Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Canadian combo Chopped Liver

It ought to come as no surprise that the cultural commonalities shared between the US and its northern neighbor, Canada, account for a similar sensibility as far as the musical mantra is concerned. That’s all the more obvious when listening to the three-piece Canadian bluegrass band that goes by the unlikely name, Chopped Liver. One might theorize where that connotation came from, but it’s best left to singer/guitarist Andrew Ivens to offer his insight into its unusual origins.

“We’ve all done a lot of music jobbing,” Ivens explains. “However, wallpaper music sucks, and it’s no way to make art. As a result, the name came from our experiences in some not-so-great musical situations, and us feeling like, well, we were chopped liver. Next thing you know, we’re all meeting up in a sweaty basement playing How Mountain Girls Can Love, and Chopped Liver was born. We’ve all been chopped liver before, but now we’re officially Chopped Liver!”

That said, it’s somewhat ironic that the three men were never bound to any one specific musical genre, as was the case with any number of other musicians. “We all grew up in really diverse musical communities,” singer and banjo player Victor Vrankulj insists. “It’s these varied backgrounds that give us a different perspective on harmony, tone, composition, timing, and improvisation.”

Having come to bluegrass from different directions, their music reflects a certain spontaneity. “Andrew had a piano teacher who introduced him to Doc Watson pretty early on,” Vrankulj recalls. “Later in life, he went the Grateful Dead route. Adam and I were jazz players first, and so we were always interested in the improvising side of bluegrass. All three of us have spent time in orchestras, big bands, rock bands, pit bands, and jazz combos. One thing those genres all have in common is an emphasis on good time-playing and a community sound above an individual sound…rolling on G, C, and D chords, while singing three-part harmony.”

Vrankulj says that the trio — which consists of Ivens, himself and his brother Adam who plays bass and contributes vocals — often imbue their songs with historical references. That’s evident in their latest album — and their second so far — D.B. Cooper. “It also includes a few songs about struggle and labour conflicts,” he suggests, citing songs such as Overpass, Strike, and Springhill as the more obvious examples. The trio also references famous individuals, including the infamous and elusive robber D.B. Cooper, who lends his name to the album title. In addition, the songs explore nature and the problem of climate change, as with two tracks in particular, Down To The Hollow and Black Clouds Rising. 

“One of the biggest things that drew us to bluegrass in the first place was the emphasis on telling the stories of struggling individuals,” Vrankulj notes. “That is a huge thing for us, and one that always inspires a lot of what we do.”

It’s not surprising then that the new album features some well-known covers — John Hartford’s classic Gentle on My Mind, the Mel Tillis cowrite, Matterhorn and an age-old standard, I Know You Rider, in particular. “What really appeals to us aside from the element of storytelling, is the structure of the composition,” Vrankulj continues, while also expressing satisfaction with what transpired. “We feel like it fits in with the modern bluegrass aesthetic that we really love. Because we come from jazz backgrounds, a song like Gentle On My Mind becomes a great platform for improvisation, as well as a rich source for harmonic expansion.”

To date, Chopped Liver have mostly focused on performing in and around their native Ontario, and various venues within the province. They had a cross-Canadian tour readied for last summer, but those plans were short-circuited by the pandemic. Nevertheless, the audiences they have played for have always been enthusiastic.

“It feels like a lot of folks don’t really know what bluegrass is until they hear it,” Adam suggests. “Yet, there’s so much momentum in that space right now that the tide is definitely turning. To give people a push in the right direction, we also play a few pop/rock covers at our live shows.”

“I think there are certainly some parallels between bluegrass and some maritime fiddle stuff, but that really isn’t our world here in southern Ontario,” Victor muses. “On occasion, Americans will listen to our album and say that it sounds very ‘Canadian’ in both the way we sing and in the energy we bring to the music. We’re not exactly sure what that means, but we get that comment a lot and when we do, it makes us laugh.”

Then again, he finds that bluegrass has a universal appeal that also helps break down the boundaries.

“What’s not to love?” he asks more or less  rhetorically. “Once people are given the chance to experience the drive, energy, and beauty of bluegrass, I think it’s an easy sell. I think a lot of people hear the word ‘bluegrass,’ and start thinking that it’s akin to typical country music. However once they really know, they know. It’s definitely an exciting time to be making this music, and we’re certainly thrilled to bring our way of doing things to a few more ears.”

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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.