Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Canadian duo Mama’s Broke mixes it up

Mama’s Broke is a duo from Canada’s Maritimes that’s comprised of two devoted road warriors, Lisa Maria (vocals, fiddle, mandolin, banjo, guitar) and Amy Lou Keeler (vocals, guitar, banjo, fiddlesticks). Their sound is borne from a traditional template that encompasses bluegrass, mountain music, and Eastern European designs. Their sophomore set, Narrow Line, reflects that musical mantra, but still leaves room for the pair to fashion a decidedly individual approach of their own. 

“Our sound has been described to us as ‘folk without borders’,” Keeler explains. “Which I think fits, since both of us have a lot of influences from around the world, and definitely some traditional bluegrass influences.”

Maria elaborates further. “Aside from different styles of traditional music like old time bluegrass — Ralph Stanley is a huge influence for Amy — both of us have pretty diverse musical backgrounds, playing in punk bands to metal bands to indie bands.”

Like many such unions, Mama’s Broke came about through sheer happenstance. “We had mutual friends in Montreal, and we spent a car ride together between Montreal and Halifax one time back in 2014,” Keeler recalls. “We spent the entire drive talking about music and how we express ourselves musically. We realized pretty quickly that we were very in sync with what kind of music we wanted to make and perform. It was pretty revolutionary for both of us to find someone who mirrored those feelings.”

Not surprisingly, Narrow Line provides the ideal showcase for their eclectic musings, shared via a series of songs tempered by wistful reflection and earnest engagement. Whether it’s the diverse medley titled Oh Sun/Pale Night/Forgetting Reel, the synched and sensitive harmonies of Just Pick One, or the forlorn folk sounds of Between the Briar & the Rose, it’s clear that their verve is a match for their variety. So too, certain songs — How It Ends, October’s Lament and the robust instrumental, Pick the Raisins from the Paska, in particular — make those disparate origins all the more obvious.  

Prior to the outbreak of COVID, the duo toured relentlessly, having accumulated appearances in their native Canada, the US, Ireland, Indonesia, the UK, and much of Europe. “We did the count recently and I think we’re at around 15 countries that we’ve toured in,” Maria muses. “We’ve played a few festivals over the years, like Green Man Festival and Sidmouth Folk Festival in the UK, Electric Picnic in Ireland, and Home County Festival in Ontario, Canada.”

“Just this past April, we played a Nashville show with our friend Sierra Ferrell which was loads of fun,” Keeler notes. “We love singing with her so much!”

Given that array of experiences and encounters, it’s little wonder that Mama’s Broke’s music draws from so many motifs. Yet at the same time, they’ve still managed to sustain a loyal fanbase back home.

“It’s gone really well for the most part,” Maria suggests. “However, I think that because both of us spend a lot of time away from home, we don’t have as much of a following in our home towns as we do in other places, ironically.”

Prior to the new album, Mama’s Broke released one full-length effort, 2017’s Count the Wicked. Maria describes it as “a bit more hands-on and DIY than this album, although we were super involved in the production and mixing of this album as well.”

Clearly then, the current project represents the duo well, a daring set of songs that’s sometimes dark, often optimistic, and as bold as today’s world prompts them to appear. That said, their devotion to making music spawned from time-honored origins reflects their continuing commitment to sharing varied offerings. It is, they say, part of an essential attempt to find common ground between artist and audience.

“Any type of music that is rooted in traditional styles, and that is unvarnished, speaks to a lot of people from all walks of life,” Keeler maintains. 

That’s a mantra that any believer in bluegrass can likely easily embrace. 

To learn more about Mama’s Broke, visit them online.

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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.