Bluegrass Beyond Borders: The Cherry Pickers from Down Under
When asked to describe his band’s take on bluegrass, Mark Bandick, the guitarist who belongs to the Australian outfit that call themselves The Cherry Pickers, shares his thoughts succinctly.
“Our sound has developed over the years, and we like to think of it as bluegrass inspired acoustic music,” he explains. “While we love and play traditional bluegrass like Bill Monroe, Del McCoury, Flatt and Scruggs, and the Stanley Brothers, we also like to incorporate more modern sounds like those of Béla Fleck and Union Station. We also have a passion for arranging music that people don’t necessarily think of as traditional bluegrass. We call these our ‘uncovers,’ because they have a hidden element of bluegrass that we want to reveal.”
That approach is evident in their music, most notably in the album they aptly titled Hand Picked. “We re-arranged Australian classic rock and pop songs we loved while growing up,” Bandick reflects. “We wanted it to be a reinterpretation of those songs from our perspective, honoring the songs, but being true to bluegrass style.”
Bandick goes on to say that the Cherry Pickers’ style continues to evolve.
“In recent years, we have developed our songwriting and now we play a lot of our own material,” he notes. “They’re songs about love and loss, tragedy and heartbreak, missing home and the power of their Australian characters and landscape. The Cherry Pickers’ sound is about well crafted arrangements, rich harmonies, and songs that reflect the music we love. And we love bringing this music to people who don’t necessarily know bluegrass, but have a positive reaction to this combination of instruments playing acoustic music.”
The band, which currently consists of Paul Cooper on banjo, Rob Cooper on dobro, Elias Evangelistis on mandolin, Gage Stead on bass, Mae Traeger on fiddle, and Bandick on guitar, is is now in their 16th year of performing. However Bandick and the Cooper Brothers first met during a live open mic radio show in Adelaide in 2002.
“We discovered we had a shared love of bluegrass, and so we started to regularly pick together,” Bandick recalls. “Around the same time, Paul Cooper and mandolinist Elias Evangelistis met when they were playing in local bluegrass outfit called The Western Star Band. The four of us then got together to play bluegrass under various names, with different members. In 2006, we were joined by bass player Max Wright and at that point, we formed The Cherry Pickers. Max left in 2016 and was replaced by Gage Stead, our current bass player. In 2019, Mae joined the band on fiddle, after we played at her mother’s wedding.”
While Bandick is quick to cite the aforementioned influences of Bill Monroe, Del McCoury, the Stanley Brothers, Béla Fleck, and Alison Krauss & Union Station, he also insists that the band shares a wide array of tastes and templates that are informed by other music they remain passionate about, and have continued to perform over the years. “The Cooper brothers played Irish music for many years, while Elias has a Greek background,” he offers. “We also play an original song that combines traditional 20th century taverna music with bluegrass. Gage has a jazz background, while Mae recently graduated from the Elder Conservatorium of Music in Adelaide and is well versed in modern classical music. I love singer-songwriters and have always been drawn to the great songwriters of folk and bluegrass.”
That said, the band rotates a number of classic covers into its live sets. At any one time, those songs may include Sleep With One Eye Open by Flatt and Scruggs, West Virginia Waltz by Sierra Ferrell, Take Me for Longing from AKUS, Down in the Swamp, courtesy of Béla Fleck, Cold Hard Facts by Del McCoury, and Memory of Your Smile from the Stanley Brothers. In addition, the group has an upcoming live album featuring all original material.
So too, the band has had opportunity to play extensively throughout the length and breadth of Australia. “We are all originally Adelaide based, and so have played pubs, clubs, and festivals in South Australia, as well as bluegrass and folk festivals throughout the continent,” Bandick says. “This includes the Dorrigo Folk Festival, JamGrass, and Mountain Grass Festivals. In 2016, we travelled to the US, where we were part of the Americana Festival. We played an Australian music showcase event and also played some shows in and around Nashville.”
Meanwhile, the group has had ample opportunity to share stages with other artists of note, including such Aussie all-stars as Ian Moss, Vicka and Linda Bull, John Swann, and country music legend Troy Cassar-Daley. They’ve also supported fiddle-player extraordinaire Casey Driessen and mandolinist Chris Henry. “In the US, we were lucky enough to have a friend of ours, the amazing Kyle Tuttle, now with Golden Highway, join us on stage in Nashville,” Bandick adds.
Happily then, their efforts seem to have paid off.
“We have a loyal following of music fans and bluegrass lovers who regularly attend our gigs,” Bandick adds. “But it’s not just fans of bluegrass music that listen to our songs and come to our shows. People like to hear acoustic music and harmonies, and regardless of what music they like, we always get a great response, no matter where we play.”
That leads Bandick to consider the reasons why bluegrass seems to enjoy international popularity, regardless of its origins. “I think bluegrass has a power that draws people in,” he maintains. “That power can be a hard-driving rhythm or it can be rich vocal harmonies, or even a high lonesome voice. Most people don’t get to hear and see this arrangement of acoustic instruments played together, but when they do, it has an amazing impact.”
In that regard, The Cherry Pickers are intent on maintaining a clear musical mission.
“We’re one of the few, and perhaps the only, regularly performing six- piece bluegrass band in Australia,” Bandick reckons. “To see all those instruments together creates a big sound because they blend so beautifully. Bluegrass is an honest, hard-working musical form that crosses boundaries and cultures, simply because it taps into universal feelings for both the performers and the audiences. Plus, it just sounds great!”
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