Czech can't find words for his bluegrass fixation

It would have been a good story–but, unfortunately, it's not true. Contrary to widely circulated reports, no one from the Czech bluegrass quintet Druhá Tráva has been asked to play on the next Bob Dylan CD. After talking to the group's singer and mandolinist Robert Krestan, however, it's easy to understand how this misunderstanding could arise.

Krestan, you see, is loath to articulate his feelings about his art, although he infers that's not so much a linguistic problem as an existential one. "You know, I can't talk about my own music," he says, over a noisy line from Houston, Texas. "I've not ever been able to. I'm sorry. But I probably wouldn't be able to express those things in Czech, either."

So it's entirely possible that some hapless publicist asked him about the two Dylan songs Druhá Tráva covers on last year's Good Morning, Friend, and the answer got lost in translation. Krestan's band is not working with Dylan, but it is readying an entire album's worth of the Hibbing, Minnesota, minstrel's songs, only this time sung in Czech.

When I coax the singer to be more specific, the best he can do is list some of the tunes Druhá Tráva will perform, which run from the modern classic "Not Dark Yet" to the '60s protest anthem "A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall". He does, however, point out that he's loved Dylan's songs ever since he was 16–and that he's been a fan of American traditional music for even longer, having discovered bluegrass during a brief break in Czechoslovakia's Soviet-mandated cultural isolation.

"I was 10 years old in 1968, and in our country there was something called the Prague Spring," he says. "And I turned on a radio and I heard five-string banjo, and I fell in love with it. And that was it, you know. The five-string banjo took over. That was immediate love."

He wasn't alone in his passion. Bluegrass soon became even more popular than the Beatles, and although Krestan can't explain why American mountain music resonated so strongly with his countrymen, he remembers the lengths young Czechs would go to in order to study their Appalachian idols.

"I found out how to play from recordings, from tapes," he explains. "You know, there were no LPs. There were no CDs or songbooks, stuff like that. So we had to record it and record it and record it again, from old tapes."

More recently, Druhá Tráva has made a CD, New Freedom Bell, with newgrass pioneer Peter Rowan, while Nashville harmonica ace Charlie McCoy joined in on Good Morning, Friend, which features sprightly versions of Tom Waits's "Hold On" and Mark Knopfler's "The Speedway at Nazareth" alongside more traditional fare. Despite his band's growing international appeal, however, Krestan sounds more than a little nostalgic for his early days of discovery.

"When you are falling in love with a foreign kind of music, that's the greatest phase," he says. "Now we know everything about bluegrass, everything about acoustic music. And we are touring the United States and Canada, which is everything we ever dreamed about when we were young. But it was really more exciting at that time when we didn't know anything about it."

Druhá Tráva plays the Norman Rothstein Theatre on Tuesday (September 25) and St. James Hall on Wednesday (September 26).