Interview With Nick Keeling, American BBQer & Mustered Courage Member

MELBOURNE | Banjo BBQ returns to Melbourne this month and promises an afternoon of Authentic Texas BBQ and awesome tunes from ARIA nominated Alt-Bluegrass group Mustered Courage. You can read all about it here. We had a chance to chat to Austin native, American BBQer and vocalist/banjo player for the band, Nick Keeling about the food and music. Here’s what he had to say.

Mustered Courage has been described as “the link between Bill Monroe and Mumford & Sons”. For those who aren’t aware of your music, how would you describe alt-bluegrass?

After playing (or picking as we call it) bluegrass for so long I have come to find it as the kind of music that folks don’t really think they will like until they hear it. Hearing it done live and done well usually seals the deal. I always get “I don’t really like bluegrass or country but I like you guys” from unsuspecting festival-goers. As far as alt-bluegrass goes I think its only ‘alt to appease the traditionalists. What we play now is just the natural evolution of the genre, which really took form in the 50’s as a new rhythmic shift on Old timey American, European music and blues. Our usual line up includes banjo, mandolin, acoustic guitar, double bass, along with some keyboards & drums. We have also been known to launch into twin telecaster honkytonk if the urge strikes.

What would you say is the main difference in the scene you play in in Australia compared to the USA? What are some of the challenges that are unique to Australia?

Bluegrass in Australia has a small but dedicated group of fans and pickers that help keep the pastime alive. We sneak over into the country music, indie, and folk scenes and snagged ourselves an ARIA nomination last year for our latest release White Lies & Melodies in the Best Country Album category. We have been lucky enough to be able to take our Aussie brand of bluegrass over to its native home in the USA the past four years in a row and have clocked up over 100 shows across about 43 states. Unlike Australia the USA has the population and density to make touring a bit easier and to better support a niche like what we do. You can pretty much drive a few hours & reach another million people making regional touring more sustainable. Plus there are numerous bluegrass festivals across the country pretty much every weekend of the year. The biggest challenge touring the USA is fitting into the same pants at the end of the run. When you mix being on the road everyday with the huge option of burgers, burritos, & other American sized amazing/junk food, it can really be the battle of the bulge.

Authentic Texas BBQ. Tell us more about what makes Texas BBQ different to the rest?

There are many major BBQ hubs across the Southern & Midwestern states in the US but it is no doubt that in recent years central Texas Style BBQ has emerged as the most popular. I know folks sample the local fare when in Kansas city or Memphis, but I’ve never heard of 6 hour lines or enthusiasts flying half way across the world just to get their hands on some. Austin TX and surrounds has become somewhat of a “BBQ Mecca” attracting hungry carnivores from far and wide. This style of BBQ borrows more from Texas’s rich German settlement history & the key differences would be the use of dry rubs, sausage, lack of pork, and (in central Texas) the popular use of oak wood to smoke the meat. Texans are all about their beef and won’t tolerate anything sickly sweet or drowned in BBQ sauce. Your BBQ joint staples are beef brisket, beef hot-link spicy sausage, Beef ribs, and the occasional turkey.

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What are some of the challenges you’ve faced in getting that authenticity you seek in Australia. We’ve heard that sourcing the right brisket is particularly tricky.

The fact that I am a native Texan didn’t give me the ability to cook BBQ from birth but it sure has given me the 20 years experience of eating BBQ in and around Austin to build up a good standard to aspire to. After living down under for long enough I was smoking briskets just to stave of the cravings and homesickness. A few years ago, when I first started cooking BBQ commercially, getting big, grain fed, American cut briskets was almost impossible and I was in the back room of many a butcher shop in Melbourne, slicing my own brisket out to teach the butcher. Now a days, the industry has caught up to the craze and pros and home enthusiasts alike can get their hands on pre-cut, big ‘ol, grain fed briskets if they know where to look.

nick keeling banjo bbq

Tell us more about Banjo BBQ, and the upcoming event at the Retreat.

Banjo BBQ is a unique food and music event where we have combined Melbourne’s appetite for American BBQ with bluegrass music. Both the BBQ and the music are done by the same folks but don’t let that fool you, we do one as good as the other. For about what it costs to eat at one of Melbourne’s “American” BBQ restaurants, you can get Texan BBQ cooked by a real Texan, a concert by ARIA nominated bluegrass band Mustered Courage, all with a mini-festival atmosphere in one of Melbourne’s best beer gardens. You can also pick yourself up a few bottles of our perfect BBQ sauce or even win a bottle in our washers throwing or giant jenga competition that tend to spring up during the show. Feast on 240-day grain fed beef brisket, homemade Texas style smoked beef sausages, and beer-can chicken along with our family heirloom sides & no one leaves hungry.

What’s your favourite American BBQ item to eat?

I love it all but being a Texan I am definitely drawn to the beef. Brisket may be the flagship of Texas BBQ but I am also a big fan of homemade beef hot-link sausages. Minced brisket, a little pork fat, stuffed in a natural hog casing, spiced & cured & then smoked to perfection. I find there is more scope for difference when it comes to sausages across the Texan BBQ-scape & if you are doing a tour of BBQ joints, the hot-links are gonna be your best bet for variety.

Who in your mind is doing the best American BBQ down under?

Ill start by saying that BBQ is a lot of work & many sleepless nights go into coming up with the goods. In Australia its good that many folks get paid a proper wage and before y’all scratch your heads and wonder where I am going with this, I’ll get to the point. BBQ in Australia is gonna be in a higher price bracket of cuisine than it is in the USA and I don’t see that changing soon. Due to that fact, I haven’t got the chance to try all the great BBQ that Melbourne has to offer yet. Probably because I am also a musician and delving deeper into that will completely shatter my previous statement about folks making a proper wage.

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