Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Ireland’s Mules and Men
It ought to come as no surprise that an Irish band would be drawn to the basics of bluegrass. After all, its origins were spawned from the music of Ireland, Scotland, and the whole of the British Isles. That said, it’s all the more impressive to find a group that’s able to use it as a foundation for creating a sound that’s entirely their own
The band that refers to itself as Mules and Men — Lily Sheehan (guitar/vocals), Luke Coffey (banjo/vocals), Paahto Cummins (mandolin/vocals), and Niall Hughes (bass/vocals) — came together through a shared love for vintage bluegrass, in the style of such early masters as Buzz Busby, Joe Val, Danny Paisley, and Ted Lundy. They also added the influences spawned from a current crop of contemporary artists, including Billy Strings, Sierra Ferrell, Béla Fleck, and Jeff Scroggins.
Ultimately, they worked on creating a sound that could draw from that combination of variety and versatility, allowing them to put their own imprint on the music as well. “We’re always playing around with different sounds,” Coffey says. “Our second album, Roscommon County Line, which we recorded in 2019, veers towards a more experimental direction with effect pedals and jamming and such. We did a traditional bluegrass album last year, A Tribute To Johnnie Whisnant, which was very raw and reminiscent of the ’70s era of bluegrass, with Eddie Adcock-like banjo breaks and Joe Val type mandolin lines.”
The group, which formed after meeting through a regular Tuesday night jam session in the Dublin city center, have performed throughout Ireland, in addition to playing regularly in Brittany, where, Coffey says, there seems to be a great appreciation for more adventurous types of music. “We’ve played most of the festivals in Ireland at various points, as well as the La Roche festival in France,” Coffey maintains. “We’re a slow burner!”
According to their website, Mules and Men are a product of their city’s eclectic music scene. Not surprisingly then, they occasionally bend a few boundaries in the process of creating a sound that they can call their own. On the other hand, given their traditional instrumentation and four-part harmonies, they consider themselves to be primarily a party band. They take their music seriously and approach it with a decided craft and care.
In the process, the band has made themselves known in their native country. The three albums they’ve released so far have garnered consistent radio play, and won them raves in the press. Likewise, they’ve attracted the attention of other artists as well. “When (guitarist) Guthrie Trapp was in Dublin, he played a two-hour show with us as a fifth member during our residency in Dublin’s Leeson Lounge,” Coffey recalls. “It was unbelievable.”
Mules and Men have yet to tour the US, but they did pay America a visit two years ago. “We went to SPGMA [Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America] in 2020 for the craic [an Irish terms that translates loosely as “fun and entertainment”], and ended up jamming in one hotel room for three days,” Coffey fondly remembers.
Meanwhile, back home, the group has made consistent strides with its local audiences. “When people take time to come to a show, they love it,” Coffey insists. “Most people here don’t know they love bluegrass until they actually hear it.”
When asked why, Coffey offers a simple explanation.
“It’s by far the most rock ‘n’ roll of any acoustic genre!”