The Washboard Union – Playing For The People

Over the years there have been a lot of artists known to make music for the masses. In the 50’s Hank Williams Sr. sang about the trials and tribulations of the common man in songs like ‘Honky Tonkin’ and ‘Lost Highway’.  Thirty years later Bruce Springsteen connected with the blue collar crowd through reflective numbers like ‘My Hometown’ and ‘Badlands’, while today Drake has become a social spokesperson with hardline autobiographical songs like ‘Started From the Bottom’. Vancouver country/roots band Washboard Union would appear to have the same ability to draw people in with their music, and they do this through their intimate lyrics which break down those moments in our lives that make us who we are. Fittingly, their new album is entitled ‘What We’re Made Of’, and the band is in Toronto to launch the new record via a live stream performance on YouTube. Guitarist/vocalist Aaron Grain is pumped about the new record and the opportunity to build upon the reciprocal relationship they have with their followers.“When we started this together, writing songs and playing and recording the music, people really grabbed on to our positive vibe,” he says from his perch in a mock subway car along with his band mates in the Green Room in the YouTube Studio. “We gained a really nice fan base out of it and a great audience, and we’re so thankful to those people. It’s literally those fans that keep coming to these shows that supports our other endeavors and other projects and albums. We can’t thank them enough for, number one, taking a chance on us and then following us and sticking with us the whole way. When they find something like this they really hang around through thick and thin and we thank them for being so tenacious.”

WU Album

The band’s fan base is fairly wide as they give a shout-out to Spain and Chile during the YouTube broadcast. Their popularity is evidenced through the number of awards they have garnered over the years, 15 in total, including two consecutive Roots Artist/Group of the Year wins at the Canadian Country Music Awards.  Their last EP, ‘In My Bones’ was certified gold and contained no fewer than four Top 40 country radio singles. Given all of the accolades and airplay, the band surely felt some pressure to repeat this success when recording the new album.

“I actually don’t think we felt any pressure,” says vocalist and banjo player Chris Duncombe. “If there was any pressure it was self-imposed. The three of us are enthralled with the art of song writing. Success to some bands can be about getting famous and selling a lot of records but to us it’s about being great songwriters. I’m very proud of what we’ve put together on this record as songwriters, as performers and as three guys who sing harmony together. Our music excites me which for me is a good indication that we’ve done something that matters and that it will have some permanence. I think that’s what’s really at the core for me.

“If you want to talk about pressure you just have to look at the last EP,” adds multi-instrumentalist David Roberts, who excels at guitar, mandolin and, of course, washboard. “That record had only six songs and that’s very limited space. This one has 12 songs so we got to stretch our legs. It was more relaxing and more fun and we got to try some things that we just didn’t have the opportunity to do on the EP.”

The single which preceded the album’s release, “Shine” was a Top 10 hit for the band. A bright and bubbly number, Shine showcases the group’s patented acoustic layering of sound in the verses and their trademark harmonies in the chorus. Chris takes the vocal on this number while Aaron steps up to the microphone on the title track of the album and follow-single, begging the question of how the band decides who takes the lead.

“Sometimes it’s a case of someone feeling a particular affinity to that song and its meaning,” Aaron begins. “But for the most part it’s really about range. I tend to be lower, Chris is more mid and David is up high in the stratosphere. (“Where only German Shepherds drift,” David jokes)

“We do a lot of three-part harmonies in most of the songs so it sounds like a singular voice,” adds Chris. “The one voice is the three voices combined and it’s real recognizable, well, at least most of the time. About two weeks ago I was in a store and Shine came over the sound system and I actually had a moment where I went ‘God, I know that song’.”     

The boys in the band co-wrote all of the tunes on the album, some with Australian songwriter Phil Barton who the band has had a long relationship with. Although the album’s songs offer various reflections on life, you won’t find many numbers of the cry-in-your beer variety. There’s the playful ‘She Gets To Me’ about a ‘blue- jeaned angel’ who has an affinity for Bud Light and owns a ‘stack of vinyl’.  In ‘He Ain’t Got You’, Aaron sings about getting the girl even if it means getting an ass whoopin’ at the hands of a six foot four hombre.  Regardless of how tenuous a situation might appear, there always seems to be a light at the end of the tunnel in all of their songs.

“We have a couple of songs that deal with the more sensitive sides of relationships and loss,’ Aaron explains. “But we’re very fortunate to be where we are so I think we innately come at these songs with a positive energy.

“We’re hopeful people and, in our minds, we can all use a dose of that right now,” Chris adds.“There are a lot of great songwriters who do the sad stuff well, but we have a lot to be thankful for and be hopeful about. Even a song like ‘Good To You’, which is about having to let go of someone, has a ray of hope.  That song is interesting because we started off wanting to write a big rah-rah anthem, something big and up-tempo. It just somehow morphed into this ballady sounding song.  There’s a lot of loneliness in a song like that because you’re losing something, but you’re hoping that the world will take care of this person the way that you have.”

‘Wild Angel’ begins with an acoustic riff courtesy of Chris’ banjo, and builds up along the way with David’s inspired playing, particularly on dobro.  The rationale behind the heavy acoustic blend on most of the songs is actually quite straight forward.

thumbnail_washboard union photo“It’s the kind of music you can take anywhere,” David says. “You don’t have to plug it in because it just travels with you. I think that sound is just a warmth that’s always been there with Washboard. When we first started we were in a band before this one and it was all about sitting around campfires and playing songs.  It’s always been a big piece of the pie. I think we all value the craft of song writing as well,” Aaron says. “These songs were written on acoustic instruments so I think we like to honour the origin of the song itself and bring those instruments into the recording. Our vocals and harmonies and phrasing are all inspired by what we’re paying on those instruments. It kind of gives a backbone to what the song will ultimately be with the vocals and melodies.”   In summary, The Washboard Union’s strengths are its song writing, harmonies and acoustic core but when it comes to the album’s title, just what is the most important element in terms of what this band is made of? “I would say that it’s the interesting comaraderie and friendship the three of us have had for so many years,” says Aaron.  “We joke that if this band ended tomorrow we’d still call each other up the next day and say ‘do you want to do something?’ We were actually friends through and through before any of this started. This has been a dream of ours since we were young so we’re actually living that dream.   I think that the combination of knowing each other and realizing a dream together is really the full package. I’m doing it with my best friends and I think that’s what we’re made of.”

As we prepare to wrap-up Chris and David tip the brims of their hats and I wondered why it is, with them being such a tight-knit unit with an obvious commonality, that Aaron does not complete the hat act. “It’s like a biker gang,” David laughs. “He doesn’t have his colours yet. He’s not full patch.” The Washboard Union will be playing the country festival circuit this summer including the Red River Exhibition in Winnipeg, the Kootenay Country Music Fest in Castlegar B.C. and the Boots and Hearts Festival in Oro-Medonte Ontaio. This will followed by a tour, the details of which are pending.

Other stuff:

tebey-loveagirl_web Hunter Bros_

Multi-talented singer/songwriter Tebey returns with a new EP ‘Love A Girl’ on April 27th. Fans have already been enjoying an early taste through the infectious first single ‘Denim On Denim’, co-written by fellow Canadian Kelly Archer and U.S. hit maker Nathan Spicer. Other tracks on the EP include the smoldering mid-tempo ‘Wreck Me’ and the slow grooving ‘Who’s Gonna Love You’.

A couple of weeks back American country star Maren Morris topped the pop charts with ‘The Middle’, her collaboration with Russian-German record producer Zedd. Turns out Canadian country stars Jess Moskaluke and The Hunter Brothers both loved the song so much that they teamed up for an epic cover that is now available for streaming.

A new band worth noting is Black Mountain Whiskey Rebellion, a musical collective of long-time music friends and peers along with special guest Clayton Bellamy (The Road Hammers). Their debut single ‘Holy Smoke’ has just been released.  Stemming from a fascination surrounding the history of the North American moonshiner and a love of Southern power chord guitar, “Holy Smoke” encompasses the feel of a fictional smoky backwoods musical tale.

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