Blue Hazard update bluegrass tradition with their new album, 'Sideshow'

Blue Hazard

Blue Hazard Photo provided by the artist

Hannah Johnson (née Gruber) fell in love with bluegrass as a child when her musician parents brought her and her brothers Luke and Dale to the Minnesota Bluegrass & Old-Time Music Festival.

In 2000, the Stillwater-raised siblings formed their own bluegrass band, Blue Hazard, with Johnson on guitar, Luke on mandolin, and Dale on fiddle. Uriah Nibbe later joined on banjo along with Clara Wicklund on bass. In addition to releasing This World of Mine in 2012, the five-piece has taken its homegrown sound across the country, playing festivals, private parties, and weddings.

Blue Hazard’s second album, Sideshow, represents a departure from the bluegrass tradition of sticking to cover songs. On these 10 tracks, band members share lead vocals and writing credits, maintaining a quaint pluckiness throughout. Though the band members all come from diverse educational backgrounds and live scattered across the Twin Cities area, they’ve remained tight-knit. Johnson spoke to City Pages before the album’s release show.

City Pages: What is it about bluegrass that you gravitated toward?

Hannah Johnson: Bluegrass really focuses on storytelling, which I think is something we’re all really drawn to, especially as we started writing our own music and branched out from the tradition of bluegrass where typically you just play cover songs. These are songs that have been passed down for decades, but we started writing our own music and drawing from the inspiration of sharing our stories as opposed to sharing stories that were told by others.

When we played at more traditional festivals, we started peppering in our own music. To appease the traditionalists, we still played the cover music. As we’ve continued to play and mature as a band, our focus has really been on original music. That’s kind of where our passion has blossomed. When we started doing this—writing our own music—not many [bluegrass] bands were doing it. We’re one of the few younger bands in Minnesota that are writing their own music. We’re kind of the dark horse.

CP: What are the challenges of being in a band with your siblings?

HJ: It can be interesting. When you grow up with someone, obviously you know each other very, very well. Me and my brothers are really close. Obviously there can be tension, even with just how we deal with conflict and disagreements. I think the fact that we’re so close, it actually works out really well. Now that we’re more balanced as a five-piece, I think that helped the dynamic quite a bit as well.

CP: Have you ever written a song that you would be embarrassed to share with your brothers?

HJ: No, I haven’t. Some people like to be really straightforward with their songwriting and seem to be very easy to decipher. I like to write a song and put in my experiences or different wordplays. Maybe I wrote a song in a specific way and with a specific intent, but someone’s going to hear that song and interpret it differently than what I intended. I think that’s the beauty of songwriting.

As far as bringing a song to the band or to my brothers, I’ve never been embarrassed. It’s basically been like, “Hey, here’s a song I wrote. This is where I was coming from.” We vote. That’s how we decide if we’re going to cover it or not. Then we tweak lyrics or arrangements. I think it’s harder for our bass player and banjo player to bring a song forward in the beginning against the three siblings, but we’re all so comfortable together. We’ve been playing together for so long, we’re like family. It’s a really open environment.

CP: Share a couple of stories and how they influenced specific songs on your new album.

HJ: Four of us wrote on this record. “Sideshow,” which the record is named after, is one I wrote. I was wanting to write about the impact of social media on society. I think people can get so self-absorbed in social media and Facebook. We kind of blame Facebook for things, too, like how people are portrayed or what people say. I was commenting on how it’s really us; we’re the ones that are feeding the beast. That was what inspired “Sideshow.” Luke wrote “Crying Eyes” about a death in his wife’s family. He was writing about how the death impacted the people in their lives. That one was more specific about a person. “Sideshow” is more about an idea.

We all have different experiences, so we’re writing about different things, but the record, for having four different writers, is really cohesive and flows well. It gives it a unique feel.

CP: Is Blue Hazard a passion project or a future full-time gig?

HJ: It’s more a passion for music. We all have our own careers and other passions. Music is a big time commitment. We practice regularly, we play all summer, most weekends we’re booked. It’s more than just a hobby but it’s also not our sole focus. We’re in that strange in-between.

CP: Who do you guys look up to or aspire to be?

HJ: When we were younger, we listened to the standards and the traditional, but Nickel Creek was a band that played traditional music but wrote their own songs, too. They also did fun twists on different covers, like rock music, or bringing different genres into bluegrass. Crooked Still, the Punch Brothers, these are bands that have had a lot of influence on a lot of us. But the biggest one would be Nickel Creek.

CP: You’ve had a song placed on two shows on MTV. What was that like when you found out? Did you watch the show to see what scene it was in?

HJ: It was our song “Remembrance” from our previous record in 2012. We were notified that it got picked up by MTV. Everyone knows MTV—whether you watch it or not, everyone's heard of it—so that was really cool. We’re reaching a different audience than just playing our music elsewhere or on a more traditional platform for bluegrass. One of the TV shows, it was a very pivotal part where they played the clip, which was really cool. It wasn’t just a random spot; it was a pivotal, emotional sequence that was kind of the highlight of the show.

Blue Hazard
Where: The Pourhouse
When: 7 p.m., Fri. July 7
Tickets: $5; more info here