Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Just As Blue puts a Swedish spin on their grass
Sweden is a nation known for its scenic wonders, its remarkable history, and the charm of its people. Bluegrass, on the other hand, isn’t the kind of music one might always expect to hear in those particular realms of Scandinavia. Nevertheless, Just As Blue — Ulla Tanggaard (singer and guitarist), Jörgen Berg (banjo and occasional dobro), Erik Sundberg (bass), and Lasse Williamsson (fiddle) — have found success procuring a sound that’s been described as a soulful form of bluegrass, one that intertwines traditional songs with original compositions that are imbued with their specific sound.
“It’s a traditional bluegrass setting, but the arrangements of the songs are often more contemporary,” Ulla insists. “The most important thing for us is our love of the lyrics and the stories told through the music, as well as the energy and drive. Sometimes we like to play around with what people expect from the genre and mix in some other influences. Every song needs different things. Since all of us come from different musical backgrounds, it makes the mix really interesting, and we challenge each other constantly with our individual musical influences.”
The origins of the band can be traced to 2014, when Ulla heard Berg play the banjo at a concert and subsequently suggested that they start working together. She had just left another bluegrass band, Southdrive, and she was looking for new people to perform with. In addition, she was also looking for an opportunity to play some of her original songs in a way that would allow them to take shape. Because both Ulla and Berg worked together in the Academy of Music and Drama at the University of Gothenburg — Ulla teaches singing and Jörgen teaches guitar — it was only natural that they would proceed with their project.
They initially started playing with another bass player, but after he left, Williamsson was recruited. He had been specializing in Swedish folk music and also dabbled in classical music as well. That meant that bluegrass would become a new genre for him. However, it was a two-way trade-off. The influences that he brought with him still inform much of the sound Just as Blue continues to create. For his part, Sundberg began as an occasional contributor, but given his level of musicianship, the rest of the band felt inclined to make him a regular member of the band. He relocated to Gothenburg from his home in the north of Sweden, where he had pursued the study of music.
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Consequently, the band claims some varied influences. “A record that blew me away when I heard it the first time was the album Reckless by the Steeldrivers,” Ulla recalls. “It was a sound that really got to me. Chris Stapleton sings his heart out. The lyrics pop, and combined with the amazing musicianship in the band, I considered it a big deal. Another band that’s been an inspiration for me is Crooked Still. They’re a band that’s taken a lot of old classics and made them their own. I also love how they used the cello. I also admire Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and the way they deliver lyrics in combination with their excellent musical arrangements and harmony singing. Beyond bluegrass, a wide variety of bands and singers influence us, which can be anything from the Beatles to the Foo Fighters.”
This past spring, Just As Blue went into the studio to record their new album, which they’ve titled Through with Falling. It’s scheduled for release in early this fall on all the major platforms. “We’re really excited about it,” Ulla says. “It’s always exciting to hear your songs take form. The work we did in the studio was something we really enjoyed as a band.”
The band’s earlier offerings include a holiday song titled December 23, which was released in 2019. Prior to that, a self-titled EP appeared in 2017.
“We play a lot of original songs, but we like to mix it up with covers — both traditional and some newer material that matches our sound,” Ulla explains. “For example, we play a version of Mark Knopfler’s Marbletown, and that’s a song that we really enjoy playing. Some of the other songs we absolutely love playing are Lowlands by Gary Scruggs and I Don’t Know by Cherryholmes. Sometimes we have the most fun playing an old traditional song like Angeline the Baker. That one really gets the audience going every time.”
Speaking of audiences, up until now, the group has mainly toured in and around Sweden, where they’ve played numerous venues. They’ve also performed at a number of Swedish bluegrass festivals, including the Grenna bluegrass festival, the Naasville bluegrass festival, and the Torsåker bluegrass festival among them. In 2017, they were given the opportunity to play the European World of Bluegrass in Voorthuisen, which, Ulla says, was a lot of fun.
Unfortunately, as was the fate with many outfits, the pandemic got in the way of their touring plans. “We had been booked for several festivals in Europe, but due to COVID, it all got cancelled,” Ulla says. “That’s why we were so excited this year when, in early June, we got to play at the Festival Strenger i Gress in Norway. We’re also thrilled to be heading to the La Roche International Bluegrass Festival in France at the beginning of August.”
Ulla contends that the band’s music has also been well received at home. “I think that people really enjoy the fact that we appeal to an audience that likes to listen to the lyrics and values the musical arrangements, as well as an audience that just likes the drive, delivery, and likes to dance when they hear us. That’s the part that I value the most.”
In that regard, she has a very quick response when asked “why bluegrass?” It’s very easy to like, she contends. “The simplicity appeals to people. It may not always be about songs that have the most advanced harmonies, but it has a directness that hits you somewhere in the stomach, and either makes up want to weep, because the lyrics convey such heart-wrenching stories, or it makes you wanna dance because of the music is just so captivating. One could say that it’s the perfect combination.”
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