Bluegrass Beyond Borders – Pharis and Jason Romero

Canadian duo and Juno Award winners Pharis and Jason Romero may produce their music in the Great White North, but their sound is rooted in the traditions of the American south, a mix of vintage genres that encompasses bluegrass, blues, jazz and grassicana. The couple’s songs are drawn from real life encounters, played on home made instruments, fashioned with authenticity, and sans pretence. That won’t surprise those who have heard their earlier efforts — Passing Glimpse (2011), A Wanderer I’ll Stay (2015), and Long Gone Out West Blues (2016) — and indeed, even novices will note that their album titles strongly hint at the prevalence of those archival influences.

“Jason played banjo and sang in bluegrass and old-time bands in Arcata, Canada before we met, playing dances and regular bar gigs,” Pharis recalls. “I was in a few folk/Americana bands, with a thriving roots music scene in Victoria, British Columbia. Folks here at home connect with the stories, instruments and harmonies in our music. There’s a lot of early country and folk music appreciators here.”

Nevertheless, Jason admits that their original influences differed early on. Both grew up on a diet of classic rock and vintage country. Pharis absorbed the added elements of folk and classical as well. Like most teenagers, Jason was preoccupied with Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones in high school, which, in turn, led him to Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee and classic blues. Pharis found singer-songwriters like Joni Mitchell and Bob Dylan to her liking and eventually migrated into the festival scene, where she discovered a fondness for bluegrass, Doc Watson, old time tunes, and the oldest vintage recordings she could lay her hands on. 

The two met through a mutual friend, dobro player Ivan Rosenberg. “He had been talking us up to each other for about a year prior, after Jason built a banjo for a bandmate of his,” Pharis recalls. “Then Jason showed up in Victoria, BC on his way to a fly-fishing trip, and eventually made it to an old time fiddle jam I’d attend every week. We got married about three months later. The first thing we did was play music together, and that mutual interest in old music was electric.”

“We played primarily old time tunes at first, together and as trio called The Haints with fiddler Erynn Marshall,” Jason adds. “Gradually, we started learning some of Pharis’ original songs, performed a couple songs as a duo, and then started thinking about our first record.”

The two opt to make their own banjos, which, Pharis insists, “is a wonder in itself. Jason can make a custom instrument to express a new sound or tone he has in mind. Our banjos are woody, natural and warm sounding, and that seems to go with our overall musical vibe. We both play vintage Gibson guitars, again with that woody, mid-range feel. Because we’re playing all acoustics — and because most of the time there’s just two of us — we’re always stacking the instruments in different tonal worlds with banjo tunings, playing positions on the neck, picks versus no picks, etc., to best accompany the singing and occupy the most sound.”

The Romeros won their Juno, Canada’s most prestigious music award, for Traditional Roots Album of the Year, an honor Pharis describes as “Surreal, amazing and empowering.” 

“We were out for an evening walk in the back field, and came back in the house to a very excited message from a friend who was at the awards ceremony,” Jason remembers. “We weren’t able to attend as we were expecting our second child the weekend of the awards. He came about a week later. It was quite an incredible week!”

An incredible week perhaps, but enduring effect as well. The impact of winning that award had a profound effect on their forward progress. 

As Pharis tells it, “The experience that comes from building instruments for over 15 years now, and winning a Juno, gives us a solid footing to keep building our work and life on as we try out new songs, new instruments and new approaches.”

Ultimately, it’s the couple’s passion for sharing the seminal sounds of an older era which finds them keeping those influences intact, both in their music and through their mantra.

“We both crave connection with the people around us — me maybe a little more than Jason — and bluegrass and old-time music is incredible for that,” Pharis says. “Transfer that experience to music camps, evening jams, backyard concerts, and you have a community builder that has the ability to bypass lines that might be otherwise drawn. Music is pretty magical that way no matter what, but music that feels accessible, relatable, like a common language — that’s what we’re both drawn towards. Playing music with other people is as close to as good as it gets — and that 4:00 a.m. jam, where everyone is so zoned out on the groove, is impossible to resist.”

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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.