Canyon Mountain- Northbound review

untitledReviewing regional bluegrass bands can be a tricky business.

Folks who play bluegrass out of a pure love for the music should be encouraged, have to be encouraged, to continue to develop their skills as musicians and vocalists. A dropped note here, a missed verse there—let’s not be overly critical. We’re all in it for the enjoyment of playing a-music too few ‘get.’

What happens when the ‘regional’ band begins the semi-professional journey, releasing albums, booking festivals, and increasing their profile? Should they still be given a pass for making errors pros shouldn’t make? Do we hold them to the same standard as the ‘big-name’ bands playing bluegrass for a living? Are they allowed to record covers of overly familiar songs, or should we expect them to run down their own songs? What if their harmonies don’t have the precision of the folks from southern counties, or the instrumentation is a bit rudimentary in its execution?

What happens when that regional band hails from the Yukon Territory, far from the bluegrass hotbed? Does that buy them some latitude? (Get it? Some latitude. As in, north of 60°. Hilarious.)

Through the years, I’ve likely argued both sides of the argument. On one hand, if you want to run with the big dogs, get ready to be bit. On the other, have a blast, nurture your skills and repertoire, and keep doing what you’re doing to promote the music in your locale.

Be too critical of a regional or local band and their recording project, and you make enemies of folks who should be (used to be!) your friends and acquaintances. Go too easy on them, or go overboard in your praise, and you lose what little credibility you have developed over the years.

Even when they say, “We just want your opinion, don’t hold back,” really, they don’t mean it. And besides, “What the hell do you know,” some will yell back—”You don’t play, you…you…listener, you.”

So…the album Northbound by Canyon Mountain. And I can stop worrying about bluegrass philosophy and critical ethics, and just enjoy the sounds.

This is a wonderful little bluegrass album out of northern Canada. Not to be confused with the latest from The Steeldrivers or the Del McCoury Band (whose songs the band covers on this twelve-track release) or any of their southern brethren, Northbound captures a group of regional bluegrass veterans presenting their own interpretation of the music. They aren’t trying to sound like anyone they aren’t, and that is a compliment; I don’t need folks to pretend they are something they’ll never be, and I sure don’t need a mountain drawl. Just play the music.

Canyon Mountain does.

Four of the band members have played bluegrass for years. The band names—Klondike Fuel and Disturbin’ the Peace—aren’t likely to resonate with folks too far outside their home turf, but I’m told that those bands have kept the bluegrass flame burning for many years.

Jeff Faulkner (guitar and vocals), Mike Stockwell (banjo), Stephen Maltby (mandolin), and John Faulkner (bass) are the guys who have established a common reputation for excellence. Amelia Rose (fiddle) was the final addition, and sparked the creation of the new band.

At a generous 50-minutes, no one can accuse the group of taking the easy way out. Similarly, their song selection is a bit adventurous—only one ‘obvious’ jam standard in the bunch. Additionally, John Faulkner (a retired judge, it says here) contributes three self-penned numbers to the mix.

Stylistically, Canyon Mountain bridges the fine chasm between traditional, Stanley, Reno, and Osborne bluegrass with more contemporary influences from the 80s and after. The result is a pleasing blend of everything that is good about bluegrass—nicely showcased breaks and solos, rock solid rhythm, fair to middlin’ harmony arrangements, and distinctive lead vocal parts.

Good songs—both vintage and modern—from the bluegrass canon (The Infamous Stringdusters’ “No More to Leave You Behind,” Lonesome River Band’s “Down the Line,” and a pair from the first couple from The Steeldrivers including a credible take on “Good Corn Liquor”) set the stage, but some older songs including Michael Martin Murphey’s familiar “Carolina in the Pines” spread the colours about the palate. “Mill Towns,” written by David Francey and brought to ‘grass by the Del McCoury Band ups the CanCon while introducing a song some may have missed the first time around.

The band does a real strong version of Town Mountain’s signature song, “Leave the Bottle.” By covering a song that is far from a mainstream, familiar piece, and making it their own, Canyon Mountain show that they have chops to share. Going in a different direction, the group takes “Little Maggie” for a stroll; unnecessary, perhaps, but the band performs the song with some energy and takes no little opportunity to display instrumental awareness throughout.

As impressive as Canyon Mountain is on songs most of us have heard before, they really step up their game with three original pieces. “November Snow” is a good ole murder song, complete with a “cold moon rising” and “a chill in my bones.” Great stuff. “Billy” take a different turn; rather than killing, he just drinks—“it’s not that hard to tell, if Billy’s bound for Glory, or Billy’s gone to hell.” The words come in a rush, but I don’t have to sing it.

A heartfelt song for Peter Milner, a band friend and influential area picker, is coupled with the always welcome “Rueben’s Train,” and brings the album to a close:

“In my mind we’re sitting on the back porch,

Pickin’ that familiar old refrain;

Memories flood in,

the way things were back then,

And I hear Peter play the banjo once again.”

I would suggest their friend would be pleased by how Canyon Mountain has chosen to honour him.

With distinct album art, clean and pleasing production values, and a true bluegrass sound, Northbound is a heck of a debut album from a group most haven’t heard about. I am darned pleased they chose to send me their album for review, and I am proud that this album—along with the latest from The Slocan Ramblers—comes from my country. With bands such as these, we are representing bluegrass the true north way.

By the way, I’ve played Northbound about twice as many times as I have the latest from some of the charting, “national” bluegrass bands. It isn’t “better” than their albums, but it feels and sounds a whole lot more true. In bluegrass, and for me, that still means something.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald

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