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American Roots in the Low Countries

Updated: Mar 12, 2019

Ventucky String Band at Lokaal 42 in Helmond, Netherlands.

While most Americans were packing up their Christmas trees and trying to stick to their New Year’s resolutions, the Ventucky String Band was on the road, bringing their “golden age of country music” to pubs and concert halls across Western Europe. It seems an unlikely place for an Americana band to find an avid fan base, but bluegrass, rockabillly and roots music has a huge following in Belgium and the Netherlands.

“There’s a strong rockabilly and roots scene,” says Matt Sayles, guitarist, frontman and co-founder of the Ventucky String Band. “They love American music. Radio stations still play Creedence Clearwater Revival. It’s a little time warp. People seem to appreciate an early genre of rock music.”

Dining in a wine cellar ahead of a show in Antwerp. Most venues on the tour were family-owned pubs, so a hearty, home-cooked meal usually came standard.

Some of that might have to do with the local film industry. “There was this movie that took off — it’s kind of like the Belgian version of O Brother, Where Art Thou?” Sayles explains. “It spurred an interest in bluegrass and roots music.” That movie would be 2012’s The Broken Circle Breakdown, directed by Felix Van Groeningen, which tells a story of love and loss through the eyes of a couple in a bluegrass band from Ghent, in the Flemish region of Belgium. The film was a hit at home and abroad, picking up a slew of awards and even an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

The tour should have been grueling: The band played 21 shows in two countries over 18 days. But the trio — Sayles, fiddler Lauren Donahue and bass player Bob Guidebeck (stepping in for banjo player Dave White and bassist Rick Clemens, who had scheduling conflicts) — found this to be a kinder, gentler tour. Booking agency Surfing Airlines provided lodging, transportation with drivers (who doubled as roadies) and some meals in addition to gigs across Belgium and the Netherlands.

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