The We Banjo 3 band members are, from left, Fergal Scahill, David Howley, Martin Howley and Enda Scahill. PHOTO BY MARIANNE MANGAN
Traditional Music / By Daniel Neely
“We’re running out of t-shirts to sell,” We Banjo 3’s bandleader Enda Scahill joked when I asked him how the band’s tour was going so far. Last week, it touched down in Ohio for a series of dates that will keep them on tour here in the United States through March. So far, so great, it appears, with a bunch of exciting things to come.
We Banjo 3 is one of Irish music’s biggest bands at the moment. Rooted in traditional Irish dance music (Enda, his brother Fergal, and the Howley brothers, Martin and David, are all top, top players on their instruments with remarkable individual pedigrees), the group is known more broadly nowadays for the way it incorporates genres like bluegrass and Americana into its overall sound and how they delivers it through a dynamic and engaging stage show.
Enda’s funny, off-handed comment about the group’s merchandise is typical. You’d never guess that one of Irish music’s most brilliant, technically advanced tenor banjo players had such a dry wit and genuine easy manner about him, but there it is. I was able to touch base with Scahill over the weekend for a bit of a chat about the band and the remarkable journey it’s been on over the last year or so that has included, among other things, finding themselves atop Billboard magazine’s bluegrass chart – a remarkable achievement for any band, but especially for one that didn’t grow up in somewhere like Kentucky.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Scahill said glowingly, as if still in some disbelief. “Number 2 was the Punch Brothers, number 3 was Alison Krauss, number 4 was Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, so you’re up there with proper commercial bands.” It’s not like We Banjo 3 weren’t already a very popular group, but to find one’s self in that sort of distinguished company suggests real progress. I wondered how that experience, the group’s seeming mad dash into fame, went over on the inside.
“Rushed and stressful,” Scahill told me. “So far, we’ve never had the kind of luxury to just take six months off the road, write an album, and record it and with this one, we wrote the whole thing and recorded it over a ten day period in January of last year. We started the roll out process for the album release in late March. That was one of the big factors, we did this whole pre-release and a pledge music campaign that we launched in March,” he explained. “It sold out in 12 hours. Then we doubled it, and that sold out in six hours. And that’s when we kinda knew it was a big jump in popularity of the band in the U.S.”
It was this early prep work that led to the Billboard accolade. “The funny thing was we didn’t even know we were up for the bluegrass chart. In previous years we’d been in the world music category. But yeah, it was a huge deal.”
One of the things that facilitated this success is a shift in who has been listening to the band. “The demographic is getting younger, which is a really good thing because it means that your visibility has gone out into a more commercial market. We see people in their early 20s, teenagers, that are starting to come to multiple gigs and bring three or four friends. The first 10 rows deep, standing, are all kids, essentially. That brings a great vibrancy to the whole affair. We love it.”
The remainder of this current tour (which includes some three dozen dates) will take them through Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Maryland, Washington DC, North Carolina, Kentucky, and all over New York State, with the tour’s final gig happening at Pace University’s Schimmel Center on March 24. If you’re interested in seeing them, act quickly as many of the shows are already sold out.
Being a big time Billboard chart topper has opened more than a few doors for the group. “There’s been really good interest from the wider folk music and bluegrass crowd,” Scahill told me. “We did a couple huge festivals last year, the Winnipeg folk festival is massive, we played Old Settlers in Austin. That sort of sideways, upwards step into the big world of kind of Americana/bluegrass/folk in the U.S. has been really exciting for us.” One of the big things the group will be doing this year is the BottleRock Festival in Napa, California (www.bottlerocknapavalley.com). “The headliner of the night that we’ll be there is Neil Young, the night after is Mumford and Sons, and the night before is Imagine Dragons. That’s our first foray into an almost Coachella-type, mainstream, mainstream music festival.” Scahill also mentions the group looking forward to Grey Fox (greyfoxbluegrass.com) and the Calgary Folk Festival (www.calgaryfolkfest.com) this summer, major festivals that will continue the group’s upward trajectory.
“We’ve been up-skilling the whole time, now that the band is at such a level. So many moving parts between all of the merchandise, figuring out all the logistics, routing, the car hire, everything. There’s way more work involved now, but it’s a very satisfying feeling, the work you’ve put in, when you play for the crowds, and find you’re running out of t-shirts.” A satisfying feeling, indeed and a measure of success that is most deserved. Great for the band, and great for Irish music in general. Keep up with We Banjo 3 and it’s adventures at webanjo3.com.