Quite frankly, finding out that a band contains not one, not two, but three banjo players seems likely to make many potential listeners run the other way. But that’s exactly the configuration within We Banjo 3—and they’ve risen to remarkable levels of success with it: their latest album, Roots to Rise Live (released last July) debuted at #1 on Billboard’s Bluegrass Albums Chart and kept that spot for four weeks. They have won numerous awards and accolades, and even performed for President Obama and Ireland’s Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Enda Kenny at a 2016 St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Washington, DC. In other words, don’t let all those banjos scare you away.
The band, which started in Galway, Ireland, is comprised of two sets of brothers: David Howley and Martin Howley (who now live in Nashville), and Enda Scahill and Fergal Scahill (who still live in Galway). The three banjo players are Enda, David, and Martin—though they all play guitar and mandolin, as well, and David handles the lead vocals. Meanwhile, Fergal plays the guitar, fiddle, and an Irish drum called the bodhrán. Together, they create an uplifting, heartwarming blend of bluegrass, traditional Irish music, and folk music. Starting with their 2012 debut, Roots of the Banjo Tree, they have released six critically acclaimed albums, each garnering more chart success than the last.
People can see this highly unusual musical mixture for themselves when We Banjo 3 kicks off their next tour with an opening night at Iridium in New York City on January 10. David Howley promises it will be a rollicking evening: “There’s largely no inhibitions in this whole experience. We will force you to dance. We will force you to sing. We’re going to be as honest as possible. We’ll be silly, and we’ll just be ourselves. And what we invite the audience to do is just join us in that. There’s so much in life where you have to be prim and proper and reserved and look cool, and this is not one of those times.”
Howley is calling from Nashville, where he’s lived for more than three years now. As a musician, he says that living in Nashville, a/k/a Music City, “gets you very, very scared, very, very quickly—you’re in a town where there are some incredible writers knocking out great songs every single day.” But, he adds, the competition isn’t all bad.
“I have a lot of friends who write on Music Row for big artists, and we get together and have a glass of wine every now and again and talk about what we’ve been writing. It’s good—it keeps you focused. And if you’re not being honest, the other writers will stop that immediately. I see that as a really good thing.”
Howley says this same honesty applies within his own band, where the members push each other to write at their peak abilities. But, Howley says, this never leads to any fraternal competition (or outright animosity) that sometimes plagues bands that contain brothers. “We’re quite a range of ages, which definitely helps,” he says, adding that there’s a big difference between each of them “in terms of how we grew up, and where we grew up, and what we did. And so we have a lot of unique perspectives. It’s about creating something that is universally applicable, but specific to each person. I do think that the only way you get that is in a team. I think we’re lucky that we see the value in each other’s opinions and thoughts.”
This closeness extends to We Banjo 3’s performances, as well. “We couldn’t do a gig if one of us is missing. And that’s the dream, for every band, is to be so locked in together, and for everybody to be so valuable, that there’s no way to do a gig with one person missing.”
Despite this special bond, Howley admits that it took the members a while to realize that they should play together, however. “Me and Martin played Irish traditional music all across the country, and we had a rock band for a couple of years. Likewise, the [Scahill] brothers had done the same. But when we sat around Enda’s kitchen table with some banjos, and we started playing the music—I will never forget the joy. And then we went out and played some shows and saw the joy of the people.” He still seems in awe at these memories.
Although it was obvious that they were onto something special, Howley admits that it still took them a while to accept that. “I don’t think any of us made the decision that this is gonna be the band for life, this is the one that we’re gonna do something with. It was three guys, and three banjos, it was nuts. It shouldn’t make any sense. Any management company that would look at us would say, ‘No, that’s ridiculous, it’s not musically sustainable.’ And yet, people kept smiling. And we kept playing, and we kept smiling, so all of a sudden, this thing built and built.”
Beyond their musical skill, Howley believes that this special connection to each other, and to their growing fan base, is due to their guileless approach right from the start. “It just was always very honest and very sincere. We didn’t start this band with the idea that we could take over the world. We weren’t selling something, there was no niche. We just got up there and started doing whatever came out of our heads, and we’ve stayed doing that. Thankfully, people liked it. We’re pretty thrilled to still be in this band.”
Howley is still well aware that a band with three banjo players in it is a rather hard sell for many potential listeners. But, he says, people who are open-minded and willing to come to a show may be surprised at how much they enjoy it. “We hear it so often: people come up after shows and say, ‘You know, I didn’t think I was gonna like your music, and I really did!’ And we’re like, ‘Cool – we didn’t think we’d like our music, either [at first]!’
“Within the first song, I usually try and find the one guy who’s not clapping his hands. His head is on his hand in that slumped over, ‘I may fall asleep any moment’–I try and find that guy –or sometimes girl, but usually it’s a guy. They’ve probably been dragged here by their wife or girlfriend or mom; they don’t want to be here. They’re my challenge. And by the end of the night, that guy is 100% always dancing around like a lunatic. That’s all that matters. We want you to walk out with a smile on your face, a little love in your heart, and a little bit more energy to go through the day.”
Howley believes that the unusually warm and welcoming atmosphere that has been created around their shows has also become a crucial ingredient in their success. “We have people who come to our shows that have PTSD and stuff like that, and they will put a message on the We Banjo 3 page before the gig and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to the show tonight, and these are the complications I have, and I’m wondering if anyone else that will be there who wouldn’t mind hanging out with me for the evening?’ And the amount of people who say, ‘Yeah, this is where we’ll meet you, this is what we look like, this is my name, this is my number, let’s hang out’—you see the instant community. You see how people rally around each other. Strangers. People are exceptionally kind.” He is pleased that the band’s joyful music, and empathetic fans, have “created a community.”
Knowing that they attract an audience of people who may have mental health struggles, as well as those who are sympathetic to that problem, We Banjo 3 have formed partnerships with mental health organizations for their recent tours. “In 2019, we did a partnership for a full year with Mental Health America [https://www.mhanational.org/]. We donated $2 of every CD and t-shirt that we sold to them. And at a lot of our gigs, we had a table in the foyer that had some information and volunteers from local mental health associations. This coming year, in 2020, we’ll be partnering with Backline [https://backline.care], who are a mental health organization that deals specifically with musicians.”
When choosing these partnerships, Howley says, “We stick with organizations that are on a national level. Mental Health America is probably one of the biggest ones, and that’s why we started there. Backline has just been started, it’s a new and totally fundamental concept, [but] given the last couple of years and the amount of musician suicides we’ve seen, we thought that for a season it would be lovely to partner with something that’s musician-specific, just give back to our own community, as well.”
Mental health is a topic that Howley understands from personal experience. “I have always had a hard time with mental health; I’ve struggled a lot,” he says, “and singing and music became this tonic for me. Very often, I would sit and have a feeling that I wasn’t able to explain, and I wouldn’t talk about it to anyone. I would just sit with that feeling for long enough, and eventually, that feeling would lead to a sentence, and that sentence would lead to an idea. Usually, the lyrics that make me the most uncomfortable are probably the right ones.”
Howley says there were never any squabbles within the band about donating a significant portion of their profits in this way because “we’re not money-minded. I mean, all of us have had other jobs [before this band]. Enda used to work as an environmental health officer. Martin is a fully qualified engineer who was teaching. Fergal was a photographer. And I was in college to be a mechanical engineer. So we’ve all had other lives, and we’ve realized what a gift it is to do what we do [with music]. We don’t take it for granted.” He adds with a laugh, “And honestly, nobody ever started playing music to become a millionaire—not a single person! On the list of ways to become a millionaire, being a musician is, I would say, not on that list at all.”
As hard as being a musician can be, though, Howley says he still feels lucky to do it, because he and his brother have been deeply involved with music since childhood. “Growing up in Galway, music was just a constant part of our life. Our dad would sing to us when we were kids when we would fall asleep at night. We started gigging together when I was maybe 10, playing little bars around the county that we grew up in. Music became home for us, even more so than a place or people–music represented safety and comfort.”
Even so, Howley is endearingly earnest as he talks about the realization that he has actually become a bona fide professional musician. “It’s only been in the last three years that we’ve said, ‘All these people showed up for our show? They’re not here for a different show? Wow.’ That feeling, that all these people are here for us, that feeling never goes away. Honestly, I walk out onstage every night and I am truly shocked that people are here. It’s just wild. I’ve never been the lucky guy. I never enter the Lotto because I would never win, and if I did win, it would ruin my life somehow!” He laughs. “That’s not who I am. So to walk out onstage every night is my dream. It’s taken a lot of work for me to just accept that for what it is: a truly amazing gift.”
We Banjo 3 will play Iridium in New York City on January 10.