Canadian bluegrass band The Slocan Ramblers prove the point that place of origin has nothing to do with a reverence for the roots. Winners of the 2020 IBMA Momentum Band of the Year Award, this year’s recipients of the Canadian Folk Music Awards’ Ensemble of the Year, a 2019 Juno Award Nominee, the band have attracted a faithful following on both sides of the northern border.
Formed in 2011, the band currently consists of mandolinist Adrian Gross, banjo player and vocalist Frank Evans, guitarist and vocalist Darryl Poulsen, and bassist and vocalist Alastair Whitehead. Longtime festival favorites, their next major milestone will be achieved this Saturday, November 11, when the band makes their debut performance at the Grand Ole Opry, sharing a bill that will include, among others, such notables as Bill Anderson and The Oak Ridge Boys.
Following their Opry debut, the band will stay in Nashville to record two new singles for a 2024 release. They come on the heels of the band’s latest album, Up the Hill and Through the Fog, a cathartic look at the troubles and tribulations that have affected the word over the course of COVID. The first single will be a cover of Gordon Lightfoot’s Sundown, in honor of the late Canadian musical legend. The second, Forever Has Come to an End, was written by Nashville songwriters Buddy and Julie Miller, and stays well in keeping with the band’s rip-roaring bluegrass sound. Both tracks will feature 14-time Grammy Award-winning dobro legend Jerry Douglas.
Recently, Bluegrass Today had the opportunity to speak with banjo player and vocalist Frank Evans about the upcoming honor of appearing at the Opry, and the other accomplishments the group has attained to date.
For starters, how did you learn about the invitation to perform at the Opry?
Our agent had told us that he had been in touch with the Opry, but not to get excited until there was a concrete date. I think we all acted as if it wasn’t going to happen, so as to not be too let down if it fell through. We were ecstatic when we were sent a Saturday night slot.
So beyond that, what was your initial reaction?
It’s hard to put into words the feeling. It’s something you work towards your whole career. After spending so much time traveling and being away from our families, this makes it feel all worth it.
Doyou have any trepidation – given that this is an auspicious occasion?
I’m sure we’ll be nervous right before we go on stage, but those thoughts can sometimes lead to your most vibrant performances. We’re also very excited to see all the other acts on that same night.
Your band has received a number of kudos. Does that set a high bar at this point? Do you feel like you have a reputation you have to live up to?
As a Canadian band, it means so much to have received some of the recognition we’ve received amongst so many incredibly talented American bluegrass bands. We never take these opportunities for granted. All we can do is try to be as musical as possible at every performance and hopefully inspire more folks to discover the genre.
What sort of feelings do you have about being a Canadian band who is finding such success in a genre that’s normally associated with the American heartland?
We’ve found the bluegrass community to be some of the friendliest and most welcoming people we’ve ever met. We’ve never been made to feel like outsiders. People often ask us, “How did you get into bluegrass growing up in Toronto.” There’s quite an appetite for bluegrass, and has been for a long time, all over Canada. It’s very closely related to some of the Canadian fiddle traditions and some of the biggest folk festivals in North America that have been going on for decades all across the country.
Who were and are your musical influences?
We all have our heroes on our respective instruments such as Tony, Earl, Ralph, and the list goes on. One of our biggest influences was a Canadian band called The Foggy Hogtown Boys. They were an amazing bluegrass band that played every Wednesday night in Toronto. So too, I think to really understand bluegrass, you have to see it live. I remember parking my chair every week and just being completely blown away by the fast picking, tight harmonies, choreography around one mic, and the whole sound of a live stringband. If I were to pick one band that had the most influence on us, it might have to be them.
Was it difficult to find your footing and to be taken seriously?
I think starting any career in the arts has its difficulties. For the most part, people have been incredibly kind to us over our whole career.
What inspired you to play bluegrass to begin with?
I first heard the banjo at a concert in Toronto called the Banjo Special when I was ten years old. I immediately knew that was the instrument I wanted to play. My first teacher was a clawhammer player called Chris Coole who was a fabulous teacher. He inspired me to go to Clifftop Festival in West Virginia early on. My parents took me down after one year of banjo lessons and I got to jam with a bunch of heroes. I was completely hooked after that.
How would you describe the band’s trajectory so far?
We’re just happy to have been able to support ourselves and our families playing bluegrass. We feel very fortunate to be able to do the thing we love the most for our career.
How does one stay true to such a hallowed tradition while still making an individual imprint? Is it ever hard to stay true to tradition and still maintain contemporary credence? How do you do it?
I think one of the interesting aspects of the band is everyone’s love for old-time music. There have obviously been players over the years who have played both styles, but we really try to incorporate the mindset into almost all of our arrangements. That might mean discarding solos and only playing the melody or choosing harmonies very deliberately to sound like Roscoe Holcomb. The combination of the old-time influences mixed with our own songwriting hopefully gives us a new sound that is true to its roots.
Having achieved all these milestones, what remains on the proverbial bucket list?
This band has never toured mainland Europe. We have some plans to make it over there this summer, which we’re really looking forward to.
Tickets for The Sloan Rambler’s Saturday night performance at the Grand Ole Opry are on sale now. The performance will air live on Circle TV, Facebook Live, YouTube, and WSM Radio. More information is available at the Opry website.