Bluegrass Beyond Borders: Winnipeg’s Stanley County Cut-ups

Despite any indication offered otherwise by their handle, The Stanley County Cut-ups take their music quite seriously. Based in the longitudinal centre of Canada, specifically, the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba — or as the group’s Tim Osmond describes it, “14 hours drive directly north of Kansas City, Missouri” — the group maintains a traditional bluegrass mantra. “We love the golden age bluegrass sound, but every once in a while we’ll add something a little more contemporary, like Miranda Lambert’s White Liar, or some Neil Young,” Osmond explains. “On our upcoming release, Jess Reimer’s original song, Petals and Permanence, has a rhumba feel, sort of like Mac Wiseman with the Osborne Brothers’ Poison Love.”

“We love playing at a faster tempo, and I would say we are a pretty upbeat band. Espresso is on the rider. We also like to change up who takes lead on a song, so whoever is leading has their own influences, which only adds to the variety in our performances.”

Their name suggests a certain amount of tongue in cheek, but there’s also a hint of reverence reserved as well. “It comes from a few different inspirations,” Osmond explained. “Firstly, we are all big Stanley Brothers and Ralph Stanley fans. Jessica grew up in the Rural Municipality of Stanley, which is just south of Winnipeg. Here in Manitoba, we don’t have counties, but we do have rural municipalities. It’s just that ‘The Rural Municipality of Stanley Cut-Ups’ doesn’t have the same ring to it somehow. The ‘Cut-Ups’ part recalls a golden age of bluegrass feel, but also gives us license to not take ourselves so seriously all the time. If we are having fun up there, it’s a better show for the audience!”

The band — consisting of Osmond on banjo and dobro, Reimer on bass, TJ Blair on guitar, Jeremy Hamm on mandolin, and Jeremy Penner on fiddle — trace their beginnings to 2003 when Osmond and Hamm happened to notice one another picking on their respective porches. “He came over and introduced himself as the new neighbor who just moved in,” Osmond recalls. “Jeremy’s grandfather, Johnny Goertzen, was the mandolin player in one of Canada’s first brother-duet style bands of the 1950s, The Lincoln County Peach Pickers. They released a single in 1954 called Niagra Moon. Soon after, Jeremy fell in love with Jessica Reimer, who played original and traditional music in a duo with her dad. They invited me to pick banjo in their group and we released a couple albums as The Doug and Jess Band — So Long Alone in 2004 and Slave to this World in 2006. After touring cross-country a few times, the band took a backseat as Jess and Jeremy moved to the country and he ramped up his luthier business, Hamm-Tone Guitars, while the ever prolific Jess had some success as a singer-songwriter and released two solo albums, 2010’s Sweet Darling and Sorrow and The Nightjar and the Garden in 2014.”

That led to a musical relationship that continued to flourish despite the change in trajectories. “We remained in touch and still picked a lot of music together over the years, including in a gospel quartet we put together for a Mennonite bluegrass festival here in southern Manitoba,” Osmond continued. “The group was Last Stop Heaven, and featured Jess, Jeremy, myself, and TJ Blair, a singer and guitarist from a local bluegrass band called The Magnificent Sevens.”

From that point on, The Stanley County Cut-ups continued to evolve. “I knew Jeremy Penner —there are  two Jeremy’s in the band, so we’ll call him Pennsky — from a project I had with a local country artist Simon Davis, The Osmond Davis Band. We released a self-titled EP in 2017. Pennsky has been playing the fiddle since he was four years old and can pretty much play anything. Before becoming a paramedic in Winnipeg, he was touring full time with The Wailin’ Jennys, and before that with The Bills when he lived in BC, and with Notre Dame de Grass when he lived in Montreal. So, when The Osmond Davis Band fizzled out, Pennsky and I wanted to continue playing together in a bluegrass format. Jess, Jeremy, and TJ were my first call, and luckily, they were available and into the idea of starting a project. So here we are! It feels so natural and fun to play with folks you’ve been playing with for 20 years. We all get along great.”

Osmond added that bluegrass is a natural source of inspiration as far as his particular ensemble is concerned.

“Bluegrass has a real genuine feel and presentation about it,” he insists. “Its structures are simple and allow for lots of creative freedom and expression. We love Jim & Jesse, the Clinch Mountain Boys, Ricky Skaggs….  I think that’s what we are all attracted to when it comes to bringing our influences into the music we make as The Stanley County Cut-Ups. Plus, there are some great singers in this group. TJ and Jess really shine when they are leading a song. They both have influences in ’70s and ’80s country, but definitely have their own distinctive and powerful voices ,which go great with bluegrass music.”

Osmond says The Stanley County Cut-Ups have been performing since 2018, and mostly stick to their home province of Manitoba. “We’ve done lots of work with The Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old-Time Festival based out of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, and we’ve played a few festivals in Ontario, but that’s about it for touring. Some of us have full time jobs, so it’s difficult to leave for extended periods of time, so we just keep it regional. We’re playing the Winnipeg Folk Festival for the second time this summer, so we’re excited for that. Last time we were there we were asked to perform The Mary Ellen Carter as a closing finale, so that was fun to turn that epic Stan Rogers Canadiana into a bluegrass version. It looks like we get to do that again this year, along with a gospel workshop with The War and Treaty and Jerron Paxton! Hallelujah!”

Osmond added that the band did a bluegrass/old-time meshing workshop with Allison De Groot and Tatiana Hargreaves a few years back.

“There’s not a lot of bluegrass music in Manitoba, but when people hear it, they really like it,” he suggests. “Some even get up and dance! I think our music quenches a thirst for folk music that is missing in the Manitoba mainstream.”

The band released a self-titled EP in 2021. The aforementioned Petals and Permanents single marks their latest release. It was described by one local newspaper as a song that, “sings the praises of love and line dancing, belt buckles and big hairdos, spilling over the honky-tonk mold.” It comes in the form of a vinyl postcard which doubles as a record that’s playable on any turntable. When it’s flipped over, there’s space to write a note, place a stamp and send it off in the mail.

“Jess has some great songs she’s written that we do, and we just recorded an original fiddle tune, Sunny Breaks, that was penned by our own Pennsky,” Osmond continues. “I would say we are about 70/30 covers to originals in our set, but we are striving to get that number higher as we introduce more of our own originals. There’s just so much talent in this group. TJ has a few originals up his sleeve that are just waiting to be recorded.”

He went on to list some songs that they currently cover as well. “Love Please Come Home by  Reno and Smiley (I lead this one and love the opportunity to do the triplet banjo roll break), Old Slewfoot (A Jim & Jesse number that we do in a more old-time feel), Border Ride (Jeremy Hamm nails the mandolin), I Found a Hiding Place (We were on a Johnson Mountain Boys kick for a while and Jess pulls this one off beautifully), Those Memories (Jess was part of a Trio album rehash with Vanessa Kuzina and this was one of those songs that poured over from that project), Stone Walls and Steel Bars (TJ does a great job leading this Stanley Brothers song), Aereoplane (Jeremy Hamm is a huge Hartford fan and leads this one), Old Home Place (Pennsky leads this tune. He revels in the fact that for decades he was a hired gun, not allowed really to sing along with The Wailin’ Jennys, LOL, so this is his chance to lead a number in the show. He does it in B like a good masher.), and Why Don’t You Tell Me So? (I lead this rarely-done Flatt and Scruggs number. It’s got a good groove if you can get just the right tempo.)”

“Our upcoming release will feature a version of Del McCoury’s All Aboard,” Osmond mentioned. “We have a lot of fun playing that one.”

Osmond also offers his own thoughts about why he believes bluegrass maintains its persistent popularity. 

“My late business partner and mentor Mitch Podolak said, ‘Folk music has no borders,’ and he was right. Bluegrass music is accessible and traditionally welcoming to people of all skill levels. The canon of songs that go along with the genre present simple forms that anyone can easily learn and participate in in a group setting. For the listener, bluegrass music presents layers of different musical tones, both instrumentally and vocally, and just like Hot Club Jazz, Western Swing, or Dixieland, it provides a multi-level listening experience that resonates beyond all borders.”

For more about The Stanley County Cut-ups, 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.