by Roman Mitz for Open Spaces
Country/roots group The Washboard Union may have to build an extension for their mantle. You see the Vancouver trio collected two awards at the Canadian Country Music Awards (CCMA’s) in September, for Roots Artist Of the Year and Rising Star, and they’re nominated for nine more honours at the British Columbia Country Music Association Awards (BCCMA’s). That’s pretty good for three guys armed only with guitar, banjo and signature washboard. Singer/guitarist Aaron Grain is looking forward to the west coast awards show, although the band won’t be partaking in as many associated festivities as they would have liked.
“Yeah, we’re preparing for our big concert tour opening for Dwight Yoakam, so we won’t be able to take advantage of the party per se,” says Aaron on the line from Vancouver, about 30 minutes from the Hard Rock Coquiltlam, site of the awards show. “The CCMA awards caught us completely by surprise. We thought we might have a chance for the Roots award, and when our name was called out we were just over the moon about it. When we got the Rising Star award it blew us all away. It’s one of those things to be recognized among your peers, fellow musicians and the music industry, as being the best. It feels like the work that we’re putting into it is being acknowledged.”
The pairing with Dwight is a natural as it brings together a genuine honky tonk singer with a group that is always showing its roots, particularly on their successful EP “In My Bones”. The EP has sprouted four singles to date including the latest “Head Over Heels”, a jaunty little number in which a special girl puts the ‘boom-boom’ back into the singer’s heart.
“I can’t believe we’ve had a year of singles from our EP,” Aaron admits. “I think people were looking for something different and our timing was great. We’re cut from a different cloth because of the style of our music, and we hit popular radio at a time when country music’s fabric changed. There was a bit of a throwback to how country music used to sound before it became Bro-country. If we tried to do this now we might be looked at as being somewhat behind the boat. Had the switch not happened at the right time I don’t think we would have had the success that we did.”
While they are not a pure bluegrass outfit, The Washboard Union incorporates some key elements from that genre into their sound. As Aaron recalls, the band had somewhat of a bluegrass epiphany in their formative days.
“I always recall the story when we first started doing this,” Aaron begins. “Like all good stories it started with a bottle of whisky and some good ideas. At the time we were doing between 40 and 50 trucker songs covering Red Sovine, C.W. McCall and Roger Miller, that kind of thing. I looked at Chris (Duncombe) and said that he should go to a store and buy a banjo and a beginner’s banjo book. David (Roberts) took the washboard that was off the wall and created this washboard sound that definitely leant itself to bluegrass. We’re not recreating the wheel or anything like that in terms of bluegrass. We have drums in order to keep it contemporary.
Radio hits like “Maybe It’s The Moonshine” and “Shot Of Glory” are great examples of the group’s signature sound. If you go back in their catalogue to their self-titled debut album, you’ll find the song that may have been the catalyst for the group’s future direction, particularly in terms of their harmonies. The number in question is a remarkable cover of the 40’s nugget, “Midnight Train”.
“Midnight Train is a 1947 tune from country music pioneers the Delmore Brothers,” Aaron explains. “I received permission to use the song from their only living relative, a great granddaughter, and she said there would be no fee. I sent the album to her when it was finished and it arrived on Christmas Eve. The whole family listened to our version of their song, and she wrote back and said it was the greatest gift. That song, in particular, has three-part harmony and it was sung to the type of harmony that we wanted to do with this band. All of our songs continued in that vein.”
The band’s success was enabled by its song writing prowess as their original tunes are the product of a well fermented process. Aaron and Chris have been writing since their early teens and growing up together they found that music was the tie that binds. If the songs they wrote for the EP have a somewhat ethereal quality to them, it could be due in part to the Nashville locale where they were recorded.
‘In My Bones became the name of the EP for reasons that we initially didn’t realize were happening,” Aaron says. “We went to Nashville and at the time we were staying right across the street from a cemetery. On top of that we recorded at RCA Studio A where people like Porter Waggoner, Eddy Arnold and Elvis had recorded, so it was like we were surrounded by these ghosts of country music, and spirits from the past coming through the walls of the studio. After all was said and done we were quite touched and affected by this, and we felt the music literally in our bones.”
The EP was produced by Nashville studio veteran Trey Bruce who has a long history with Diamond Rio and Faith Hill, and he brought a real sensitivity to The Washboard Union’s songs and sound. The band has already written about a dozen new songs for the next record which should see the light of day in the first part of 2017. With all of this activity, Aaron, who has had acting roles in several movies and television series including the films “Faces In The Crowd” and “The Wishing Bridge”, will have to put that part of his career on hold.
“I’m unable to be as involved with it now as I have in the past because there’s just no time in between writing and being on the road, and the music is taking over. I just have to take a break while we’re writing, recording the next album and going on tour next year, to see where this goes.”
Breaking news as we go to press (or post): The Washboard Union claimed three BCCMA Awards including Group Of The Year, and Roots Artist Of The Year so the mantle reconstruction looks to be a go.
Other Stuff: Burlington’s Nicole Rayy just released her terrific debut album “Dig” that contains her singles “Bow And Arrow” and “Don’t” as well as the title track which serves as her latest chart entry. If the reception she received at her recent appearance at the Shanghai World Music Festival is any indication, she’ll be a hot ticket on the Canadian concert circuit when she tours behind the new album. https://www.facebook.com/roman.mitz