Who are these Spinney Brothers anyway?

Just where did Mountain Fever recording artists, leading traditional Canadian bluegrassers and late-night bear hunters The Spinney Brothers come from anyway?

2011 brought these genial Nova Scotians to the attention of traditional bluegrass fans in the USA. Banjoist Rick Spinney makes no bones about it that IBMA has been a tremendous springboard once the band went full-time. But mostly it’s their great traditional picking and duet singing that has brought this recognition.

How did these fellows get a US record deal? How did they get a Track by Track with Kyle Cantrell on Sirius/XM satellite radio? Why will they be seen in the US from Bean Blossom to Darrington WA, High Mountain Hay Fever in Westcliffe CO, Podunk Festival in Norwich CT, and County Bluegrass Festival in Fort Fairfield, ME this summer? Then from the Chilliwack B.C. festival to the Music Barn in Sackville New Brunswick during September?  And entertaining international fans on Danny Stewart’s 2nd Annual Bluegrass Cruise out of Port Canaveral FL next January? How did they book 75 US and 35 Canadian dates this year??

19 years of honest listening, learning and love for the traditional bluegrass sound, and hard work, that’s how.

Brothers Rick and Allan are in their mid-40s, with the same birthday just one year apart. They’re from Wolfville, Nova Scotia. This is home of the oldest bluegrass festival in Canada – 42 years worth!  In the 1980s, they were trapped in their dad’s pick-up truck during a summer of logging work in British Columbia, with only Stanley Brothers and Flatt & Scruggs tapes for entertainment! When they got back to Nova Scotia they discovered more of this moving music on radio CHFX-FM in Halifax hosted by Gordon Stobee. For five years the brothers taped this radio show to learn songs. Rick says, “you don’t realize it at the time, but that music really changes your life.”

Mom bought his first banjo in 1988 and Rick got instruction from a local country steel player, Roy Thomson. Brother Allan already was a guitar picker, but he went “deep catalog” into old country and bluegrass music.

The brothers started performing in 1992. They met mandolinist Gary Dalrymple of Debert, Nova Scotia, at a local Sunday jam. US readers would marvel at weekly bluegrass jams in Nova Scotia. Rick avows that there is a strong bluegrass culture in the Maritimes. There’s a festival every summer weekend in New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia or Newfoundland.

By 1995 as a four piece group, they won the Pizza Hut Bluegrass Showdown for Eastern Canada in their second attempt, and got to perform in Owensboro KY. Allan’s rendition of Roy Acuff’s Freight Train Blues put them over the top. They became one of the earliest touring traditional bluegrass bands in Canada and made their first forays to the US in 95 and 96.

A little over two years ago they decided to “go for it” and brought in bass fiddle man Darrell Hebb of Mt. Uniacke, Nova Scotia. Their long time bassist Terry Mumford just couldn’t bear to quit his good job. The Spinneys heap praise on mandolinist Gary Dalrymple for his work booking US gigs. Rick says Gary’s “relentless” booking effort was a big part of their decision to go full-time.

With their first CD out for Mountain Fever, Memories, their decision looks good!  They’ve won multiple Canadian bluegrass awards. The boys were very moved by their induction into the Nova Scotia Country Music Hall of Fame in 2009, which they consider their greatest honor. The classic country demographic shares a lot with the bluegrass audience in the Maritimes. Rick and Allan know that local support has carried them through rough times.  Accordingly, CD release parties are held at home.

The Spinney Brothers have learned what every band going pro finds out. You can’t do just covers and make a living. Sure, the crowd still loves to hear the Spinneys kick off a set with How Mountain Gals Can Love. Indeed, Rick says the traditional audience won’t tolerate “too much” unfamiliar material. But as a touring band, fresh material is a must. Their second recording was heavy on Rick and Allan’s original material, probably too heavy says Rick.  They cut back to one or two originals on each of their next 8 recordings. Through IBMA they’ve met songwriters offering great material. They were delighted to include Carl Jackson’s Making a Killing and Dave Cooper’s The Old Roman Soldier on the Mountain Fever release. Rick says Making a Killing has the old Jimmy Martin attitude, and it goes over great in their live show.

At IBMA they met Kyle Cantrell who put their music in rotation on Sirius/XM. They also got their recording deal with Mountain Fever through IBMA participation. They are proud that the Spinney Brothers help emphasize the “I” for “International” in IBMA.

The Spinney Brothers spent their formative years wanting to sound like Lester and Carter and Ralph, no – correction, wanting to BECOME Lester and Carter and Ralph. They feel it in their  bones. Their music sounds right. They “look right” too – clean cut, shoes shined, shirt tails tucked in, smiling and showing their teeth, and wielding a D-28, Granada, Gilchrist F5 and dog house bass.

The band is deeply appreciative of the open arms response they’ve gotten in the States. They intend to keep these fans by contributing to the “integrity” of traditional bluegrass, as Rick puts it. They want their fans to be reassured that’s where the Spinney Brothers are happy to be.

The band is just completing a spring US tour including Indiana, Silver Dollar City in Missouri, Nashville and then back to Indiana. Barring any further late night meetings with wayward bears, they’ll have a great summer.

Note:  Your correspondent first met Rick, Allan and Gary in the 1990s at the big Nova Scotia festival.  It was stunning and satisfying to encounter these stone-cold Stanley Brothers fanatics way out in eastern Canada!  They have grown and broadened their sound impressively, but they can still kick the old Clinch Mountain sound!

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About the Author

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden is a VERY traditional bluegrass picker and fan from New England, who makes occasional contributions to Bluegrass Today representing the old timers' viewpoints.