It’s a credit to the Canadian outfit that calls itself The Slocan Ramblers — Darryl Poulsen (guitar, vocals), Adrain Gross (mandolin, mandola, vocals) and Frank Evans (banjo, vocals), and guest Charles Hames (bass, vocals) — that they don’t allow their obvious allegiance and affinity for bluegrass to upend their ability to express their sentiments according to their individual whims. Their latest Toronto Arts Council album, aptly titled Up the Hill and Through the Fog, stays true to basic precepts, but also allows room for the emotions that have informed their collective mindset over the course of the past two years.
While their triumphs have continued seemingly unabated — as exemplified by their nomination for a Juno Award and honors that came courtesy of the IMBA when they were named Momentum Band of the Year — Gross and Poulsen’s loss of close family members, the decision by their former bassist to step back in order to spend more time at home with his own loved ones, and, of course, the pandemic itself, which shut down their ability to tour, brought that progress to a sudden stop.
Yet while the new album takes its impetus from the circumstances surrounding this tragic turn of events, it’s hardly a sad or somber series of songs, at least compared to what might have transpired. Indeed, Billy Fernie, You Said Goodbye, and the riveting instrumentals Platform Four, Harefoot’s Retreat, and Snow Owl, are upbeat and exuberant, with no trace of calamity or misfortune whatsoever. Even the slower songs — the tellingly titled I Don’t Know, Streetcar Lullaby, andWon’t You Come Home — manage to retain an uplifting attitude that belies any sense of remorse or regret. The sentiments are expressed with utmost sincerity, while maintaining the instrumental dexterity that’s always been a mark of this fine band.
Of course, bluegrass music has always provided an emotional outlet borne from both honesty and humility. Credit The Slocan Ramblers with taking that stance several steps further. In the end, Up the Hill and Through the Fog makes for a journey that’s well worth sharing.