At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, folk-country singer-songwriter Caroline Jones found herself in New Zealand alongside her fiancé, America’s Cup sailor Nick Dana, who was there to prepare for a season of sailing. To occupy her time during quarantine, she set upon attempting to discover local bluegrass artists with whom to jam and find inspiration for her sophomore studio album. However, there was an issue. Country, bluegrass, and Americana music are not very popular in the island nation.
“They are some of the most good-humoured, good-natured, authentic people I’ve ever had the pleasure of being around,” Caroline Jones noted about the locally renowned and impressively globally-respected family quartet, The Trenwiths, that she surprisingly happened upon. Two brothers, a nephew, and a father from Hamilton, New Zealand, they play a mix of modern songs, folk songs, and old-time bluegrass music, and count among their greatest career achievements a mid-1970s appearance — at Bill Monroe’s request — on the Grand Ole Opry.
As now available via CMT.com, Jones and The Trenwiths have released a 30-minute video entitled The Raglan Sessions, a quarantine-recorded performance where Jones and the band play on a clifftop farm in Ragland, a coastal town near the Trenwith’s home in Hamilton. Beautiful music being played in raw settings is a notion familiar to country music of late. In this conversation, the uniqueness of the New Zealand countryside, plus the nature of the collaborative process in an analog, acoustic setting, are discussed.
>Marcus K. Dowling, CMT.com: What initially inspired your decision to record The Raglan Sessions?
Caroline Jones: My reasoning is three-fold. First and foremost, my artistry is rooted in the acoustic tradition. The first music I resonated with as a singer-songwriter was made by acoustic musicians like Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, Jewel, Emmylou Harris, and Patty Griffin. They were my favorite artists long before I discovered country music. That tradition runs deep in me. At my core, because I [largely] played acoustic shows for the first decade of my career, it’s a part of who I am. Secondly, New Zealand is so beautiful and inspirational that I wanted to share it. Merging the acoustic tradition that shaped me as an artist with how I was evolving as an artist [while in New Zealand], plus the influence of country and bluegrass, was important. Thirdly, The Trenwiths are rare as people these days. When I find people like that, I want to share them — and their art — with the world. People who are genuine, funny, down-to-earth, and not driven by ulterior motives like fame and notoriety are — and this is not an overstatement — pure. They reminded me what, at the end of the day, making music is about.
CMT.com: How did the chemistry that is so apparent between you and The Trenwiths emerge? When was that precise moment? Moreover, what else about them aided in its development?
CJ: Initially, I wanted to collaborate with a bluegrass band while I was in New Zealand, and I had no idea that it wasn’t really popular [in the country]. So they were the most popular group that I discovered in my research, and I connected with them. Then, they came to Roundhead Studios in Auckland to jam and record some Christmas songs. But organically, when we played [Johnny Cash-covered traditional folk-country song] “Wayfaring Stranger,” our pairing really began to click. We’re all big suckers for harmonies. Plus, half of my family is Australian, so I’ve grown up around many Australians. So I was able to pick up very quickly on The Trenwith’s very Australian attitudes and senses of humor. Ultimately, I had no idea that The Trenwiths were such special people that I would fall in love with them — they call me their sister — as a family and band, and they would become such good friends of mine.
CMT.com: Were there anything particularly humorous about working with them?
CJ: There are so many funny anecdotes. Paul Trenwith is in his late 70s-early 80s, and he has such a dry sense of humor. He’s sarcastic — but never acknowledges it — so I’d miss a lot of his jokes in the beginning. He’ll also play the banjo to anything. So we’d play, say, Eminem, in our downtime, and he’d just play over that in this very traditional, bluegrass style.
CMT.com: I wanted to come back to the landscape. It’s stunning. However, I’d presume it’d cause some issues regarding, say, recording live out there?
CJ: Frankly, landscapes and nature like [where The Raglan Sessions were recorded] inspire a lot of my music. However, it’s not entirely simple to record in that landscape. It’s a 30-minute drive from a paved road to get there, for instance. So, carrying recording equipment up a dirt road is necessary. It isn’t exactly the most glamorous thing. Or, the infrastructure isn’t exactly set up for trying to operate a camera rig, and it’s in the middle of nowhere, so there’s no power for amps. Also, you’re carrying just enough production equipment to record the performances, so when the wind picks up, that’s very difficult to erase in post-production editing.
CMT.com: What about the collaboration evolved from out of the studio to playing on the land?
CJ: There was something powerful about playing in what is, essentially, The Trenwiths’ natural territory. The Trenwiths are not studio musicians. Instead, they play around campfires, backyards, outdoor festivals, and generally on the land. I mean, they live on the land there. The Raglan Sessions were even filmed on their friend’s farm, which also happens to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. New Zealand is so beautiful. Everything there feels so magical, natural, and wild that frankly, it’s a shame ever to be indoors there, at all.
CMT.com: Moving forward, if you wanted to do this again, why would you do it, with whom, and how?
CJ: [The Raglan Sessions] inspired me to jam in styles more traditionally and with musicians and players that can challenge me to develop my skills. Staying on your toes is important for growth as an artist. As well — because of technology and the pandemic — it’s easier to collaborate in so many ways because recording equipment is much more mobile. I’d love to get a camper van and travel around with artists I am a fan of, in bluegrass, country, and pop like Larkin Poe, Mac McAnally, Rhiannon Giddens, Brandi Carlile, whose talents [would lend well] to being heard in a natural setting.
CMT.com: What about New Zealand and the process of recording The Raglan Sessions has allowed your love of that region, plus playing in general, to grow, and how?
CJ: I love New Zealand and want to get back there as soon as possible. It’s a place where I feel like I can be myself. I also believe my fiancé, and I would like to travel there yearly, especially because our winter is their summer. And obviously, because I love them so much, working with The Trenwiths is one of the first things I’ll want to do. In this day and age where things are so produced, people are hungry for analog, raw, stripped-down, emotional, and pure sounds. Reconnecting with the outdoors and that feeling of blood pumping through your veins and fresh air in your lungs, again, is subconsciously in our human nature. Even watching a video of someone else doing it awakens a part of our soul, somewhat.