The Henhouse Prowlers may have traveled the world over, but the bluegrass group still call Chicago home. Perhaps that’s why founding member, banjoist Ben Wright, was taking in a Cubs baseball game at Wrigley Field when our very own Rex Thomson caught up with him. Talking about the band’s performances across the globe for the American Music Abroad program, not to mention their upcoming tour as support for Yonder Mountain String Band, Wright tells all in this new interview.
L4LM: I understand you’re at a Cubs game? I’m impressed you took the time out to chat with us during this crucial stretch run. What’s the score?
Ben Wright: Three to two. I haven’t heard any big commotions, so I think it’s still three to two. Jon [Goldfine, bassist of the Henhouse Prowlers] is the big Cubs fan. He has a special part of the bleachers that he sits in, and he comes to as many games as is humanly possible. This is my first and probably only game this year. I do like to come and see Jon in his element, but it’s not my thing. (Laughs) The people that Jon hangs out with in the stands are such serious fans that the owner of the Cubs just came up and sat down and talked to them for awhile.
L4LM: Do you think it’s the Cubs’ year at long last?
BW: I’m not the best guy to ask, but they seem kinda hopeful…but that’s a regular thing around here. I sure would like to see it happen for them. I’ve been here fifteen years now, and they’ve been through some disappointments. But, like I said, I’m not some huge fan and I’m not the best person to ask!
L4LM: So you aren’t a big sports guy?
BW: No, I’m not. I mean, if everyone around me is getting into it I can get into it a bit too…I do enjoy the old school way Jon will put a game on the AM radio when we’re on the road.
L4LM: So let’s talk about your adventures around the world! You recently did some pretty amazing traveling. Where in the world didn’t you play? Iceland?
BW: (Laughs) We have not been to Egypt, or Australia. There are talks of Austrailia though. We’ve been in more places in Africa than I ever imagined I’d get to visit. We were in eleven countries in Africa over the last two years and we did a two week stint in russia this year too!
L4LM: You recently told me you stayed so committed to your fashion sense that your band rocked your old school traditional suits while playing in Africa? Are you crazy?
BW: (Laughs) No..I mean, you can’t change what you’re doing because you get a lil uncomfortable. And one of the things we were going to do there was to show how we run our business. It’s part of what we do, and not wearing our suits didn’t feel like an option. Sure, there were a couple of workshops where we didn’t wear them, but every single performance, including one where it got to be a hundred and twenty degrees, we wore our suits. And you know, wearing suits is just like wearing gloves when you do food service. You just don’t notice them after a while.
L4LM: Was this trip a teaching experience, or a tour?
BW: A lot of it was through a program called American Music Abroad. It’s a program that has been going on since the sixties. It started off as a program called Jazz Ambassadors. They sent some of the most famous Jazz musicians all over the world to help sow connections between America and the rest of the world, using the powerful tool of music to help do it. Eventually it grew to include any type of American music, be it jazz or zydeco or bluegrass…or rock and roll. They send ten bands a year across the world.
We’ve done that twice now and it’s all through the embassies in these countries. I learned a lot about the State Department doing this, and apparently each embassy has a certain amount of money to do arts programs and so, say, the original reason we went to Russia was completely separate from the program. They put on a bluegrass festival, and they brought us along as the American representatives. We also went to Nigeria separate from the program last summer for two weeks just to do workshops and performances. It’s very much teaching and performing. They will often times set you up with a local band and give you like an hour, an hour and a half to figure out how you’re gonna play music with them. (Chuckles) It’s a really amazing thing. We were out in the middle of the Sahara desert trying to make music with people who didn’t speak our language, using a PA powered by a gas powered generator. It was wild!
In Russia, we were in these old, Stalin-era theaters, and there were these imposing busts of Stalin looking down on us as we played. All these things and experiences are hard to encapsulate in a brief interview. It was like a non-stop series of life changing events, one day after another and I just can’t tell you how thankful we are! It’s not something I ever imagined would happen, and once it did, the wheels started rolling. It’s something we enjoyed, and more offers to do this kinda stuff are rolling in. I’m really thrilled that this is now part of what we do. We’re not just playing festivals and clubs, which I love, don’t get me wrong, but we get a chance to give back. That’s important, not just in music, but in life.
L4LM: You guys are certainly wonderful ambassadors for the bluegrass scene.
BW: Thanks Rex, that means a lot. We try.
L4LM: Pretty much all life emerged from Africa, and certainly the ancestors to the modern versions of the instruments you play have their origins there, like the banjo and mandolin. Did you get a chance to try any of the more original versions of you banjo?
BW: Yeah! I got to play with this guy when we got there. West Africa is one of the poorest places…there’s a lot of crazy stuff going on there. To meet musicians, amidst the poverty, that are still making this really great music, it was inspiring. We got paired up with a guy who plays the akonting, which is the direct ancestor of the banjo. It was so cool. I knew what it was, but he had never seen a banjo before. What I didn’t realize, and keep in mind that he didn’t speak a single word of English, when we sat down to figure out how to play together it became clear, pretty quickly, that each of his strings was only tuned a half step lower than mine. All I had to do was tune down and we were both ready to work together. When he and I played together it was powerful. We both just smiled at each other and it proved to me conclusively that there is no better way to communicate than with music. I was like, “Omigod, I’m playing music with a guy on the instrument that gave birth to my instrument!” It was definitely a moment that I will never, EVER forget.
L4LM: You also hit a pretty unstable region of the world, Mother Russia. What was that like?
BW: It was…yeah…I don’t wanna say anything bad. (Laughs) We wanna play there again…
L4LM: Fair enough. (Laughs)
BW: A couple times it was like something out of the Cold War. We had learned these tunes to play with an orchestra, and we hard worked hard on them, and were looking forward to it, and all three shows were cancelled for reasons like…there was a fire inspection, or there were electrical problems. You realize how real this kinda stuff is. When we were in Nigeria, there was a bombing. That is probably the place we were least safe, technically, but I never felt safer. Because of the instability in the region, our government couldn’t afford for anything to happen to us. They drove us around in armored cars, but it just didn’t feel necessary. The shows had security, there were metal detectors, and y’know…we were working for the U.S. government, and they spare no expense for security.
L4LM: I can understand if you want me to edit that out…
BW: (Laughs) No, as long as you leave in the part about how safe we actually felt. We’ve got no beef with the Russian people. They were besides themselves with excitement to hear our type of music. We had a band there that just blew our minds, musically, and were just the nicest people. One of the really cool things we found out was that they were an officially sanctioned band, by the government, and that the Russian government pays their salary so that they can keep making music. While I might not agree with everything they do, they support the arts!
L4LM: The Henhouse Prowlers are clearly and proudly students of the old school tradition of Bluegrass. You rock the single, centered mic, you dress in your finest and you share the vocal duties among the band. What originally attracted you to that vibe?
BW: I never thought I liked bluegrass until I arbitrarily bought a banjo. I knew I wanted to play music, but I didn’t know what kind, and I felt like too many people played the guitar. And then I found a really cheap banjo one day and I bought it. Through the process of learning the instrument, I got turned onto bluegrass.
I had this teacher who was working with me, and every week he would bring in this cassette tapes that had bluegrass legends on them, starting out with Bill Monroe and moving through all the generations of bluegrass musicians. I fell in love with the music…but I wasn’t aware…I guess…I guess I saw some bands early on that did the single mic thing. Steeping yourself in the music, you’re gonna pick up on all the other things that go along with the genre. It was a fairly natural progression for me to go from buying a banjo to coming to love everything about bluegrass; the tradition, the camaraderie…all of that. It’s funny; we’re the only traditional band at some of the more progressive festival, and we’re the progressive band at the more traditional festivals. So it really depends on who you ask as to how traditional we are.
L4LM: A popular trend these days is introducing drums and electric instrumentation to the bluegrass mix. Ever get tempted to rock the Wah Wah pedal on that banjo of yours?
BW: (Laughs) I wouldn’t say no…I would never say never. I’m not personally interested in drums, but there are some bands out there doing that that I really like. I’ve always liked Cornmeal, but there are lots of new bands like Greensky Bluegrass that are doing amazing things without them. There’s plenty of room in bluegrass for people to stretch out in a lot of different directions. I fully expect us to do that too. Traditional bluegrass is fun, but I like stretching the boundaries.
L4LM: You’re heading out with Yonder Mountain String Band soon. Are you looking forward to that?
BW: Omigod, of course! We’ve played a few shows with them earlier this year, and it was great.
L4LM: You traveled the Chicago bluegrass circuit at the same time as one of Yonder’s new members, Allie Kral. Think she’ll come out and join you for a song or two from time to time?
BW: That would be awesome, but I know how hard that band works. I know that while we’re playing they will be running tunes and rehearsing, so I’ll ask, but I know that they have their job to do and I won’t be hurt if she can’t make it out.
L4LM: I have a couple of fan questions for you, would you mind answering them?
BW: Of Course!
L4LM: This one comes from a Joe M. Since you visited Russia… are you now or have you ever been a member of the communist party?
BW: (laughs) It’s funny you ask that! I definitely knew people who considered themselves communist before I was a musician, I was a social worker and ran in some circles with some folks who were pretty hard core anti democracy, but no, I’m not. I do have a really awesome poster I brought home from Russia celebrating their victory in World War 2.
L4LM: Have you gotten a suit endorsement deal yet?
BW: (Laughs) Not yet! We do need to look into that!
L4LM: Well, thanks for taking time away from the game to tell us about your amazing adventures around the world. Can’t wait to see what happens next!
BW: Thank you Rex. We can’t wait either!