The past couple of years have been filled with highs and lows for the Slocan Ramblers. In 2020 they were named “Momentum Band of the Year” by the International Bluegrass Music Association, a huge honour for a Canadian bluegrass band. Soon after, they announced their bass player Alastair Whitehead was leaving the group, which also includes Adrian Gross on mandolin, Frank Evans on banjo and Darryl Poulsen on guitar.
“I remember somebody tweeted at us, ‘So much for the momentum!'” said Darryl. “I had a pretty good chuckle because I see his point.”
It’s safe to say the Slocan Ramblers have re-gained their momentum with the release of their new album, Up The Hill And Through The Fog. The album title is indicative of the changes the group faced in recent years.
“My brother passed away very unexpectedly in July of 2020,” said Darryl. “Adrian’s father passed away earlier in the year, my wife and I had a baby in November of 2020, Frank moved down to Nashville and Alastair left the band.”
The aftermath of those events show up in various songs on the new album.
“There was a lot to draw from.” he said.
Adapting to the pandemic meant Darryl, Adrian and Frank used Zoom to conference band meetings. In fact, they’re still using it.
“We usually have to re-start it a couple of times because we’d go through our 45 minutes pretty quick,” he said.
They created “Zoom-style” music videos and recorded complete sets for festival online presentations. Plus it’s handy for teaching music lessons, which all three still do.
“It was pretty cool to see how creative everybody got with keeping the content rolling,” Darryl said.
Before the pandemic hit, the Slocan Ramblers were spending a lot of time touring through the U.S., and fortunately that has continued now that cross-border restrictions have lifted. But changes in the band members’ lives mean they’re approaching touring differently.
“Now that I have a one-and-a-half-year-old and Adrian’s a soon-to-be father, it’s going to be a little more difficult to be gone for extended periods,” Darryl explained. “Plus I moved out of Toronto. I’m living down near Niagara Falls now.”
The Slocan Ramblers U.S. tours have presented them with the occasional interesting conversations with audience members, Darryl said.
“They’ll talk to us after the show and then ask, ‘Where are you guys from?’ We’ll say ‘Toronto,’ and they’re like, ‘You’re Canadian?’ They’re almost a bit surprised,” he said. “I hear [the difference] in our singing voices for sure. We don’t have the southern drawl. I just don’t have that. Frank can kind of do it. I think we sound different.”
The Slocan Ramblers share the same bluegrass influences as their American counterparts such as Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs. It’s just mixed in with other influences. Darryl played electric guitar in rock bands, met Adrian and Alastair Whitehead in the jazz program at Humber College in Toronto and played a lot of Top 40 music at weddings.
With Alastair leaving the band, the remaining guys had to find a new bass player when it came time to record, Up The Hill And Through The Fog. The search didn’t go too far at all it turns out.
“Charles James joined us,” said Darryl. “Adrian and I knew him really well from Humber. He played on my final recital, and I played with him a ton before. I always, in the back of my mind, thought Charles could be a good fit in the band because he’s very easy-going, a super talented musician and a really good singer. He can sing up high too so it seemed a natural fit.”
Perhaps one other reason the Slocan Ramblers sound differently from other bluegrass bands, aside from their accents, is the fact that they don’t have a fiddle player.
“We’re arranging for mandolin, banjo, guitar and bass,” said Darryl. ” We’ve figured out what works and what doesn’t. Usually two people playing the melody works. Three people is too much. You don’t want to start every song off with a mandolin kick or a banjo kick. So sometimes a bass starting a song will help a lot. This album is not all bluegrass. There’s a bunch of different grooves and tempos. I think we had a bit more freedom in that sense.”
The summer will see the Slocan Ramblers back in the States, appearing at numerous bluegrass and folk festivals, giving them ample opportunities for more audience interactions.
“People really notice our accents when we talk to them after the show. They always like to point out how ‘Canadian’ we sound. I don’t hear it. I hear their accents!”
For more on Up The Hill And Through The Fog, go to slocanramblers.com.