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Dublin's most vibrant scene: Americana music

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Any minute now, Dave Holden - laidback, affable, engaging - could leap from his chair and scream: "I told them all, but they laughed at me - and now look!"

A few years ago, virtually nobody under the age of 40 in Ireland had any interest in bluegrass, old-time, or any other "Americana" music. Now it's one of Dublin's most vibrant and energetic scenes.

It started in, of all places, Australia. Fresh out of college, Dave busked with a homeless, retired policeman, playing American bluegrass music - then often dismissed as the "songs from the film Deliverance" - in Sydney's red light, gay, and shopping districts. After a year, he returned to Dublin, and enthusiastically introduced these strange sounds to his family and friends.

Louise, puts it bluntly. "He played us these songs, and we wondered: 'what is he on about with this honky-tonk nonsense?' We indulged him, but we were mostly just bemused."

But she came to love it. Over a decade later, these two siblings form the core of Irish-based old-time/ Americana group I Draw Slow, with music by Dave and lyrics written and sung by Louise.

Dave's enthusiasm for Americana proved infectious from the outset. "When I came home, I wanted to set up a bluegrass band and I wanted to call it Prison Love," he says. "Louise's boyfriend Mark - he's her husband now - was thrilled with the idea, as he hadn't sung for a while. We formed the band, and took it down to the big bluegrass festival in Dunmore, Co. Waterford."

Prison Love, even in its name, was parodying bluegrass. But with a raucous set which includes traditional Cajun tunes alongside bluegrass covers of AC/DC's "Ace of Spades" and The Undertone's "Teenage Kicks", Prison Love quickly became a popular and commercially successful live band.
The band members, including I Draw Slow's bass player Konrad Liddy, were all in their 20's - at the time, unusually young for a bluegrass band. As Dave became increasingly absorbed by the sounds of America's southern states, he decided to set up a second band, and approached Louise, who worked as a journalist but had sung in several bands, to write and perform lyrics.

The result is a blend of folk, country, and old-time is inspired by tradition, but it's far from the traditional Irish seisiún music that the average tourist might expect in an Irish pub.

The mischief in the Holden eyes finds a voice in their songs, with Louise's powerful and beguiling sound giving voice to the down-and-outs, outcasts, and dispossessed of society. Their songs have an epic and dramatic sweep. "The Lighthouse Daughter", narrated by the ghost of a miller's wife, is a tragedy about her murder at her husband's hand after he uncovers her lesbian love affair; "Goldmine" is about a woman driven to prostitution; and the terrifyingly beautiful, emotionally absorbing song "Cryhelp" is a vivid tale hinting at the dark truth behind a ruined village. Or check out the melancholy "Swans". There's also some foot-dancing, partner-swinging numbers in there, such as the instantly memorable "Low Down Girl Like Me".

The Holden siblings have kicked off an Americana scene in Dublin, with the likes of The Cujo Family winning fans over with their folk-rock-bluegrass influenced melodies sitting unexpectedly alongside lyrics about shoplifting from Tesco. Other artists include Prison Love; Hot Sprockets, The Mighty Stef, Gypsy Rebel Rabble, Bray Vista, and many more.

It seems like a good time for a band such as I Draw Slow to edge towards success, with Fleet Foxes, Gillian Welch, and Alison Krause among the names that have brought similar and related styles to mainstream audiences. Last year, UK act Mumford and Sons had international success by tapping into traditional sounds. There's clearly an appetite for this kind of music.

"Few of these artists would have made it onto commercial radio years ago," says Louise. There was a time, she recalls, when there was very little interest in Americana music. Collectively, the five members of I Draw Slow have been in over a dozen bands, but they found it particularly difficult to gain a following in the early days. "We were writing original music in the old-time style and there just wasn't an audience for it."

Apart from supporting Prison Love, I Draw Slow couldn't get a gig. "We'd written and rehearsed all these original songs, but we had nowhere to play," says Louise. "We had a few despairing months." Eventually, they set up their own roots night- The Last Chance Saloon - in Toner's pub, providing a much needed outlet for other Americana bands.

The perseverance paid off. The band has gained momentum: their second album, Redhills, rushed to number 8 in the Irish iTunes chart within three days on sale, and reached No 1 in the iTunes singer/songwriter chart, while successive gigs have witnessed incrementally growing crowds of all ages. The Irish Times called them "captivating"; other reviews in the UK and Irish press have been even stronger.

The band couldn't imagine playing any other music. "It's a great medium to write in," says Louise. "It implores me to be honest, simple, and direct. It's really soulful, and it's hugely infectious."

I Draw Slow play The Grand Social, 35 Lower Liffey Street, Dublin 1, on Tuesday September 20. Doors from 8pm