The music that’s in him, must come out. This does not refer to the unmistakable talent of singer-songwriter Bertolf, but to an important musical choice that he has made. Because after six albums, for the first time in his career, on his new album his full focus is on his love for bluegrass. From his earliest years he has been listening to and playing this ‘purely natural’ acoustic country music variant, which is so demanding to the musicians, it turns their fingers blue. Hence the album title ‘Bluefinger’. It marks his ‘Best Of’ album with his favorite songs over the years plus some new ones. That title also hints at the nickname of his fellow townsmen from Zwolle in the history of his native Netherlands. For the recordings he went to Nashville to work with a stellar cast of musicians in this field.
At some point Bertolf was asked what his greatest dream was as a musician. He didn’t have to think long about it, as he had dreamed of it for so long. “I want to make a bluegrass record in Nashville,” he replied happily.
Going to the ‘Mecca’ of country music wasn’t the main thing for him. “That’s not that special anymore. So many musicians do that these days. No, for me it was about having the opportunity to work and record with the best musicians around there.” Immediately a plan was made, and funding was put into place.
Getting the finances together was a rather difficult task. The selection of the songs was even more challenging. His plan was to pick two tracks per album from his catalogue, plus several new ones. “I started making demos with old songs in a bluegrass setting. However, not everything turned out well,” Bertolf says, looking back. For example, he was surprised that a favorite of his like First & Then didn’t work, but rocker Cut Me Loose did. The latter made it to the final cut.
Don’t Look Up, a highlight of his latest album Happy In Hindsight (2021) has fortunately also survived. “Essentially, that song was already bluegrass, and the chops of the mandolin replace the drums of the original perfectly.” In the lyrics Bertolf refers to the famous words of his all-time favorite footballer (soccer player for Americans), the late Johan Cruyff, that you should neither look up to people, nor look down on them. It has become his personal motto.
Anyone who listens to Bluefinger immediately hears the immense joy of the musicians. The group photo made in the studio shows it too, with Bertolf, arms crossed, amidst his dream team of bluegrass musicians. “Man, I had the best week of my life,” he says with a smile.
Who are those seasoned pros on this album anyway? Without a doubt the kingpin is dobro player Jerry Douglas, with whom John Hiatt recently recorded the album Leftover Feelings. In the Netherlands Douglas is known for his work with local star Ilse DeLange. Bertolf played in her band in the past. The musical adventure started when Bertolf sent him a mail one day, not expecting a reply. To his surprise, Douglas mailed him back within minutes, saying yes.
Of course, he didn’t get a reply from every musician he wanted to invite. But he managed to snatch up fiddle player Stuart Duncan, and he also got double bass player Mark Schatz. The latter used to be in the band with Bertolf’s favorite guitarist, the late Tony Rice, and also with Béla Fleck. He couldn’t believe his luck. Let’s not forget, we are talking about musicians from progressive bluegrass here. In the 1980s they integrated jazz and pop into this classic genre of founding father Bill Monroe. “I listened to those guys a lot. They never ceased to inspire me. The way those guys play is so beautiful and so lyrical,” he adds, full of admiration.
Two youngsters, equally dazzling musicians, Wes Corbett (banjo) and David Benedict (mandolin), completed the band in the studio. Bertolf himself was the middleman, as he likes to call it, between the young and the old generation.
Dave Sinko was appointed producer. Bertolf knew him as the acclaimed soundman of the legendary Punch Brothers. “That man knows exactly what kind of vintage microphones to use, how to position them just right, and how to mix the songs to get that true authentic and warm sound.” The same guy also talked him out of a crazy plan to record a potential double album… In his enthusiasm Bertolf had planned to cut twenty-four songs in three days. That would have been too much, even for these pros. Instead of blue, their fingers would’ve turned red.
Bertolf recounts a nervous moment the day before the recordings. Producer Sinko happened to be on the phone with Jerry Douglas and sounded a little concerned. Bertolf was worried that the recordings would be canceled and that he would have to find a replacement. A little nervous, he got on the phone himself. “Jerry said he had just come back from a long tour and suffered from a minor hand injury. He would see the doctor the next day for an injection and then he’d be in the studio fifteen minutes later,’ says Bertolf laughing. There I was, sitting with my hero on the phone, and Jerry was so humble.’ The lyrics of his own song Don’t Look Up once again became true.
It wasn’t his only misunderstanding. “I had this picture in my mind of Nashville surrounded by mountains like in Switzerland, but in reality, it was more like the Ardennes (hills in his neighboring country Belgium).”
The first evidence of the new album is the instrumental Team Hoover, a new track. It was originally called Child’s Play, but there was already another bluegrass instrumental by that name. The new title picks up on the fantasy superhero team of his two sons, who like to chase each other in the living room.
Bertolf himself likes to use his living room for other things. For example, for rehearsals with his band of fellow Dutch musicians, as he plans to perform the new album live on tour. But he also recorded a bonus album with bluegrass traditionals on his home turf with his dad, just like they used to make cassette tapes together. As a teenager he used to sell those in the schoolyard.
Who needs more proof that the album Bluefinger grew out of an authentic love for bluegrass? If not, a documentary in the making, filmed by Dutch public tv in Nashville, will show that it’s no whim, as far as Bertolf is concerned. No way, this is serious business.