The Greencards – Roots across oceans
On this particular spring evening, the farthest-flung outpost of the British Empire happens to be in Austin, Texas. Specifically, a joint on South Lamar sandwiched between an auto repair shop and a Salvation Army retail store. As bastions of empire go, the Saxon Pub ain’t exactly the Jewel in the Crown. It’s small, dark and smoky, peopled by South Austinites who look like they’re fast friends with whiskey. Not your basic Masterpiece Theatre demographic, in other words.
But, at least nominally, the Saxon Pub on this night does boast a certain colonial aura. There are three people onstage playing bluegrass music, and all of them hail from locales far from that music’s high-lonesome origins.
The bass player and primary lead singer, Carol Young, is a small woman with a wondrous head of tousled dark hair who hails from Coff’s Harbour in New South Wales, between Brisbane and Sydney in Australia.
The fiddle player/vocalist, Eamon McLoughlin — who doubles on short-necked viola, the better to complement the bass player’s singing voice — is a lean fellow whose slightly academic air is heightened by glasses and a certain wry, detached demeanor. An English expatriate, he seems to regard his hegira from South London to South Austin as the product of a particularly capricious providence.
That leaves Kym Warner, the mandolin-and-bouzouki-playing vocalist at center stage, a dervish of a frontman from Adelaide who seems to belie the stoic, self-effacing, demure, understated national character of his fellow Australians. (Yeah, right…)
Expatriates all, they came together in Austin in 2002 after Warner visited the city in March 2001 during the South by Southwest festival as a member of Kasey Chambers’ band. “When Kym returned to Sydney from that tour, we immediately applied to visas and moved straight to Austin,” Young explains. Once in the Texas capital, they encountered McLoughlin, who was making his local bones playing with the Austin Lounge Lizards, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Bruce Robison and Alejandro Escovedo.
Young and Warner enlisted him to work on a separate project they were involved with, but soon realized they had a lot more in common than simply being marooned in Texas with funny accents. As they began to compare notes and influences, they discovered many shared passions.
“He [Warner] was referencing things that no one else I knew in Austin had ever referenced,” marveled McLoughlin. “Like, he would say, ‘It reminds me of this Ricky Skaggs song,’ or talk about ‘this Emmylou Harris thing…’ And I knew all that stuff! So I knew that we shared a lot of the same musical background. And once you have that platform there, that springboard, you can predict there will be some good stuff there if you get together and play. Both Kym and Carol had put in their homework. There was a mutual respect.”
The duo plus the fiddle player quickly realigned as a trio in early 2003 and, with fitting irony, christened themselves the Greencards, after the Permanent Residence Card issued by the Feds. The Greencards quickly found a community of kindred spirits in Austin pubs such as Mother Egan’s, the Dog & Duck, Fado and Opal Divine’s Freehouse.
They released their independent debut album, Movin’ On, in November 2003, and scooped up Best New Band honors at the Austin Music Awards the following March. Subsequent tours with Robert Earl Keen, Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis followed, plus gigs at high-profile gatherings such as Merlefest and the Strawberry Music Festival. Movin’ On vaulted up the Americana charts, eventually peaking at #5 a little over a year ago.
Then, much to the chagrin of their cadre of local fans, the band pulled up stakes and moved to Nashville.
There are people in Austin who reflexively bash all things Music City (“Gnashville” and “NashVegas” being two of the printable epithets), but that’s a silly and parochial attitude. Austin excels at some things, Nashville at others, and Nashville is very good indeed at what Nashville does.
Leaving friends, fans and a nurturing creative community was hard. (“Did we tell you how much we miss you?” asked Young from onstage when the band returned to Austin for their Saxon Pub gig. “Well, we really miss you!”) But the band saw a chance to take their fresh, subtly invigorating mix of traditional acoustic music and original material to a national audience, and that meant taking their game to a new level. And that, in turn, meant Nashville.
“We wanted to throw ourselves in the deep end, and come out here and see if we can hang with the big boys,” said Warner.
A move to Music City meant new management, new publicists, a new booking agent and a new record label. And, oh yeah, a new album, Weather And Water, released June 28 on Dualtone. From being DIY poster children in “The Velvet Rut,” as Austin’s seductively comfortable environs have been referred to, the Greencards have — with some help — reinvented themselves as contenders. (On the day they spoke to this reporter by phone from Nashville, for instance, they were preparing for back-to-back tapings on Great American Country and CMT.)
And, oh yeah, there’s also the matter of the summer tour. From late May to early July, the Greencards opened 31 shows for Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson’s second annual tour of minor-league ballparks.
“I can imagine that every booking agent in the country was submitting their acts,” said Warner, a residue of wonder still lingering in his voice. “But we got on the short list, and then on the shorter list, and then we got on the final list…and then we were the list.”
That the tour was literally a dream-come-true (the band gave their new agent a wish list of fantasy tours they coveted, with Dylan’s name at the top) is not nearly so gratifying as the manner in which they learned of their selection.