Bluegrass music is nothing short of catharsis for The Slocan Ramblers. On their new album Up the Hill and Through the Fog (coming June 10, 2022), the all-star Canadian roots ensemble channels the past two years of loss into a surprisingly joyous collection of twelve songs intended to uplift and help make sense of the world. Though the past few years have brought the group accolades–their 2019 album was nominated for a Juno Award and the band earned the Momentum Band of the Year Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2020–that same momentum was abruptly halted by the pandemic’s brutal impact on live music. Over the next year, bandmates Adrian Gross and Darryl Poulsen both lost close family members and their bassist decided to step back to spend more time at home. They channeled these tumultuous changes into some of their most honest and direct compositions yet. Up the Hill and Through the Fog showcases the breadth of their varied influences while staying true to their roots in the rough and tumble bluegrass scene of Toronto’s no-nonsense bars and dancehalls. From Frank Evans’ classic, dusty vocals, to John Hartford-inspired lyrical musings, it’s all buttressed by impeccable musicianship, and emotionally raw songwriting from the three core members. This is roots music without pretension, art powerful enough to cut through the fog of the past two years and chart a more hopeful course forward.
Though everyone in The Slocan Ramblers looks to bluegrass as their north star, they also agreed that this album should push the envelope of the genre as far as possible. Aside from the one blistering Tom Petty cover, “A Mind With A Heart of Its Own,” every song and instrumental composition on the album is original and the band turned to producer Chris Stringer (Timber Timbre, New Country Rehab) to move their sound from a live-in-the-studio approach to more complex arrangements. As Adrian says, “Stringer has a great ear for getting big sounds and great performances, and his bizarre sense of humor was perfectly suited to keeping it light and creative in the studio.” With fine-tuned, blistering instrumental maneuvering and soaring vocals, the ensemble makes these high energy tracks sound effortless, a testament to their craft and dedication. Perhaps their most forward-thinking song, “I Don’t Know,” channels songwriter Frank’s wide influences: Jim Croce, The Osborne Brothers, and Jerry Reed. It’s bluegrass at its core, but they’re blending in pop influences, writing an elemental hit song on all acoustic instruments. Of course, with all this creative studio work, the goal was always to have fun, take risks, and see what felt right in the moment. As Frank says about the album’s final song, “Bring Me Down Low,” “Originally it had a tightly arranged ending, but when we were getting warmed up in the studio we were so excited to play with one another that we couldn’t bring ourselves to end the jam.”
Aside from the trauma of pandemic upheaval that surrounds this album, both Adrian and Darryl suffered deaths close to them, Darryl losing his brother and Adrian losing his father. They each turned to songwriting to process their grief. It was a process organic to the music itself, as bluegrass songs have always held the most personal heartaches. You’d think a song about grief this deep would be slow and haunting, but Darryl’s song “You Said Goodbye” rolls at high velocity through a major key. It’s that cognitive dissonance between the joyous sound of the music and the heart-wrenching lyrics of personal loss that’s always been at the heart of bluegrass. It’s always been music made by people in pain, and it’s made to uplift and move beyond that hurt, not to wallow. You can hear the same sentiment in Adrian’s “The River Roaming Song,” written after his father’s passing. “Every day, I would take a folding chair down to the riverside,” he says, “sit with my feet in the water and play and write music, all along trying to accept what had happened. Looking back at these lyrics, I was wrestling with the change that’s always constant: the flowing of the river, the seasons turning, people passing.”
Though the subject matter on The Slocan Ramblers’ new album touches on hard subjects and pushes towards catharsis, the band has always been about craft first and foremost. Getting together to cut the album in Toronto in early 2021, they all realized that they’d each spent their individual quarantines woodshedding like crazy on their instruments. This attention to mastery is palpable on the album. As they spin through dizzying instrumentals and meticulously built songs, they keep the sense of joy and camaraderie that’s kept them sane through all of life’s challenges.