A Canadian bluegrass band taps Appalachian traditions

COURTESY PHOTO | Alastair Whitehead (bass), Darryl Poulsen (guitar), Frank Evans (banjo) and Adrian Gross (Mandolin) are the Slocan Ramblers.

COURTESY PHOTO | Alastair Whitehead (bass), Darryl Poulsen (guitar), Frank Evans (banjo) and Adrian Gross (Mandolin) are the Slocan Ramblers.

Folk music, like home cooking and regional accents, is one of those cultural traditions that has a way of taking on the flavor of where its makers settled.

In North America, our traditional music is a derivative of the Scottish and Irish fiddle folk tunes that immigrants brought with them hundreds of years ago. But as these populations settled on this side of the Atlantic, how that music grew and morphed as songs were handed down to successive generations depended largely upon where the players settled. 

For that reason, though the language of North American traditional music shares the same cultural identity, what we hear as audience members depends on whether we’re listening to music from the Canadian maritime provinces or the hills of Tennessee.

Alastair Whitehead, bass player for the Slocan Ramblers, understands both traditions. On Saturday, this Canadian bluegrass band based in Toronto will perform two shows at Sylvester Manor, bringing a unique take on the genre with original tunes as well as roots music inspired largely by good old Appalachian hill music.

“The folk music’s different even in Canada whether it’s from the east, west, or central,” he said. “The music we play is more Appalachian — from West Virginia, North Carolina and Tennessee. Up here, people think of folk music as Ottawa Valley fiddle music, which is a very different genre and tradition, as are the dances that go with it.

“If you really went way back, it’s all the same stuff, but it took a different journey on the way,” he said.

As a native of Newfoundland, Mr. Whitehead’s love for and knowledge of traditional music, especially that which references the maritime tradition, runs deep and he notes that making it is a popular pastime on the remote island.

“It’s a lonely island. There is not a whole lot to do other than playing music,” Mr. Whitehead said. “It’s not necessarily professional. There are a lot of kitchen parties where people get together and there’s a rich tradition of music that is passed on to younger generations.”

Though Mr. Whitehead described his grandfather as a semi-professional classical pianist, he said his father was more of an “at home guitar-picker” with a keen interest in folk music. Mr. Whitehead’s sister and brother played music as well.

“Growing up, I played a lot of music with my dad. He’d get out the old songbooks and jam with me and my brother,” he said. “But I think my dad was not too keen on performing.”

Mr. Whitehead, on the other hand, found his calling in music. He started out as a youngster in a Suzuki violin program and even played the trumpet for a while. Then, in junior high school he discovered the electric bass, which led to the stand-up bass, his instrument of choice these days. Despite the lively music scene to be found on Newfoundland, at some point, Mr. Whitehead notes that aspiring musicians need to leave if they plan to make a career of it.

“That’s the unfortunate thing,” he said. “A lot of people in Newfoundland struggle with it. The scene is so vibrant and the support is so good, there are wonderful people creating word class music, but it’s a very small community and hard to make a living with music full time.

“It’s an island, so even if you want to tour, it’s a feat within itself to get off it,” he said. “A lot of people end up moving to the mainland.”

COURTESY PHOTO | Cover of the Slocan Ramblers’ 2015 CD 'Coffee Creek.'

COURTESY PHOTO | Cover of the Slocan Ramblers’ 2015 CD ‘Coffee Creek.’

Mr. Whitehead’s own relocation to the mainland was to Humber College, one of the best music schools in Toronto. Though the college is heavily focused on jazz, that’s where he met mandolin player Adrian Gross and guitarist Darryl Poulsen, with whom he would eventually form Slocan Ramblers, along with banjo player and lead singer Frank Evans.

All four of the Slocan Ramblers hail from different parts of Canada, and Mr. Whitehead feels the musical backgrounds they bring to the band allow for a varied and unique repertoire.

“I think that’s one of the interesting things about this band. We have a lot of different eclectic influences,” he said. “Since we didn’t grow up in areas that had traditional bluegrass music scenes, a lot of what we listened to filtered through our own musical experiences.

“Our band is very traditional in a way, but very different in a way and not out of left field,” Mr. Whitehead said. “We all had subtle musical influences from growing up in different parts of Canada, and through studying jazz at college. When we started, not having a huge background in bluegrass, but the technique and ability to improvise, led us all into old time music and bluegrass.”

Because the jazz work was so intensive at Humber College, bluegrass became what they did together for fun. The Slocan Ramblers started out as a garage band, literally, with a monthly gig at a dive bar in Toronto. Before long, the group had developed a following and were performing bluegrass every Tuesday night.

“This band was a side thing for fun,” Mr. Whitehead said. “Then people asked for an album, so we did an album. But they’re expensive to make, so we had to start playing on the road.”

They haven’t stopped since, and Shelter Island will be just one in a number of U.S. venues the Slocan Ramblers will play in the weeks and months ahead. Mr. Whitehead notes that the band’s 2015 album “Coffee Creek” is an even split between original music and traditional bluegrass tunes and he adds that he and his band members are enjoying the composition and songwriting aspect of the genre.

“It’s a cool element of making music we haven’t explored before,” he said. “Now we’re headlong into it and really enjoying the process — creating originals that are still your own thing, but traditional sounding.”

The Slocan Ramblers are scheduled to go back into the studio at the end of August and Mr. Whitehead expects the majority of the songs they’ll be recording will be original new music. But fans of straight up bluegrass, never fear … this is one band that isn’t about to give up on the traditions that got them here.

“We still like sourcing out really old tunes people haven’t heard,” he said.

The Slocan Ramblers perform in the music room at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm on Saturday, April 22. Shows are at 6 p.m. and 8 p.m. Tickets are $25, available at sylvestermanor.org or by calling (631) 749-0626.

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