Each January as winter strengthens its grip on the East End, Sylvester Manor helps lift spirits and warm hearts by bringing an up-and-coming traditional music band to Shelter Island School for a much needed and always well attended night of music.
This year is no exception. On Saturday, January 13, the Boston-based bluegrass band Mile Twelve will perform in concert at the school and get the year off on the right foot (stomp).
While four of the five young musicians come from various regions of the United States, you could say that Mile Twelve’s banjo player, Catherine “BB” Bowness, is quite the outlier.
That’s because she hails from New Zealand, a far off corner of the globe where bluegrass is definitely not a musical staple. As Bowness explained in a recent phone interview with the Reporter, it’s amazing that she found the instrument at all.
Bowness grew up in Koitiata, a tiny town of just a couple hundred residents on the west coast of New Zealand’s North Island. She was introduced to the banjo by a family friend, who was a carpenter by trade and a musician by hobby.
“His father made banjos. It was pretty unusual in this small town near me, he was the only banjo player between Auckland and Wellington,” said Bowness who, at the age of 12, saw a picture of the man playing the banjo during a visit to his home and asked him about the instrument.
“He pulled it out and he played a tune and I loved it,” she said. “I was learning guitar at the time, but the thing that got me hooked was when he said, ‘Banjo is too hard.’ I said, ‘You’re going to teach me banjo.’ I got challenged into it.”
He didn’t have any students, and he wasn’t even really a musician, but he agreed to teach Bowness what he knew — this was long before an aspiring banjo player could go on YouTube to learn how to play.
But learn she did. A few years later, Bowness received the Frank Winter memorial award at the Auckland Folk Festival which allowed her to travel to the U.S. to study with various bluegrass musicians here. For nine weeks, Bowness and her mother drove cross-country exploring bluegrass scenes, including Telluride, Colorado where they attended a traditional music festival with 11,000 other people.
“That’s when I realized people were able to make a living off it as musicians,” she said.
Back home, when time came to further her musical education, Bowness zeroed in on the New Zealand School of Music.
“I told them I wanted to audition,” she said. “They said, ‘what instrument?’ I said ‘banjo.’ There was a big pause. But they were super accommodating and I was treated great.”
Bowness, the first banjo player accepted to the school, studied jazz banjo and graduated in 2011. For the last five years, Bowness has made Boston her home, and in the time she’s been away from New Zealand, she finds that people in her native country have become more aware of traditional music. In October, Mile Twelve traveled there to play four gigs, including one in her hometown, which brought in close to 200 people.
“Which may be one of the bigger shows for the band,” said Bowness. “A big gig for us is 100 people.”
She noted that while there is a small traditional music scene in New Zealand’s bigger cities, including Auckland, Wellington and Hamilton, it remains relatively obscure in rural areas.
“Even in the states, bluegrass isn’t huge. When I say, ‘Hi, I’m BB and I’m a professional banjo player,’ people often say, ‘What are you talking about?’”
Mile Twelve came together as a group in Boston three years ago. Two of the musicians, bass player Nate Sabat of New York City and fiddle player Bronwyn Keith-Hynes of Charlottesville, Virginia, are graduates of Boston’s Berklee School of Music. Guitar player and singer Evan Murphy hails from Milton, Massachusetts, while mandolin player David Benedict of Clemson, South Carolina joined Mile Twelve just last year.
Berklee is known for fostering the talents of young traditional music players and as a result, Boston has a thriving acoustic scene which is what Bowness said attracted the members of Mile Twelve to the city and each other.
“Everyone knew everyone in the Boston bluegrass scene,” Bowness explained. “We liked each other’s playing and started thinking about becoming a full time band.
“We started rehearsing, the four of us, three years ago,” said Bowness. “We spent a fall getting together and trying to write and arrange music. We were pretty methodical and wanted to try and make it a thing.”
Early last year, after Benedict signed on as the mandolin player, Mile Twelve hosted a Kickstarter campaign and raised enough money to travel to Nashville, Tennessee to record “Onwards,” their debut album of all original music. In the fall, Mile Twelve received the International Bluegrass Association’s 2017 Band Momentum Award. It would seem this group has definitely found its groove.
“One thing that really made us so dedicated to the band is we all had pretty similar musical taste,” said Bowness. “Given we are from different places hasn’t affected our musical taste as much. We love the same bands, and that makes things easy.”
Mile Twelve performs at Shelter Island School on Saturday, January 13 at 7:30 p.m. Doors open at 7 p.m. Reserved seats are $25 to $40. Buy tickets at sylvestermanor.org. To see videos of Mile Twelve — http://www.miletwelvebluegrass.com/videos/