The Estonian quartet Robirohi takes the stage recently at Carter Family Fold in Hiltons. Photo by Kathy Ladley.
Robert Kreutzwald recalls without hesitation the first time he heard Roy Acuff's clear tenor voice on "Great Speckled Bird" and Mother Maybelle's "Carter scratch" style of guitar picking on "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."
Kreutzwald was a student in the mid-1970s when he stumbled across "American Country Music," a set of vinyl records released on the Melodiya label.
His introduction to old-time American music might not seem so remarkable until you consider that Kreutzwald hails from Estonia, a small Eastern European country about the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined. After centuries of Danish, Swedish, German and Russian rule, it was forcibly incorporated into the USSR in 1940 and remained tucked away behind the "Iron Curtain" until regaining its freedom in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
Kreutzwald was so enamored with this American "roots" music that he put together a group of acoustic musicians from his church, and together they began performing country gospel tunes — mostly in the Estonian language — around Tallinn, the country's capital city. His current band, Robirohi (which takes its name from a small yellow flower that grows in Estonia), made its official debut at a hot rod and country picnic in Tallinn in 1995.
Nearly two decades later, Kreutzwald and Robirohi — featuring fellow Estonians Indred Vainu, Jurgis Kazjava and Aivar Nurmik — are in the midst of their first American tour, a trip made possible with the help of the United Methodist Church's Friends of Estonia project.
FOE helps United Methodist congregations in the United States, including the local Holston Conference, coordinate their mutual efforts to work with Methodist churches and ministries in the Baltic country.
Kingsport's Harry Turner is FOE's longtime chairman and led the first team from First Broad Street United Methodist Church to visit Estonia.
It was during one of FOE's mission trips to Tallinn several years ago that the quartet first met Turner, who they said has been instrumental in helping coordinate their visit to the United States.
"We went to the cafeteria downstairs and there were a group of men from America and we played for them unofficially there," said Indred Vainu, who plays Dobro, autoharp and guitar for the group. "They started even to dance on our music. I was so surprised that they asked us for song titles that nobody usually knows to ask. We have heard them from records, but in our country it never happens that somebody asks, so we had to do 'Rocky Top' there the first time for them because they ordered it.
"We got out the words from somewhere, and we tried it for the first time. Those men were even happier then. And so I thought, these men are really not ordinary Americans, they are really from the bluegrass region. These are the same men who helped us here."
After a 17-hour flight, the quartet landed in the States on Sept. 25. Their first stop was the International Bluegrass Music Association's World of Bluegrass event in Raleigh, N.C., where they got a chance to catch their favorite band, Seldom Scene, live in concert.
"We tried to insert ourselves to as large a portion of the music as we could because there are many stages and many things at one time," Vainu said.
Since crossing the mountains into Tennessee, the guys have performed at churches in Kingsport and Morristown, during intermission at the Carter Family Fold in Hiltons, at the Bush Mill Day festival in Nickelsville, and at a jam session at the Lazy Time Pickin' Parlor in Weber City.
Seeing a young girl picking music alongside an "84 years old papa" at the Pickin' Parlor, Kreutzwald said, is one of his favorite memories from the trip so far.
"It came from the heart," he said. "I like this music lovers' jamming."
Robirohi traveled to Nashville earlier this week for several performances at United Methodist churches in the Music City.
"I guess I will see lots of glamour, something different than this natural sweet rural area here," Vainu said. "Less mountains, more city lights. I'm happy that we can get the experience of that. Usually we want to avoid large cities like New York and Miami just because they are too large. Our entire country's population is just a bit over one million."
Kazjava, Robirohi's bass player, said the band's wives are jealous of the warm weather their husbands are experiencing in East Tennessee. Back home in Tallinn, the average temperature this time of year is in the 40s, with far more rain than sun.
"I have one joke about Estonian weather," Kazjava said. "A (pale) guy is walking on the beach in Florida and people ask him, why are you so white, where are you from? He answers, I'm from Estonia. Do you have summer in Estonia? Yes, of course, but this day I was working."
Kazjava was looking forward to the Kentucky leg of the band's journey and catching another well-known country act, Willie Nelson, in concert.
"When we first came here, I saw in the newspaper a little advertisement — it was a concert in Louisville, a Willie Nelson concert," he said. "We bought tickets. It's our only chance (to see him) I think."
Local audiences still have plenty of opportunities to catch Robirohi in concert before the quartet heads back to Tallinn in early November.
Their upcoming performances include a 7 p.m. concert tonight for the "Get Real" program at Colonial Heights United Methodist Church in Kingsport, and a show at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday at Bellamy Hardware in Surgoinsville.
The following day, on Oct. 20, Robirohi will perform during the morning worship service at Christ Fellowship Church in Kingsport; at 2 p.m. at Bays Mountain Park, a concert sponsored by Engage Kingsport; and at 5 p.m. at Crossroads United Methodist Church in Kingsport for the Kingsport United Methodist District churches.
They will be in concert at 6:30 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 22, at Mount Vernon United Methodist Church in Hiltons, and at 7 p.m. on Oct. 23, at Richlands Presbyterian Church in Richlands, Va.
Robirohi plays a mix of gospel hymns and spirituals, some bluegrass swing and a few traditional, old-time pieces (sung in English here in the United States) on guitar, mandolin, banjo, Dobro, autoharp and upright bass. For audiences back home, Robirohi performs gospel songs mostly in its native Estonian language, although they retain their bluegrass instrumentation and country sound.
"In Estonia, we sing in Estonian language mostly, but of course we make some gospel quartets in English," Kreutzwald said. "... We smash a little bit of our folk music with bluegrass. We take much old Estonian Christian songs what are no used anymore, songs remembered only by old people that young people don't know anymore, and we start to play again these songs."
The band has had some of its favorite American tunes translated into Estonian, including Grandpa Jones' "Falling Leaves," the traditional gospel hymn "Where Could I Go But to the Lord" and the folk song "Down in the Valley." Even a few American mainstream pop songs have found a favorable ear in Estonia.
"One song that Jurgis sings is 'I Am Sailing,' a Rod Stewart song, but it is translated into Estonian," Kreutzwald said.
Despite their passion for old-time American music, performing it remains just a hobby for the quartet, all of whom hold down full-time day jobs back home in Estonia. And that's just the way Robirohi's members like it.
"In Estonia, with 1 million people, there is no mass effect," Vainu said. "If you are not a real mainstream pop musician, famous, then you can't (make a living) with music in Estonia. Here (in the United States), somebody writes a couple of songs that become famous, acts like Johnny Cash were, just puts it on his record and he's rich for a lifetime, and all his siblings. Like Terry Smith wrote 'Far-Side Banks of Jordan' and several more marginal acts recorded it, but for just this one song, it's guaranteed to live on. But that mass effect doesn't work in our tiny country. You can be genius or not. Only if you're a mainstream pop musician doing extra works in the theater, in the movies, everywhere, making jobs in the ferry ships, being like a slave there, picking guitar and singing for I don't know whom, drunken people maybe, then you only grab your living as a musician.
"We don't want to be such."