The Chicago based bluegrass quartet Henhouse Prowlers is now a teenager. Founding member and banjo player Ben Wright said despite the title of their latest album, he's not surprised the group is "Still On That Ride" 13 years later.
"When you start something like a band," said Wright. "You don't think too much about the future, because so many bands come and go."
Wright gave props to bass player and fellow founding member Jon Goldfine for the group's longevity.
"He and I have always been on the same page with everything. This is not a business known for keeping people around, so to have a business partner on the same page as you makes all the difference in the world," said Wright.
Wright has told the story many times of falling in love with the banjo at age 23 after buying one on a whim from Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music. What caused the initial whim? He knew he wanted to play music, and once he recognized the ubiquitousness of the guitar, the banjo was an easy choice.
"I really had no familiarity with bluegrass music, it was buying that banjo that brought me into that world," said Wright. "I started taking lessons and my teacher at the time gave me tapes to listen to that were classic bluegrass albums. From there I slowly became obsessed with the genre."
Chicago is known world-wide for its blues and house music. But Wright said the city also has a vibrant bluegrass scene that has grown quite a bit over the last decade. He also pointed out Chicago's deep bluegrass roots.
"Bill Monroe came up from Kentucky and worked in the factories in the region," said Wright. "And some pretty famous Flatt & Scruggs albums were recorded in Chicago. There was the WSM Barn Dance that was broadcast across the country for years, including on Chicago's legendary WLS radio. Even more recently, Greg Cahill & The Special Consensus, Grammy nominated and one the more well regarded bands in the industry ... They come from Chicago. They just started 30 years before we did."
The Henhouse Prowlers have taken bluegrass around the world. The group has worked with the U.S. State Department to bring their music to Europe, and also areas most Americans don't get to see, including Russia, Africa, and Saudi Arabia. Wright said local reaction varies. In Russia they were well received, and met locals who were bluegrass musicians. Saudi Arabia was a different experience.
"We got the sense that nobody could even understand how to react to what we were doing. Music is not common in Saudi Arabia. But we played four songs and this guy walked up. He was a local guy that was very traditionally dressed. He asked if we would play "Country Roads" by John Denver," laughed Wright.
Yes they honored the request.
"When you get a chance to connect, you just do it," said Wright.
A stop in Africa revealed a surprising American twist.
"We were in the middle of Rwanda," said Wright. "I mean so far away from anywhere most people go to. We went to this school and these kids were playing American country music. Don Williams songs."
The locals had attached themselves to American music in the middle 1970's, when Don Williams and other country artists would visit Africa.
"It's not clear to me how it happened," said Wright. "But the music became popular and they started sending certain country artists over there. And now everyone over there (Rwanda especially) knows who Don Williams is at least. And these kids played really well. The lead singer even sounded like Don Williams. So they think we're playing country music."
The Henhouse Prowlers play The Castle Theater in Bloomington June 23 and The Atomic Cowboy in St. Louis June 24 before returning to Chicago June 29 to play Joe's on Weed Street.
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