing, and his preferred repertoire fitted exactly with that of the New Essex Bluegrass Band, which he was delighted to be invited to join.
Dixon's sojourn with the band came to an end at the close of 2007 when to everyones surprise, including his own, his life took an unexpected turn and he returned to America to get married. He now plays in a great band; you can follow his adventures here. Luckily, Dixon managed to lay down all his tracks for the new band CD "Hot Off The Press" before he left.
Finding ourselves without a banjo player once more, we were delighted to find an excellent banjo player in Grahame Turner after a six-month search, so that we are once again a complete 5-piece bluegrass band.
We have been very fortunate to have had the support of Mike Stanhope, our great bass player with his rich baritone voice, since 2000. He regretfully decided to retire from the band at the end of 2010 - we thank him warmly for his friendship and musicianship. We thought hard about who could fill his shoes, and we could hardly belive our luck when our unanimous first choice, Marc Noel-Johnson (a stalwart of the Radio Cowboys and a gifted musician - he plays guitar and mandolin as well as bass) agreed to play with us and sing the baritone line.
You can be confident that the New Essex Bluegrass Band will bring you a programme of the finest traditional bluegrass available from a British band, as audiences from all the major UK and European Bluegrass venues and festivals will confirm.
Last updated: Tuesday, 22nd February, 2011, GPS