Sylvester Manor’s 2019 concert season kick starts with an evening of world-class bluegrass music featuring the Slocan Ramblers at the Shelter Island School auditorium on Saturday, January 19, at 7:30 p.m.; doors open at 7.
The Reporter caught up with Frank Evans, the Ramblers’ lead singer and banjo player, to talk bluegrass, banjos and the (declining) difference between Canadian and American bluegrass.
What’s the meaning behind the band’s name?
The Slocan Rambler is an abandoned mining town in interior British Colombia where our bass player Alastair Whitehead spent most of his summers growing up. It’s a beautiful part of the world with an amazing history.
Our first gig as a band came shortly after a couple of casual jam sessions, so naming the unit was not something any of us had put much thought into. We were opening for a friend’s band and just before we went on stage they asked what our name was. We all looked at each other puzzled and Alastair shouted out, “the Slocan Ramblers.”
Does bluegrass in Canada vary between location? How?
There is a very wide verity of bluegrass styles across Canada that is due to local influential players. I always notice that, if there is a famous band or player from a certain region, the local jam session will be heavily influenced by their material. John Reischman is one of the best mandolin players in the world who lives on the west coast of Canada. I have yet to be at a jam session on the west coast where someone hasn’t called a John Reischman tune.
How does Canadian bluegrass differ from American bluegrass?
We get asked that question all the time and I always have a hard time answering it. It seems to me that there is less and less of a difference every year. With the ability to film and record everything, it’s made it very easy to learn a particular player’s style quite closely.
I can search my favorite banjo player on YouTube and there will be five videos that will show up of what they’ve been practicing that week. Whether or not that is a good thing is a whole other discussion, but I do believe it has blurred some the lines between American bluegrass band and non-American bands.
The band told the Reporter last time you played here that the music you play is more Appalachian than other folk music. What does that mean?
There is a large influence of Appalachian Old Time music in our band. Old Time is an older form of bluegrass that has less solos and arranged harmonies and has more communal melody playing. We often will play the melody all together rather than each person in the band taking a solo. Sometimes bluegrass can turn into an unnecessary showcase of chops which I find quite exhausting to listen to.
Where/how did the band meet?
Adrian (mandolin), Alastair (bass), and Darryl (guitar) were all studying jazz at Humber College in Toronto. They had all recently discovered acoustic music at a similar time and found each other through their shared love of bluegrass, as people do who are into bluegrass in a jazz program. I was working with Alastair at a bike shop at the time and told him I payed the banjo. He invited me to play some tunes with his friends from school which I took him up on. We only had two or three jam sessions when we were offered a spot opening for a friend’s band and the rest is history.
You play the banjo. Did the banjo get you into bluegrass, or did bluegrass lead to the banjo?
It’s a bit of a chicken or the egg when it comes to me finding bluegrass. I found the banjo first but only started to take it seriously when I met the bluegrass community. I started playing the banjo when I was 10 years old. My parents took me to a show called the banjo special, which was showcased a whole bunch of different banjo styles. I was so enthusiastic about the bluegrass style that my parents started me on lessens with Chris Coole, one of the performers in the show.
Very shortly after starting my lessons, Chris told me about a festival in West Virginia called Clifftop that happens in August. That year my whole family went down to the festival to see what it was all about. It was there that I really decided I wanted to take playing banjo very seriously. There was something about the community and culture that really inspired me and caused me to return to that festival for the next 12 years. I still play regularly with people I met that very first year.
What are some of your bluegrass inspirations?
I have always wanted to play at the International Bluegrass Music Association award ceremony.
What are some of your non-bluegrass inspirations?
I have always wanted to tour Japan. We have met a couple of bands over the years that have all told us it is an amazing place to tour.
What do you hope people take away from seeing you perform?
We often hear at our shows that people who had initially thought they didn’t like bluegrass are now big fans. I think bluegrass sometimes gets lumped in with country or folk music although it’s very different. It is a very energetic, exciting form of music. If you ever get the chance to see it live, I would highly recommend it even if you’re of the opinion that you’re not a fan.
How has time affected the way you write songs, or the way that you shape your songwriting?
When I started playing bluegrass I had a very competitive attitude around performing and practicing which can be helpful to motivate you to get better. After playing for so many years and doing all the touring, I have become more comfortable about the banjo player I am today. This allows for a much more creative mindset which is definitely a good thing when it comes to songwriting.