By Keith Sharp
If you want any more proof that Country is the new pop music, you need to go no further than check out the latest six-track EP collaboration between Kingston, Ontario Bluegrass duo; John and James Abrams and ace hard rock producer Gavin Brown.
Calling it “a collision of influences” 25-year-old John Abrams claims the marriage of bluegrass/country and pop rock is a natural progression for he and his 23-year old brother James and that the hybrid sound that has emerged with “Fine”, the resulting EP release for Warner Music Canada, marks a fresh start for the duet.
“You look at our history of playing acoustic music and Gavin’s background of pop/rock production with the likes of Billy Talent, Metric, 3 Days Grace and Lady Gaga and we just found a common ground when we started working together,” noted the Sr Abrams brother on the phone from his Kingston residence. “There were qualities in our music that were already there and Gavin just augmented these influences and honed them into a sound that is representative of a direction we wanted to develop.”
It was Chris Brown, formerly of Bourbon Tabernacle Choir, who had produced the brothers’ previous two albums; their 2009 “Blue On Brown” release (a tribute to Arlo Guthrie and Bob Dylan) and their first studio album, “Northern Redemption” in 2012, who initiated the connection with Gavin Brown.
“Chris Brown contacted me and said he felt he had taken them to this point and they want to go one step further and I thought that’s a job for me,” explained Gavin Brown. “It’s been two years now and so far it’s been a very interesting journey.”
“James and I had an initial meeting with Gavin, that meeting went well, we returned five days later, immediately started to write together and right away co-wrote “Miracles” which is one of the six tracks on the record,” enthused Abrams.
The product of four generations of bluegrass and country musicians, John and James have been performing on stage with their father and grandfather, (initially known as The Abrams Family) since they were 11 and 9 respectively, earning the distinction of being the youngest Canadians ever to appear on stage at Nashville’s Grand Old Opry in 2005. One year later, they were named Emerging Artist of The Year at the Canadian Bluegrass Music Awards, receiving the Daniel Pearl Memorial Violin the same year.
Having appeared on two traditional Bluegrass records; “Carryin On” in 2004 and “Iron Sharpens Iron” in 2007, the two brothers exhibited their own musical chops with their 2009 Guthrie/Dylan tribute record, “Blue On Brown” which earned praise from Guthrie himself, saying the brothers “were way too young to be playing that good.”
The Abrams’ first real studio release “Northern Redemption”, again produced by Chris Brown, resulted in strong country music airplay for the title track and the brothers also proved they could have fun with their music, shooting a tongue-in-cheek video for a cover of Rebecca Black’s obnoxious “Friday” track.
The Abrams’ new sound has been tagged “New Grass” and John is honored by that title but says the moniker isn’t really genuine. “New Grass was actually a musical movement in the 1970’s when bands like The Byrds and Buffalo Springfield widened the horizon for country music and made it more contemporary,” Abrams explained. “These days you’ve got guys like Sam Hunt doing the same thing and if people want to categorize us in the same vein then I guess we are flattered by the comparison.”
Abrams says many of the lyrical ideas for “Fine” came as a result of extensive travelling in the U.S, both with his Family and more recently as the Abrams Brothers. “Fine” as our first single is all about optimism,” John noted. “We’d be playing all these small towns that had obviously seen better days, economically but we were struck by the residents who are the hope and heart of these communities. We wanted to write a song that captured the spirit of this optimism. We wanted to send out a message to encourage people not to fall into a routine and be stuck going through the motions of life.”
“Champions” is similarly optimistic, but in a different way,” continued Abrams. “In one respect it’s a message between two people where one is saying, “You may not always be committed to me but I will always be your champion. And in another respect, when we were driving through these small towns in the U.S, there would always be a rusty, old stadium or a baseball diamond and we’d be thinking ‘I wonder what stories these bleachers could tell.”
When informed that the song “Perfect” is structured in such a way, that even a boy band like One Direction could have a hit with it, Abrams responded enthusiastically, agreeing that virtually all of their new songs could be interpreted in a number of different ways.
“We’ve always built our songs from the bottom up rather than the top down,” John confirmed. “If our songs could first work acoustically, if we could sit around a bonfire with them, then logically we could perform them as a duet in a radio station or on a television show but then can also add a band and give them the full treatment. It’s great to have that flexibility.”
Having launched their new EP at a release party Tuesday at Toronto’s Dakota Tavern (scheduled to play at 6.30 p.m. so their performance wouldn’t conflict with that night’s Toronto Raptors basketball play-off in Cleveland against the Cavaliers), John and James Abrams are looking forward towards breaking new barriers with their hybrid country-bluegrass rock sound.
“Country music is developing in Canada as the new pop music because musical genres are breaking down, “analyzed Abrams. “People are now more inclined to stream different kinds of music, they are no longer locked into just one genre, and the influence of iPods has brought this on. Now people listen to a bit of everything and are discovering all kinds of new influences.”
As for the Abrams, they see “Fine” as a fresh start, a development of their musical style that encompasses new trends while still capturing the heritage of their past. “It’s a new sound for us but it’s still representative of us both as musicians and as people,” stated Abrams.
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