Friday, November 15, 2013

Warming Up With Canadian Bluegrass: The High Bar Gang and The Barn Katz

What could possibly warm the heart (as well as the hands) on a brisk Canadian autumn day like a dose of bluegrass? That’s right…bluegrass! The American roots music that Wikipedia describes as a “sub-genre of country music” blahblahblah. Sure, it’s true, bluegrass was “inspired by the music of Appalachia…has mixed roots in Irish, Scottish, Welsh and English traditional music” and all the rest but the last part of Wikipedia’s definition is the important part. Bluegrass was “later influenced by the music of African-Americans through incorporation of jazz elements.” Huh? “Jazz elements”? Thassright folks, jazz! Miles Davis, Louis Armstrong, cutting sessions, musicians who were master of their instruments trading off with each other, blowing free. Using the song structure as a foundation for wherever their imagination and talent would let them go. You can feel the heat rising from the guitar strings and mandolin strings, the banjos, the stand-up bass as each member of the band takes a shot at transforming the melody into something new and exciting. If you don’t warm up at a bluegrass show then you’re probably already dead.

I was invited one evening to attend a recording session at Grant Avenue Studios in central Hamilton. Grant Avenue is a residential street, the studio building an old brick house. Inside, it’s magic. The recording booth to the left, the playing room straight ahead. Up the stairs there’s an instrument room with so many guitars on the wall it makes your head spin. Joe Clark was going to record with his old buddy Don Rigsby. There were only a handful of family members and friends invited. It was extraordinary, the high lonesome sound of harmonies and virtuosity. It’s a night I’ll never forget. Only trouble is, it’s over, I carry the memory but I wish I could hear it again, and again.

As bluegrass captured me that night, and continued to interest me in the recordings of Rigsby, and Vince Gill, and Bill Monroe, so has it captured so many others around the world. Other Canadians, even, have taken up the cause. You don’t have to be from Tennessee or Oklahoma, Kentucky or anywhere down south. Colin Nairne and some friends have put together a new band to play bluegrass. They call themselves The High Bar Gang (“after a lonely spot on the banks of the mighty Fraser River called ‘High Bar Canyon’”) and they play real old time string band music, with all the vocal interaction you could hope for.

Colin Nairne plays guitar and mandolin; Rob Baker adds stand-up bass; Eric Reed plays mandolin and Dobro; Barney Bentall, guitar; Shari Ulrich plays fiddle and mandolin; and everybody including Wendy Bird and Angela Harris, sings. The idea was hatched in Nairne’s mind in 2006 after attending the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco and it took him this long to put it all together. I’m glad he didn’t give up. The repertoire they play on their new CD Lost & Undone: a Gospel Bluegrass Companion was suggested by American guitarist Ry Cooder. “He wanted to make sure the songs were right,” Nairne confesses. The songs are right, and the playing and singing are even better.

Dr. Ralph Stanley is represented with four songs, Bill or Charlie Monroe have a couple, but every song is a classic. They are songs about Jesus, about living the life, “Walking in Jerusalem,” playing with the “Angel Band,” songs to warn “Sinners You Better Get Ready.” The essence of “Gospel Bluegrass” is the reason it takes two words to describe it. It takes the form of bluegrass, with the guitars, mandolins, banjos, interplaying and soloing and the high harmonies and adds the message of gospel. Gospel means ‘good news’ and specifically the good news of Jesus Christ. So be warned there are a lot of songs about Jesus and His friends included here. Authentic songs about sinners and gloryland all provided by the music archival mind of Ry Cooder and performed by this team of fine Canadian musicians. What a concept!

The Barn Katz
But bluegrass is not just limited to this project. Bluegrass seems to be spreading like wildfire.I mentioned Joe Clark and Don Rigsby playing at Grant Avenue Studios, and let it be known that Joe Clark has a new band which has just released a new CD called Roadkill Grill. The band is called The Barn Katz. No old gospel tunes for this bunch. Although I’m sure that Joe is familiar with the gospel repertoire this is a collection of all new, self-composed tunes most of which display a finely tuned sense of humour amidst all the sterling picking and high lonesome singing.

Joe sings and plays mandolin and guitar; Tim McDonald plays banjo; Glenn George is on upright bass; guests Ray Legere and Bob Doige bow the fiddle and cello. Sue Sweetman is the featured vocalist. The songs are mostly written by Sweetman and Clark either together or separately and fit eaily into the bluegrass genre. Bluegrass is all about virtuosity and instrumentation. It’s about blowing the mind of the audience, at the same time as you’re trying to blow the other guy off the stage and then slipping back into the tightest ensemble playing ever. The Barn Katz are good at it and under the care of Jamie Prokop and Jim Killgore at Brantford’s IAM Studios they have found sympathetic production.

Canadian bluegrass, unheard of…and yet, here within a month of each other are two solid examples of the genre, each one ready to compete on the big ole stage with their Southern cousins. Lookin’ for some downhome pickin’? Try the Barn Katz or the High Bar Gang.

– David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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