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The Henhouse Prowlers - From Chicago To The World

When Ben Wright, then 28 years old, saw a banjo for sale in the window at Chicago’s Old Town School of Folk Music, he had no idea how far it would take him. Not just to gigs at the country’s best bluegrass festivals but to an improbable life of sharing American music with audiences young and old in more than 25 countries.

Not only does Ben’s band, the Henhouse Prowlers, have a new record deal and a fine new album, the quartet has a track record of sharing bluegrass and good vibes with more non-Americans than probably any other band. And they’ve created a non-profit called Bluegrass Ambassadors to extend that mission into the future.

But let’s go back to that day in Chicago. “I moved to Chicago in 1999, from upstate New York, and I was surrounded by musicians, and most of them were guitar players,” says Wright in Episode 267 of The String. “And I really wanted to play music. But I recognized first of all, you need to put a lot of time into it. And if I'm going to do that, I have to pick an instrument where I'm not going to be just like everybody.”

He found a banjo teacher at the Old Town School who stirred his fascination with dubbed cassette tapes. “Every week I had a new bluegrass album to listen to, and I I started to fall deeply in love with the music,” says Wright. Four years later, he’d start the Henhouse Prowlers, which built their sound at a weekly residency gig at a bar in Rogers Park. Venerable Chicago bluegrass band Special Consensus and its founder/leader Greg Cahill were invaluable mentors, Wright says, in helping them develop and learn the ways of the road. The Prowlers released their first album in 2007.

But things really shifted in 2013 when the band auditioned for American Music Abroad, a federally funded cultural exchange program run by the US State Department. Their first trip was to West Africa, and since then, they’ve prowled in more than 25 countries, from Kenya to Kyrgystan. They roll into schools, community centers, auditoriums and have to size up the audience and draw them in, regardless of language or cultural barriers. Ben Wright says the Prowlers had done some work in schools to prepare them, but ultimately the music carries the spirit.

“Bluegrass is at its foundation an educational genre of music,” he says. “You pass the knowledge on through the people around you. And jams are such a huge part of bluegrass. And I think that that just lends itself to an educational vibe.” To extend that mission at home and abroad, the band has created the educational non-profit Bluegrass Ambassadors, with the aim “to provide unique educational programming that blends global folk music traditions with cultural awareness and understanding.”

Also in this group conversation are founding member and bass player Jon Goldfine and more recent additions Chris Dollar (guitar) and Jake Howard (mandolin). Chris and Jake were both recruited with their singing and songwriting chops in mind. On their new album Lead and Iron, Chris brings the snappy opener “Home For” and the tongue-twisting “Passenger Train Boogie.” Jake’s songs include the somber title track, a rebuke to the political response to gun violence. Yet he also contributed the album’s closer “My Little Flower,” which sounds truly like a 50-year-old standard.

This album, the band’s tenth release, is their first with a label. Friend of the showStephen Mougin scouted the Prowlers at the World of Bluegrass a couple of years ago and signed them to his Dark Shadow Recording label, which punches above its weight in bluegrass music. I visited Dark Shadow HQ near Goodlettsville, TN, and we sat down in the studio where the album was made for this fun and exploratory conversation.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>