Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Country Gongbang shows Korean enthusiasm for bluegrass
It’s certainly no secret that many Asians have an unfettered enthusiasm for country music. And nowhere is that more evident than in the scores of bands that have taken American music and replicated it with a reverence that goes well beyond simple admiration and affection.
Not surprisingly then, the Korean group that calls itself Country Gongbang remains intent on carrying that timeless tradition forward, sharing a sound that’s both able and authentic. The group’s founding members — Hyunho (banjo), Yebin (vocal, mandolin), and Kiha (double bass) — met while attending college in 2007 and officially formed their band in 2015. The next to join up was Jongsu, a fiddler who had previously been a member of an Irish-oriented band that called themselves Bard. Once the trio heard him play, they knew immediately that they wanted him to enlist him in their fold.
“There are very few people who can play that kind of music in Korea,” says Hyunho, who also goes by the handle “Banjo Boy.” “That’s the reason why we suggested that he play bluegrass music with us, and happily, he accepted. The four of us began performing together in 2016.”
The next to join was Sujnae, a guitarist who had played bluegrass music with the Laon Family, a group that found him performing alongside his parents. Once again, Country Gongbang was so impressed with what they heard, and immediately set about recruiting him. “We had never seen such a good flat-picking guitar player like him before,” Hyunho says in retrospect. “That’s the reason why we suggested that he play with us. He, too, was happy to accept.”
That was in 2018, and Country Gongbang has remained an essential quintet since 2018.
“We make pop music that’s based on bluegrass,” Hyunho says when asked to describe their sound. “It’s music that’s comfortable to listen to, sort of like what one might hear when listening to Alison Krauss & Union station. More recently, we’ve incorporated more folk elements into our sound and aimed to make more experimental music.”
It’s little wonder then that the group share such varied influences. They cite Rhonda Vincent, Alison Krauss, Sierra Hull, Ricky Skaggs, and Sara Jarosz as among the artists they most respect and admire. “We love the music of Punch Brothers in particular,” Hyunho notes. “We went to see them in concert and became greatly influenced by them.”
Meanwhile, Country Gongbang has chalked up an impressive number of performances themselves. “We often play clubs, including a bluegrass club that we played in Tokyo called Rocky Top,” Hyunho relates. “But we’ve also performed at festivals, including the Takarazka Bluegrass Festival in Takarazka, Japan and the Green Plugged Festival in Seoul, South Korea. We’ve also appeared on radio quite often. Recently, our only performances have taken the form of live online appearances, but our communication with people from other countries is quite active.”
The band also recorded an album, aptly titled We All Need Bluegrass. “We mostly play original songs,” Hyunho explains. “The lyrics are written in Korean, so that we can better express ourselves. We also arrange and play well-known Korean pop songs in our own style. In addition, we sometimes play well-known bluegrass numbers such as Foggy Mountain Breakdown and Jerusalem Ridge, and then mix them in with our own songs.”
The strategy seems to work, even though Hyunho admits that they’re often trodding in some unfamiliar territory as far as their audiences back home are concerned. “Most of them are new to the bluegrass genre, so many people are unfamiliar with the music when they hear it for the first time,” he says. “However, when we perform it for them in concert, and we explain the meanings behind the songs, and they start focusing on the sound of the instruments, they seem to open their hearts and really enjoy what they’re listening to.”
Hyunho also offers an interesting explanation of why he believes that bluegrass is so appreciated in general, even by audiences that encounter it for the first time.
“Bluegrass is a sound that is close to nature,” he muses. “We like it because it’s not over-embellished. It appeals to people who are tired of music that sounds too mechanical and manufactured. Bluegrass music is earthy and authentic. There are many cheerful songs, but it also seems to be a sound that brings out both sadness and joy. All the instruments that are used in the bluegrass genre are engaging as well as interesting.”