Musician Robert Křesťan on bluegrass, Bob Dylan, and playing before Barack Obama


Czech bluegrass has a long tradition going back to the 1960s but it took several more decades before it was acknowledged in the land of its origin, the United States. Our guest in this edition of One on One is Robert Křesťan, the banjoist, lead singer and the founder of a bluegrass legend, the band Druhá Tráva, formed in the early 1990s. Their latest album Dylanovky, features songs by Bob Dylan translated into Czech by Robert Křesťan, and he and his band set the scene before the public speech of the US President, Barack Obama at Prague Castle earlier this month.

“Well, it was a great honour, of course. The performance itself was not a pleasant one, though, because of the sound, but it was a great honour to be so close to the president of the United States.

Did you meet Mr Obama before or after the performance?

“No, we didn’t.”

How did you get the gig?

“I am not sure. Two days before the performance, somebody from the US embassy called us and asked if we were able, and willing, to play there. And we said yes, of course.”

You formed your band in 1991, after many years of playing with another legend of Czech bluegrass, Poutníci. Did the communist authorities make life harder for you for playing American music?

“They sure did, but not as hard as they did for they did for other kinds of music – rock’n’roll, underground, the alternative scene, and stuff like that. We were able to play, at least, because they saw bluegrass as the music of ordinary people, you know.”

Bluegrass and country and folk music in general were extremely popular during the communist regime. What do you think was so appealing about it?

“It was an American style of music to start with, and it was also because of what is known as the tramping movement.”

The name of your band that you formed in 1991, Druhá tráva, means “Second Grass” in English. The reference to bluegrass is clear, but what’s second about your grass?

“At that time, we split from the band Poutníci, and formed Druhá Tráva. For us, this was a second door to music.”

Was the transition after the fall of communism difficult for musicians like you, when people stopped showing up in such large numbers at your shows in the early 1990s because they suddenly had different interests?

“It was different, and it was a little bit difficult for us but we were very busy forming our new band and playing a different kind of music, which was new for us. We also were, and still are, very enthusiastic about what we’re doing, so I can’t remember that it was hard. It was great.”

You regularly toured the United States with your band, Druhá Tráva. How do people react when they hear a band from a country some of them know nothing about?

“Well, the reactions are generally very warm and loud, and sometimes it’s because of our music, and sometimes because we are exotic.”

Is there any part of the United States where you would say people receive you better than in other places?

“Yes, I think there is. I think our favourite place is east Texas and southern California.”

Your latest album, which appeared in 2008, is called Dylanovky – or something like “Dylan Songs” in English. How did you get from bluegrass to Bob Dylan?

“I have listened to Bob Dylan ever since I remember. I first liked his music and his voice, and then, when I started to understand English a little bit, I loved his words, his poetry. And Mr Dylan himself is a big fan of bluegrass, so I think this kind of connection is very natural.”

Apart from translating Bob Dylan’s lyrics, you have also translated several novels by American authors, including William Eastlake and Norman Mailer. The novel Love in the Ruins, or Láska v troskách, by Walker Percy, has just been put out. How do you choose the books you want to translate?

“I generally choose them myself. I read something in English, and I want to share it with other people.”

In a 2007 interview, you said that the book you had just translated by Norman Mailer was your last, but then another one appeared. Are you working on anything right now?

“Well, I am a great liar. Now I am translating a book by Normal Mailer, it’s called Marilyn, and it’s about Marilyn Monroe.”

When will US audiences next have a chance to see you and your band perform live?

“This year, we’ll be there in September and early October. We’ll be playing in Minnesota, Colorado, Texas, New Mexico and California.”