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Jussi Syren: Bluegrass ...With European Flair

Finland isn’t often connected to American folk genres, but according to Finnish musician Jussi Syren, bluegrass is alive and well in his home country and across parts of Europe.

“The first bluegrass type recordings were made in Finland in the 60s, including five-string banjo,” Syren explained. “The 60s folk boom got some people interested in bluegrass.”

He said the first “real bluegrass bands” emerged in the 1970s. While it didn’t make a huge splash, the music has been around in some quarters for decades.

“As you might expect, it's not Top 10 stuff here, but is a pretty well-known genre anyhow,” he said. “Today, there are many active groups playing in Finland, and the genre is in good hands.”

He said there’s “lots” of bluegrass to be found in the neighboring nation of Sweden, as well as “a good scene” in central and southern Europe and the UK.

“Bluegrass and country music, in general, have strong European roots,” he said, “and I guess that's why it resonates with us. Songs like ‘Knoxville Girl,’ ‘Down in the Willow Garden,’ or ‘Billy in the Low Ground’ originate in Europe.”

Syren and his band – The Groundbreakers – have delivered traditional bluegrass for fans since 1995. They’ve performed in eight European countries and nine U.S. states, including appearances at various events such as the Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival and the Tennessee Homecoming Festival. They also were a showcase act for the 2020 IBMA convention. In 2020, Syren said the band’s “Bluegrass Christmas” recording was awarded “Christmas Recording of the Year” by Finnish radio broadcasters, causing them to tour heavily after that release.

“I am currently planning a Finland tour with The Truffle Valley Boys, a great hard-driving bluegrass group from Italy. It will take place in early 2024,” he said.

Right now, Jussi Syren and the Groundbreakers are actively promoting their 13th record, “Bluegrass Voice,” a June release from Bluelight Records.

“Half of the songs are written by yours truly, and one by the banjo player Tauri Oksala,” Syren said. The rest are covers, including material such as Syren’s rendition of the Warner Mack song, “Sittin’ in an All Night Cafe," and the Cat Stevens number, "Morning Has Broken," which he said, “is actually an old Scottish hymn.”

“We make all our recordings live…no overdubs or corrections,” he said. “This way, we get the right kind of drive. Exceptions to that are the guests who made their cuts at their home studio and sent them over. We had the privilege to have Grammy-winning fiddler Michael Cleveland on three cuts. Laraine Kaizer played fiddle on one cut. We had three guest vocalists: My kids Veera and Aarne and a famous Finnish pop singer, Anneli Mattila.

“We try to keep things as natural as possible,” he said. “Four of the songs were recorded on the first take.”

The group consists of Syren (mandolin, lead, and harmony vocals); Tauri Oksala (five-string banjo and harmony vocals); J.P. Putkonen (guitar and harmony vocals); and Tero Mäenpää (upright bass and harmony vocals).

Although the Jussi Syren and the Groundbreakers discography is quite lengthy, it sounds as if each project is carefully crafted.

Since “Bluegrass Voice” was just released, Syren said it will take “at least a couple of years to release the next one.” So, fans should savor and enjoy this moment of new music.

This musician has been into stuff like this since he was a little kid.

“My relatives listened to country and gospel and other American genres, and I got to know roots music as a child,” he reminisced. “I learned to play guitar in a gospel choir. In my early teens, I started playing rockabilly and switched to bluegrass in my late teens.” He explained that there were a few bluegrass groups in Finland in the 70s and 80s, so it was not completely unfamiliar to Finnish audiences. “In the early 80s, when I got to play the first time in a real bluegrass group,” he continued, “it felt amazing. Like stepping into a whole new world.”

He called his choice of instrument a “practical thing.”

“I had played guitar before that and knew you could always have a guitar man from somewhere and a bass man, too. So, I decided to choose either a mandolin or a five-string banjo. I ended up with mandolin because it was easier to sing with.”

From there, the rest is history. A fellow mandolin player described well the exact thing that attracts him to making these sounds.

“Bill Monroe once said, ‘Bluegrass music has a drive no other music has.’ I guess it’s the drive and intensity that got me hooked.”

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