Bluegrass Beyond Borders: The Slocan Ramblers play bluegrass Toronto style

One of the most common cultural ties that bind the US and Canada comes in the form of a mutual musical connection, one borne by a shared love of sounds spawned from the heartland, whether it’s the Appalachian Mountains or the prairies of Saskatchewan. Bluegrass contributes to that common bond, and nowhere is that better expressed than in the music of The Slocan Ramblers. Having formed in 2011, The Toronto-based band have released three albums over the course of the past nine years — Shaking Down the Acorns (2012), Coffee Creek (2015), and their latest, Queen City Jubilee (2018). In addition, they’ve toured the US, opened for Jerry Douglas at the Saskatchewan Jazz Festival, performed at the IBMA, and headlined the Cowichan Valley Bluegrass Festival in British Columbia.

Boasting the same line-up now as when they first started, the group consists of mandolin player Adrian Gross, banjo player Frank Evans, guitarist Darryl Poulsen, and bassist Alastair Whitehead. Not surprisingly, they originally convened after they discovered they shared some common influences. 

“I grew up playing old-time banjo, which isn’t a far reach from the bluegrass world, and so it was a natural progression for me,” Evans recalls. “Darryl was exposed to Tony Rice at some point before we met, and Adrian’s uncle had some early blues and folk records in his collection. There was a fairly strong bluegrass scene in Toronto as we were exploring the music, and before we became a band, the three of us would go to the weekly bluegrass night at a bar called The Silver Dollar. The bar itself was a dive, to say the least. The owners of the bar also ran an all-night rave venue next door which you could often hear through the walls. It made for a particularly memorable vibe for a bluegrass night.”

Despite the disparity between setting and style, the impact on the individual members was fairly substantial and, as Evans goes on to explain, a decided influence on their future designs. “The pick-up band that played there weekly was called Crazy Strings, and I think they were the biggest influence for us getting together,” he suggests. “It was made up of some of Canada’s finest bluegrass musicians, and they played with a very rowdy and energetic style that would often blend bluegrass and old-time. A huge part of their presence on stage was crowding around a single vocal mic, and they always had a selection of songs that showcased their true knowledge and love for the genre. We’ve been incredibly fortunate to see and play alongside some of the finest bands in bluegrass, but I would still say Crazy Strings had the biggest influence on us  overall.”

Evans credits Whitehead for originally suggesting the band gets together. “He knew Adrian and Darryl from attending music school at Humber College,” Evans explains. “Alastair and I had been working in a bike shop together for a while, but it wasn’t until one of our colleagues said, ‘Wait…aren’t you both into that weird country music stuff?’ that Alastair quickly arranged for the us all to meet. It was so much fun that we continued to play periodically, and it wasn’t very long before we got our first gig opening up for a friend’s band at a place called Mitzi’s Sister. Unlike the Silver Dollar, this place had a proper stage with working lights, speakers, and bartenders who didn’t look as if they wanted to strangle you for ordering a beer! Best of all, there was no all-night rave venue next door to compete with! We felt like we had hit the big time! Just before we went on stage, someone asked us for our band name. We had worked so hard on putting forty-five minutes of material together, yet we had completely forgot to come up with a name. Alastair quickly said, ‘The Slocan Ramblers,’ which was the name of an old abandoned mine he used to hike up to in British Columbia as a kid, and the name was born.”

Evans also says that there are marked similarities between traditional Canadian folk music and bluegrass of the American variety. He notes that Quebecois style fiddling uses cross tunings, which is also an essential element with Appalachian fiddle styles. So too, step dancing is a big part of certain Canadian fiddle contests, which, in itself is another form of clogging.

“I believe the clearest parallel between traditions is the long history of Canadian folk festivals,” Evans remarks. “Much like how American bluegrass festivals have grown and evolved over the past 50 plus years, Canadian folk festivals have long been a popular summer activity for music lovers to attend, including Toronto’s Mariposa Folk Festival which started in 1961. There’s no clearer way to see the similarity between traditions than when a festival throws a bluegrass band on stage with a Quebecois fiddle group, and they’re forced to find common ground for an hour in front of an audience.” 

Meanwhile, the Slocan Ramblers have also done their part to carry on the continuity. They’ve toured steadily for the past six years, and during that time, they’ve played a variety of venues ranging from senior assisted living homes to massive concert halls. “I think we’ve experienced the entire spectrum when it comes to audience reaction, which can be a very large spectrum,” Evans suggests. “Our strongest following is in Western Canada and the Southeastern United States, where the crowds can be very vocal and energetic. There’s always an adjustment period when touring somewhere else, especially if the crowds are a little more subdued. The first show we ever played in the UK, the audience was so quiet I was absolutely sure people were anxiously waiting for the intermission so they could politely sneak out. After the show, the CD signing table had a huge lineup of very friendly people wanting pictures and autographs. That taught me to focus solely on the show and nothing else, because trying to guess whether the audience is enjoying it is a road not worth going down.”

Surprisingly enough, Evans says that the group doesn’t play in their hometown very often, and when they do play there — which is usually one big show once a year —  they receive ample support from friends, family, and the traditional music scene that the city shares. At this point, however, most of their efforts have gone towards expanding their following in other parts of Canada, the US and the UK.

One of the great things about playing summer festivals is that you get to meet and play with some of your biggest inspirations,” Evan insists. “One particular highlight that comes to mind is sharing a bill with Peter Rowan in Colorado. He was touring as a duo, so he asked us to be his backing band for the last couple of songs. I remember him asking us if we knew Midnight Moonlight, which none of us did at the time. He said, “It’s easy. You guys will pick it up in no time.’ Maybe it’s just me, but that is definitely not a song you can just pick up on the fly in front of an audience. We somehow made it through without any major train wrecks, but it was close! We ended up having dinner together after the show and listening to some of his legendary stories from the road. In fact, it always amazes me how welcoming and friendly the bluegrass community is. We’ve been lucky enough to be around some of our absolute heroes, and not one of them has ever made us feel unwelcome.”

That said, The Slocan Ramblers are also intent on establishing their own imprint while tapping tradition as well. “We’re all big fans of old-time music, and it’s always been a big part of our band’s sound,” Evans explains. “Although our songs feature instrumental solos, we will often finish a song with everyone picking the melody. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming that we are the first band to ever blend bluegrass and old-time. Ralph Stanley was a great clawhammer player, and Buddy Thomas can play Martha Campbell just as well as any bluegrass fiddler. Every band incorporates their influences differently, and I think we have a unique take on blending the two. Bluegrass can sometimes turn into a feat of technical athleticism which, to my ears, strays away from what I like most about the genre. I’ve always wanted to play in a band that focuses on close harmonies, interesting rhythmic textures, and creative interpretations of the melody, which is what we strive to do with every record. In January 2021 we’ll be returning to the studio for our next full-length album, which you can find out more about by following us on social media (@slocanramblers) as it progresses.”

It’s only natural then to find Evans attesting to bluegrass’ international popularity. 

“A live bluegrass show is captivating, even to an audience who might not listen to folk music,” he offers. “It still amazes me when watching a great bluegrass band to see how much power, rhythm, and melody comes from a few acoustic instruments. No special effects, no lights — just wood, wire, and unaffected vocals gathered around one microphone in its purest form. Audiences seem to love the condenser microphone choreography, which is a graceful dance of stepping in and out of the microphone without knocking anyone out with a head stock.”

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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.