It’s a special album that can be great listening material for both your Sunday morning coffee and your late night glass of wine. Singer-songwriter Barney Bentall thinks the album RanchWriters he’s put together with Geoffrey Kelly hits the nail on the head. He even has agreement from his wife, Kath.
“It’s a record where she’ll [say], ‘Oh, put on that record!,’” he said, laughing. “I don’t know that she normally does that for my records! Just from start to finish you go on a complete journey with it.”
Writing tunes with the former Spirit of The West band member was a natural part of a 40-year friendship rooted in music and acting.
“It’s a combination of acting school with John (Mann, lead singer with SOTW) and my wife, Kath, and Geoffrey’s wife. And then there’s music through all those years,” he explained. “So they would often come up to [the ranch in the interior B.C.] to visit. Geoffrey and I would sit in the corner and just start playing these songs. It was extremely hypnotic. Geoffrey was working in an open tuning he learned from [Scottish] singer-songwriter Jackie Leven. There’s something great about open tunings. It sort of frees your brain and rather than thinking you’re going down the same chord progression, you start putting your fingers on the fingerboard and interesting voicings come out.”
There was no agenda or big plan for these tunes, Barney said. But then he got a call from John Raham, the engineer/producer from his last album.
“He was going up to record Jason and Pharis Romero for a Smithsonian record on banjo,” he said. “We’re sort of in the same area of B.C. This was during COVID, and John and his partner were happy to get out of Vancouver. I said, ‘You could do an add-on, and we’ll record this record in three days.’ So we did. We set up in one of the old ranch houses. It’s an old log building, and we made a record.”
Additional sweetening was supplied by musical friends across the country through the magic of technology.
“We’re so happy with the way it turned out,” Barney said. “Listening to that record, I can completely, in the best sense, sort of ‘zone-out,’ just let the music wash over me.”
The blending of guitars in standard and open tunings creates a unique sound, which for Barney, brings to mind a special element of the vocal sound of The Mamas and the Papas in the ’60s.
“I always loved the line that when things really clicked when they were singing, all of a sudden ‘the other voice’ would come in,” he said. “It feels a bit akin to that, where what happens between the two guitars, it’s almost as if another player’s in there. Neither of us are what you would call virtuoso guitar players. If you just listen to my parts in standard tuning, you’d go, ‘What is that?’ But I’m just doing whatever feels good on top of Geoffrey. It was just feel-based.”
For an artist who’s built his career as a songwriter, putting together an album of instrumentals wasn’t quite the challenge some people might assume it to be.
“I’d have to say, it’s easier than one with lyrics in some ways,” Barney explained. “[The tunes] ended up being a bit like bluegrass songs, in that we’d be so happy if a tune was longer than three minutes! You just have to have an A part and a B part, sometimes a C part. It became very easy [to say], ‘Oh, this could be cool right here, let’s add this here and go to the next part here.’ I can tell you as a songwriter, writing lyrics you feel communicate what you want without saying too much, with the right sound of the words and cadence and all that stuff, is a big part of it. To be free of that for this project was so good for the head.”
Many of the tunes get their titles from the Cariboo/Chilcotin region where Barney has his ranch. It’s beauty is shown off in the video for the tune, “Bonaparte Plateau.”
“I feel very fortunate,” he said. “That’s my commute back and forth from where I live on Bowen Island and where I live in the interior. It’s spectacular. It’s a calming, sort of meditating, thing to look at. It’s very poignant because we did that in the spring, and everything looks so fresh after the winter. Of course, now in that area there’s so many fires, so it’s a very bittersweet thing. But it’s beautiful to see, I encourage everybody to look at it. It will help your mental state, put it that way, by watching and listenin.”
While Barney’s ranch is safe at the moment, he knows many neighbours are dealing with very different circumstances.
“Where I am, there’s fires on all four sides,” he explained. “We’re OK right now, but there’s a lot of people I know that are not. If you have blue skies, sometimes you can see a cumulus cloud plume of smoke like something’s erupting. These things go up 25-30,000 feet and it’s like looking at a nuclear blast. It just frays your nerves because you don’t know what’s going to become of it. Or there’s times when you just can’t see anything because of smoke. I’d say everybody’s nerves are frayed. It’s a tough thing to cope with.”
The release of RanchWriters with Geoffrey Kelly adds to Barney’s roster of projects, which includes his first successful band, The Legendary Hearts, along with Bentall Taylor Ulrich featuring Tom Taylor and Shari Ulrich and the High Bar Gang.
“And throw grandchildren in there and hobby farming,” he said laughing. “I like to work and keep myself busy. Believe me, I love nothing better than playing with [The Legendary Hearts]. They’re like family to me. Some of the members of that are in the High Bar Gang. There’s a real musical community we have over here. But I found I really like the variety. The High Bar Gang has been nominated for two Juno Awards, and who would have thought that! I’m not a bluegrass player from my youth, so I’m just trying to honour that tradition as much as I can. I’m in my 60s, and I feel that there’s sort of a limitless amount of discovery to be had in terms of music. I think what keeps me interested is the variety.
“This RanchWriters is a new chapter in that. Did I ever think I’d make an instrumental record? I’d probably say to myself, ‘I don’t think so!’ In order to do that, you’ve got to be like Bruce Cockburn. I think if I hadn’t been working in all these various milieus, I would never [have] had the guts or naive sense of wonder to say, ‘Yeah, let’s make an instrumental record!’ I’m glad we did.”