If you look on a map of the north west of England, you might fail to notice Helsby, situated somewhere near the M56 between Chester and Runcorn. However, this inconspicuous Cheshire village has earned a reputation for being the “capital of bluegrass” in the UK, helping people of all ages and abilities become a part of the music.
The bluegrass scene in and around Helsby falls under the umbrella of The House of Plank, after its charismatic figurehead Johnny Plank, the alter ego of one Bryn Williams – entertainer, leader and father to a whole dynasty of talented Williams kids. We spoke to Bryn to find out more.
It seems there’s always something going on at the House of Plank. “We have been running a weekly workshop on Thursdays for the past 12 years, and we put a lot of effort into promoting bluegrass and music,” says Bryn modestly. “Any success in this type of music in a far off land like England has to be earnt! You only get out of music and life exactly what you put into it.”
Clearly, Bryn puts an awful lot in to the bluegrass scene, with at least two weekly sessions run by the Williams clan, plus Appalachian clogging sessions, and open mic nights all in Helsby, and further events nearby. “We have been fortunate to bring a lot of good musicians into our area, and the learning curve has been worth all the effort”, says Bryn. “Almost everyone is improving and the good standard we try and establish seems to be working because there are a lot of pickers around here. Which is satisfying to us and the people who so admirably support us.”
Beginners are always made very welcome in Helsby. “We are 110% behind the learner. The Thursday workshop is primarily for inexperienced or shy musicians who want to join in. You don’t get any wiser in life, you just use up all your mistakes and having made many a mistake we hopefully can make life easier for any aspiring devotees of bluegrass.”
“It is simple music, but one that’s very hard to play well. To get to a competent level takes a long time and to progress to being really good takes even longer and great dedication. However to be involved in any organisation is good! Why not bluegrass music? It is a great communicator and the social benefits are immense…anything beats watching that dreadful box every night!”
It would seem there’s something almost magical going on in Cheshire, but Bryn disagrees. “There is nothing special about Cheshire or us. We have an open mind and attitude to this music. We work hard at it but the rewards are great and when you enjoy doing it, it does not seem a chore. Anyone can visit us any time and they will be sure of a welcome.”
Not half they will. In 2001 a rising young banjo player called John Dowling famously moved from Cornwall to the Cheshire to be part of the scene. After a passing comment about the entering famous National Bluegrass Banjo Championship in Winfield, USA, the locals trained him up, sponsored his trip to the States, and John duly rewarded their efforts by returning as the new USA Bluegrass Banjo Champion, the first European ever to have won this prestigious award.
John was sponsored under the banner of ACLAIM (Acoustically Live and Inclusive Music), a non-profit company chaired by Bryn, aimed at promoting music to schools and youngsters. “ACLAIM did some sterling work, “says Bryn, “and now we have a Helsby Sore Fingers Club that is continuing the work by raising money to send kids to Sore Fingers Summer School. Maybe the John Dowling success will never be repeated, although Michael Giverin or someone might do it one day. However it’s more the taking part and the experience gained that is the real winner and yes, we will hopefully see a steady procession going to Winfield in the future from around these parts.” Michael Giverin is an incredibly talented local young mandolin student of Bryn’s son Stuart, who tried his hand at Winfield in 2006.
“It all adds to the scene and we are totally non-profit and rely on our voluntary promotions and donations to do this. Currently we are sending 4 young musicians (plus chaperones etc), and it’s great to see the improvement each year. We have some great young kids playing, and this could be replicated in every village in England. There is no shortage of talent in this country. They just need exposing to this wonderful music.”
Bryn is not the only bluegrass musician in the Williams family. Son Stuart is a talented player and teacher of just about every bluegrass instrument, and has taught the multi-instrumental beginners class at Sore Fingers Week a number of times. Then there is mandolinist and bassist son Russ, and there’s a musical daughter too, Lucy. “The kids have grown up and play in several bands now, but they were never pushed…just persuasively encouraged.”
Together, the Williams family play as the band Johnny Plank and The Planktones, which has been going for nearly 20 years in various guises. It’s a platform for his unique sense of humour, and let’s face it, anyone going under the pseudonym Johnny Plank is bound to be a little eccentric. “The band was considered alternative by many,” says Johnny, proudly adding that “we bluegrassed Ace of Spades long before Hayseed Dixie ever did.”
“Incidentally, we still use the same set list from a long way back and never rehearse. Perhaps that’s why we don’t get many gigs, but we do have a fan base…somewhere.”
Johnny Plank’s fan base has another outlet in the form of the House of Plank – “HOP” – a monthly magazine distributed to 250 readers, and also available on the web. It makes for an interesting read, and an insight into the mind of Bryn Williams. As Ross Nickerson, American banjo teacher and friend put it on his website, “a sense of humour is required”. Says Bryn, “the House of Plank sort of evolved as an extension of the magazine. It is a free spirited organisation that basically encourages live music and involvement of all ages.”
The organisation still makes school visits, mostly when visiting American artists are in the area. “It is a good educational, as well as financial, venture. We have fun, the kids get to see the very best musicians from the USA and alike, and it’s a great cheap and cheerful workshop that everyone enjoys. I am certain that one or maybe more children from all the workshops we have done will eventually be ‘corrupted’ and maybe take up bluegrass, banjo or fiddle one day.”
And with an organisation like the House of Plank on their doorstep, who could blame them. As Mike Compton recently wrote of them, “They are a jolly bunch of folks.” Long may they continue.
Hopefully the H.O.P. will inspire other areas to spread the word in similar vein. To close, we asked Johnny (I think Bryn had long since left the room by now) whether you have to be a little mad or eccentric to promote bluegrass in this country?
“The true eccentric does not consider he or she mad,” he offered crypticly, “but rather that the rest of the world is barmy. However, the British Isles does sort of encourage eccentricity which can be used to your advantage. It is tough promoting bluegrass and it is not getting any easier which makes us and me even more determined to carry on keeping the flame burning for bluegrass.”
We salute you Johnny, Bryn, whoever you are!