Bluegrass legend Ron Block and folk star Damien O'Kane bring their 'co-operating banjos' to Wemsfest | Interview
Mention banjos to the average person, and they’ll probably think of the duelling kind – a la Deliverance.
But renowned Irish folk musician Damien O’Kane and American bluegrass star Ron Block are on a two-man mission to get the instrument its dues.
In 2018 they released an album together – Banjophony, and this week they released its follow-up – Banjophonics.
Damien explains the ethos behind the project: ‘Somebody asked Ron once: “So do you guys think you're the next Duelling Banjos?” Ron's reply was: “No, we're cooperating banjos,” which I thought was brilliant.’
The pedigree of both is impeccable – as part of Alison Krauss and Union Station Ron has won 14 Grammys, while Damien is married to and is a key part of UK folk star Kate Rusby’s band, and has released several solo albums.
The pair met after an Alison Krauss gig in Manchester where Kate and Damien were invited backstage.
‘Ron's one of those people,’ says Damien, ‘you would immediately find some kind of connection with him. He is the most chilled-out, relaxed and genuine person you will ever meet.
‘I'm a four-string banjo player, Ron's a five-string banjo player. Kate's a massive fan of Ron's playing, so we invited him to play on Kate's album that year [2012’s] 20, celebrating her 20 years in music.’
Ron joined them on the subsequent tour and they became fast friends.
From there it wasn’t much of a leap for the two to start working on their own project.
‘Ron and I quickly started discussing how we loved banjo music. I always loved the sound of two banjos together.
‘I remember watching a TV programme years ago, growing up in Ireland, called The Corner House. There were these two Irish banjo players playing together, Cathal Hayden and Brian McGrath, that was a bit of an epiphany for me in terms of becoming a banjo player.
‘It's always been an aspiration of mine to make banjo music like that.
‘Irish tenor benjo and bluegrass banjo, they're both different approaches and different. techniques – Ron's finger-style, whereas I'm plectrum-style. There's a lot of scope there for making some really interesting music.’
With the two splitting writing duties, work began on the second album in April 2019, with a further session that November. They had planned to record again in April 2020 – but the pandemic intervened and they had to finish the album working remotely.
While they could no longer finish the sessions ‘as live’ in the room together ‘bouncing off each other’, Damien says: ‘Luckily Ron and I, it's nearly like a telepathic thing between us now. I even compose music with Ron firmly in the back of my mind and I can kind of see already what kind of things Ron's going to do on them.
‘The last few tracks we recorded our own parts at home, then sent a bit of guidance over to each other, but of course, like I say to any incredible musician who plays on mine or Kate's stuff: “Here's a bit of guidance, but we're asking you to play on this because we love what you do, so put your stamp on it”.
‘Thankfully it all worked out fine.’
In the booklet with the album, there is a short piece explaining the background of each tune and ‘family’ is a recurring theme.
‘It's one of the things which really connects Ron and I. We both, thankfully, come from really strongly-bonded families. I have two sisters, three brothers and an incredible mum and dad. And of course there’s my own family now with Kate, and we have two daughters.
‘We try to bring our daughters up as our parents brought us up, with a lot of love, letting them know they can sit down and talk to us about absolutely anything.
‘Ron's very much the same. I know some people say your kids shouldn't be your friends, but I'm not really in agreement with that. It's that real strong family unit, and it does have an influence on our music – both personally and together.
‘If you look back at any of my albums – I've made three solo albums as well – there's always stuff in there about my mum or my brothers and sisters, or Kate, or my daughters, and it's because I am really strongly influenced by them.
‘It sounds really corny, but the love I have for my family comes out through my music.’
Does he view Ron as extended family now?
‘Absolutely! The first time Ron's wife, Sandra, met Kate, the first thing she said was: “These guys are brothers from another mother”.’
They are at Chidham Village Hall near Emsworth, on Monday, July 4. Tickets £15. Go to wemsfest.com.