The Greencards find a stateside home for their Aussie/Brit bluegrass
Blame it on Austin. After a stretch backing fellow Aussie Kasey Chambers on her 2001 tour of the States, Kym Warner of the Greencards returned home to Sydney convinced that Texas’ Capital City was his own personal Oz (the storybook one, not his native country that often goes by the same moniker). It didn’t take long for him to convince close friend Carol Young to relocate to Austin with him.
“I came back from that tour really excited by Austin in particular, but also the American crowd’s response,” says Warner, who sings and plays mandolin for the bluegrass trio. “They’re more educated about music than people back home, where you don’t get the opportunity to play this stuff as much. When you do, it’s normally in the corner of a casino or playing in the lounge while people are watching football above you or playing the pokies.”
|The Greencards spent their summer vacation touring with Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson.|
See, the Greencards’ hyperkinetic brand of acoustic bluegrass is a tough sell Down Under, where a band like theirs could expect to play maybe four dates a year. That meant the only way to support themselves was to serve as backing musicians on other people’s tours. That’s why the move to the States, where all of Warner and Young’s influences played, was so pressing.
“It was kind of a thing where we had to make a decision to either commit to touring with country acts back home or make the break and come over,” Warner says. “It really comes back to playing acoustic music and wanting to form the Greencards even though we didn’t know that was where we’d end up. It was just wanting to form an ensemble we could do that stuff with and the opportunity wasn’t there back home.”
While two Aussies playing a traditional form of American music so much better than most of their peers has a touch of the surreal to it—kind of like discovering an Inuit band that performs African tribal chants—their predicament became downright ironic with the addition of Brit (by way of Ireland) Eoman McCloughlin on the fiddle. It’s a punch line in its own way, the fact that one of the best bluegrass bands in America is actually comprised of a bunch of expatriates.
“It seems normal to us, because we grew up listening to this stuff,” Warner says. “But to come over here and land in Austin and make what is a predominantly American form of music, I can definitely see the comedic aspect of that. But you do what you do and you do what you love and eventually it takes over.”
It didn’t take long before Warner upgraded the Greencards’ pay rate from tips to a regular gig at Mother Egan’s Irish Pub in Austin. “I never do this, but I went down to the bar and said to the owner, ‘I guarantee you, we are the best bluegrass band in town if you give us a gig.’ I didn’t know if it was true.” Of course, this is the kind of balls-out boasting that would get a man—or woman—thumped back home in Australia. Aussies are not the self-aggrandizing type and as a culture shy away from such rhetoric. Nevertheless, his gamble earned him a one-set tryout. “As soon as we were done with the set, the owner said, ‘Yeah, you’re in.’”
“In” meant one show every Sunday for three years, noon to three. Not long after, they landed another Sunday gig from 7-10 p.m. In fact, it didn’t take long at all for the Greencards to be performing seven days a week, a regimen that, because of Warner’s fierce and fast mandolin plucking style, required discipline and a lot of daily stretching.
| The Greencards |
Fri, Dec 9
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1492 Old Bandera Rd., Helotes
Watching him play, you understand why. His shoulders hunch forward, wrapping around the tiny instrument like bat wings as his hands work feverishly to contribute something magical to the proceedings. Warner says the secret is learning to not tense up, which most people never learn because the natural inclination is to tense up as you play faster. Nevertheless, the mandolin comes with risks greater than just cramped hands. His shoulder went out not long ago and severe hand fatigue led to a two-week holiday from touring to recuperate.
The hard work has started to pay off, though. This year, they earned raves for their album Weather and Water, and landed the plumb opening slot on Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson’s summer tour of minor-league ballparks. Considering that both legends were on the Greencards’ shortlist of dream acts to open for, life couldn’t be going any better.
The trio had met Nelson a few times in the past, but Dylan was a first—one they had to wait until the very last night of the concert run to experience. “And I almost missed it,” Warner says. “I was out watching the show and the encore came. They finished with ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and I’m out there singing along, screaming ‘Like a rolling stone!’” To press the point, Warner punches at the air.
“Then I realized I was supposed to be back there to meet him, but security is really tight. Even when you’re part of the tour, when Bob is backstage, no one is allowed back there. So I was running around, dodging people, ducking under semi trailers. Finally I got there, breathing heavy, and there he was.”
So he finally got his five minutes with Bob Dylan, right? “Barely, mate. It was a minute, a minute and a half,” he laughs. •
By Cole Haddon