Australia might not produce a wealth of bluegrass and country musicians, but the relative few all seem to land in the same building in Sydney.
Keith Urban, Nashville's best-known singer from Down Under, rented an apartment there for a spell. Carol Young, a bass player and honey-toned bluegrass singer who scored two No. 1 Australian country singles, also lived in the building, and even roomed with Urban for a while.
It was in that musician's playground that Young met Kym Warner, a four-time winner of Australia's national bluegrass competition, in 1995. The two Americana enthusiasts formed a musical partnership, relocated to Austin, met British expatriate and virtuoso fiddler Eamon McLoughlin, and formed an aptly named group called the Greencards. This fast-rising acoustic trio hones in on the best aspects of American traditionalism with the kind of critical insight and painstaking care that only comes when you grow up loving something from a distance. Their command of the bluegrass form is so complete that you would be willing to believe they hail from Appalachia, if not for the pinch-me-I'm-dreaming grins that emanate from the stage whenever they get to play a downhome Lone Star venue like Gruene Hall.
Warner says bluegrass and C&W have always been "minority music" in Australia, and he recalls that he could only hear such sounds on the radio for an hour or two every Sunday morning on the local university station. But unlike most Aussies, he found quite a bit of American country music whenever he sifted through the family record collection.
"It's not the norm, by any means, playing bluegrass music in Australia," Warner says. "But for me personally, my father's a bluegrass/country musician, so my early memories are of listening to Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and by the same boat, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, and George Jones.
"They say, 'It's born into you,' and it kind of was for me. I didn't have much choice. It was the music I heard at a very early age, and I grew to love it."
"I moved in and `Carol and I` were kind of like roommates, living across the hall from each other," Warner says. "I'd wake up, and she would hear banjo music coming from my room, and that's kind of how we met. We were both playing with touring country acts in Australia at the time, but we moved in together and sort of hit it off."
Warner and Young longed to see some of the music's giants up close, and they decided to move to the United States. They considered many possible destinations - including Nashville and Southern California - but agreed on Austin, because of the city's reputation as a bastion for live performance.
"The whole thing about Austin is that you can play so much here," Warner says. "Carol and I came because we wanted to sort of put a band together and be able to hone our skills. Nashville's fantastic if you have a session career or a songwriting career, but as far as just playing a lot, Austin is the best place to be."
After steadily building a name on the Austin club scene over the last three years, the group recorded its debut CD, Movin' On, last year at Nashville's famed Sound Emporium (where the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack was cut). A collection of eight originals, and smartly chosen covers by the likes of Gillian Welch and Robert Earl Keen, the album showcases the unadorned strength of Young's lead vocals, the group's aching harmonies, and the threesome's intuitive instrumental mastery. As proof of the trio's rising presence on the Austin scene, the Greencards were recently asked to play at the South By Southwest-launching Austin Music Awards show on March 17.
While Warner concedes that his first impressions of Texas, formed in Levelland, were along the lines of "Is that all there is?" he now sees many connections between his native country and his adopted state.
"As a whole, I meet a lot of Texans that are much like Australians: pretty laid back, pretty proud people and pretty easy to get along with," he says. "Especially now that I'm in Austin. I feel really at home and comfortable here." •