Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Brian Good stakes out a new career

There’s arguably no other Canadian band that’s been better equipped to meld bluegrass tradition with the essence of contemporary roots music as the Good Brothers. That’s no idle statement; ever since their initial incarnation over 50 years ago, they’ve developed a reputation as their country’s foremost ambassadors of a heartland sound that’s both contemporary and credible for fans of grassicana, Americana and all forms in-between. The Ontario-based band garnered an impressive international reputation, as well as kudos at home, courtesy of the Juno Award for Best Country Group or Duo they garnered eight a row.

Brother Brian Good recently stepped out from beyond the band’s boundaries with a solo album, Good As Gold, described as a travelogue of sorts that was recorded at studios both in Canada and the U.S. We recently caught up with him and asked him to share his thoughts on the new album, his career, and the international appeal of bluegrass in particular.

First off, tell us a little about your influences  as you were growing up. What drew you to bluegrass in particular?

Growing up, the brothers’ initiation to music was everything our folks listened to… I knew that those 78’s had something special…the likes of The Clancy Brothers, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe. Our mother was very much a part of our musical development, and she was a huge influence, not only in life, but through her love of music. Between the three brothers, the competitiveness amongst us definitely accelerated our musical development, and in a way compounded our shared love for her.

Was there a viable bluegrass scene where you were growing up? How is bluegrass received in Canada overall?

In the ’60s, there was no bluegrass scene in Canada to my knowledge. The York County Boys were about the only game in town until these three Good brothers from Richmond Hill were old enough to get out and start their performing career. From the early ‘70s onward, as far as Canada goes, The Good Brothers were atop the bluegrass scene garnering those eight Juno awards and earning the privilege to perform in front of hundreds of thousands of people around the globe. Our first release, Fox on the Run, put us and bluegrass music in Canada on another level, and to this day, The Good Brothers have enjoyed both critical acclaim and audience approval, as proven by our 40 plus years of touring the planet.

How do you integrate those bluegrass elements, and what is it that you add to make it your own, both in the past with your brothers and now on your own?

I’d say that bluegrass is the seed that got country music going. The absence of electrical instruments should also get some credit. We did our own rendition of bluegrass. Our instrumentation in the Good Brothers was a unique blend that included the use of autoharp and electric bass, blended with traditional instrumentation such as fiddle, banjo, and acoustic guitar. On my solo album Good as Gold you’ll hear my bluegrass roots, my experiences, my failures and my triumphs, both in the melodies and chords, while telling a unique story in each track. My producer Stacy Heydon, former David Bowie lead guitarist, has worked with The Good Brothers for decades and has helped me sort out the facets both artistically and logistically to make this come to be. With no specific boundaries or intent, what you hear and feel came from the heart, and style-wise, these tracks were born, not constructed. I came from bluegrass, and it will forever run through my veins regardless of where or what I am involved with. 

What made you decide to strike out on your own? Is this a permanent switch or do you anticipate further work with the Good Brothers?

I’ve been a Good brother my entire life, and Larry, Bruce, and I always will be that band. The Good Brothers are a serious musical entity and we plan on continuing to do so. You don’t build up a respected brand for over four decades and just walk away. Bruce and I are identical twins, and alongside our younger brother Larry, we’ve toured our entire lives proudly upholding our family name throughout. 

With that said, we are musicians and vocalists both individually and collectively, and we get to make our mom and dad proud with every bar of music that we perform.

I only know performing, and whether it’s with the Good Brothers, jamming with our old pal Gordon Lightfoot, or sharing a stage as I’d had the pleasure of doing on a tour with this past fall with world renowned speed painter extraordinaire Paul Murray, I get to be me throughout, and it’s as exciting to me doing now as it was the very first time.  

Artists make art in all artistic genres, and my solo work is rewarding in a different way from my life-long pleasures of being a member of The Good Brothers. 

Opportunity knocked and I just answered the door. Who wouldn’t take advantage of someone who believes in you as a performer, writer, and as a solo artist. I’m stoked that anyone still gives a rat’s ass about a guy that has been around the bush as many times as I have, and for that I am grateful.

What would you say most distinguishes your solo work from your efforts with the Good Brothers?

It’s night and day. Firstly, my vocal approach is so distinctive on my solo work from my work with the Good Brothers that my wife Susie at first listen, didn’t recognize that it was me. And that made me proud to rediscover myself in doing it, because I really was walking the plank of not knowing if this experiment was worth it’s weight in salt, let alone getting picked up on radio stations around the world as the solo artist Brian Good.

With all due respect, I didn’t want to replicate any Good Brothers elements in the solo recordings as that would be redundant and disrespectful to the brand. 

We didn’t go with the high pitched vocal approach that I’d applied to bluegrass so much, and that was unfamiliar territory for me.

I’m as proud as proud can be to share a stage with my brothers and to also be able to stand alone doing the only thing I know. Different isn’t always better, but diversity can lead to new roads.

On my solo offering, the Good as Gold album, the instrumentation is both traditional and not so traditional, due to the storytelling that I’ve never tangoed with in the past. The stories in the solo record lead this dance and the music follows. We weren’t trying to be anybody or anything style-wise with the solo work, and that freedom to create, without diversion, expectation and/or boundaries was a terrific experience. Stacy and I only agreed that we’d approach each track as if it were a movie, with peaks, valleys, ups and downs, with a little musical tweaking to match the story lines. I’m proud as hell of it and even more eager to continue, not only being a Good Brother, but sometimes, maybe even now and then, being a great one.

So how do you find a balance between your desire to retain reverence for the roots and that traditional template, while still keeping the music contemporary and enticing for a modern audience?

The answer is right in your question. The balance found us, without premeditation, to craft tracks and let the flavor of the tracks define themselves. My musical toolbox is already what it is, but when you have the likes of musicians like Tim Crouch, Randy Kohrs, and Smith Curry accompanying you with their magic, good things can happen. These tracks came from the subconscious and spontaneous, not a template.

As far as the contemporary elements, it was more of a song choice than a prefixed style change. The only time I’ve ever opened my guitar case for money is when I play live. I most definitely would love to have millions come in as a result of my recordings but I can assure you, not one bar has ever been compromised in order to get money. My children’s children will hear this, and when you make music for reasons like that, it is what it is… 

Finally, what do you think it is that accounts for bluegrass’ international popularity and enduring viability as a musical genre?

The stripped down elegance of bluegrass to me is its greatest attribute, as opposed to the overly commercialised finger snapping R&B corporate takeover in country music that is now upon us. Bluegrass music spawned offshoots and gave birth to country music. The various mutations of it I’m not so sure will endure, but the bluegrass roots from which they are derived always will… Its possibilities seem endless, from its organic, simplistic approach to the story telling, and its flat out shredding on whatever instrument is featured, whether it be a washboard or acoustic guitar or anything in between.

Honestly, be it bluegrass, metal, rap, R&B, or country — no matter what your poison — if it comes from the heart, I think that its longevity can endure the test of time. Like a classic movie, poem, Broadway play etc., all are timeless, people-relatable entities stamped into everyone’s life experiences. Bluegrass, country, blues, and Gospel all come from the same source. They encompass so much of life, from the pain, hardships, and suffering, to the joys, love of life and everything in-between that all of us experience. 

Those elements are the ones I try to hold true to in my compositions and delivery, and I believe that has guided the best of the best through the history of art making, be it poetry, painting, architecture, and, last but not least, the greatest art of all… music.

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.