Old-time duo creates beautiful instruments, timeless songs, and sublime harmonies.
A HIGH-LONESOME SOUND EMANATES from a far-flung comer of the Pacific Northwest, where Pharis and Jason Romero make music and build banjos at the edge of the wilderness. Despite their remote home base in Horsefly, British Columbia, the Romeros are smack dab in the middle of the old-time music renaissance, and their music is both timeless and fresh. Anchored by Pharis's rock-solid rhythm guitar and propelled by Jason's inventive picking on a variety of banjos and guitars, their plaintive voices and soulful blend capture the ear and the imagination. Originals have the gravitas of traditional pieces, while old chestnuts gain new perspectives.
Despite their mature collaboration, the couple has been together just over six years. Excitement about the musicians filtered through the old-time community when they began performing in the band the Haints with fiddler Erynn Marshall. That trio's debut recording, Shout Monah, featured old-time classics delivered with panache. The Romeros followed up in 2010 with an instrumental collection called Back Up and Fhtsh, on which they were the backup band to 19 West Coast old-time fiddlers. But what cemented their reputation as songwriters, as well as preeminent purveyors of old-time traditions, was 201 l's A Passing Glimpse, which garnered a Canadian Folk Music Award for Best New/Emerging Artist and an Independent Music Award for Americana Album of the Year. Their newest effort, Long Gone Out West Blues, was featured in the Utne Music Sampler and Folk Alley's Hear It First, and is destined to land on Top-Ten lists for 2013.
On top of their ambitious performing and recording regimen they have handcrafted scores of stunning instruments-mostly banjos in a variety of styles and appointments-as well as resophonic guitars and ukuleles. Waiting time for instruments from the J. Romero Banjo Co. (romerobanjos.com) is several years, and demand is growing. I caught up via telephone recently to talk about the new album and the opportunities and challenges of their remarkable success.
Horsefly seems an unlikely hub for old-time music. How did you get into traditional music?
JASON The banjo itself pulled me into the music. 1 was living down in Areata [California] and got into bluegrass first and the older stuff later, which opened up all the different banjo styles. For me, the sound of the banjo was always hand-in-hand with the music. I got interested in the instruments themselves and eventually started building them. Since I met Pharis, I've been listening to the old singers a lot more.
PHARIS Through my parents I heard a lot of commercial country-Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, and the Bakersfield guys. Later I got into bluegrass, mostly the commercially available stuff. Then I had an epiphany at a bluegrass camp when 1 heard an old-time fiddle tune played around and around and around. I freaked out. This is hypnotic! This is amazing! This is not solo oriented! When I discovered an old-time jam at home it opened up a whole new set of gates for me. It became an absolute obsession. I only listened to 78s, and the scratchier, the weirder, the harder to decipher, the better. Listening to all this crazy old stuff, I became fascinated with how new versions of old songs come out all the time and how distinctive each version is. Today, we tend to get obsessed with the right or wrong way to do things. But I don't believe people were feeling that way back then. I understand that desire to preserve things, but I'm really glad that there were innovators. Listen to Riley Puckett. He didn't learn how to play guitar like that from anybody. He made that up. We have to keep doing that.
How did you make the leap into writing your own material?
PHARIS My mom's records included a lot of Bonnie Raitt, Joni Mitchell, and the early women of folk. They were a huge influence. But I didn't start writing until university. I have a funny degree in the sciences that let me take credit courses in songwriting, which was a neat experience. Later, when I started hearing folks like the Carter Family and realized that their originals were interpretations of older songs, it was inspiring to realize you can write songs that still have an old feeling and they don't need to have a million chords. I'm really interested in words and strange stories, but I don't necessarily feel like I need to make a statement. I just like the way words sound when they go together a lot of the time. Once I had the epiphany about old-time music, the writing just skyrocketed.
What is your collaborative process when you are building a new song?
JASON Pharis writes most of the words and tunes, but they change. I tend to just hear sounds. I don't care if the words are just amazing or if they flow perfectly, but if I don't like the sound of the song, it doesn't work for me. "Long Gone Out West Blues" changed a lot from when she first brought it to me. I thought, "That's a little cheesy there," and I stopped what I was doing, grabbed a guitar, and went through every possible way to do the song. The words stayed the same, but the feel was completely different. So that's what my role is. Is it better on the guitar or the banjo? What's the right tuning? How will it work live?
Tou have something magic happening with your vocal blend. Was that a spark from the beginning?
JASON I never was much of a singer before I met Pharis. 1 sang tenor in a bluegrass band, but never thought of myself as a singer. Then I married myself a vocal coach. I've improved my singing and we've kind of melded together a little bit, but I think we got lucky with matching timbres-it's almost the sibling thing.
PHARIS Before we got married, we had a common musical identity. I could send Jason a Hoyt Ming and His Pep Steppers tune and freak
out about it, and I knew he was going to freak out, too. But the singing wasn't big when we first got together, so that has been a bonus. Jason tends to go for completely unusual note choices, and I really appreciate that. I love it when he pulls out something that I would have never thought of trying.
Does your instrument-making impact how you make music together?
PHARIS The sounds of Jason's banjos inform the types of tunes that we gravitate towards- a bit woodier and darker rather than twangy or bluegrassy. I came up with a song recently, and Jason had a new sound in mind for it and said, "I don't have a banjo that sounds like that. I'm going to go make one for this song." I'm serious!
JASON The instruments are just so intertwined with the music. I'm always thinking about tone, and our instruments definitely inspire us. I fell in love with that sound of resonator guitars, and I wanted to make one, but I wanted it warmer-sounding. My musical ideas inspired this line of guitars and now I have orders for 15 of them-just from toting my two prototypes around last summer.
Both duo recordings sound very natural and live. What's your approach in the studio?
PHARIS Depends on the song, but it's typically a home-studio setting. Some things work live, but sometimes parts are layered. It really depends on the song and the mies that we have available. Our one caveat is that the two of us have to be able to perform everything as it is recorded. We never double up instruments and I don't add harmonies on top of myself. And we are interested in putting in the time and money to mix and master it so that it sounds great.
JASON I love that we're a real duet. So many folks bring in a bunch of heavy hitters to fatten up the recording. I love that we're just sticking to two instruments and two voices.
Is there a conflict between being an indemand instrument building business and an in-demand performance act?
JASON Yes! We have over 80 banjos on order right now, plus the guitars, and we're getting more orders in than we're able to produce. It's directly related to how much time we're on the road-that's how much behind we are. But I love being a musician with a day job. We have this perfect blend of the beauty of our home and getting to make banjos for a living. We can't even believe the life we have sometimes. We just feel so, so lucky. AC
PAUL K0TAP1SH lives with his family in Alameda, California, works in tall buildings by day, and plays mandolin with Wake the Dead by night
"I only listened to 78s, and the scratchier, the weirder, the harder to decipher, the better."
WHAT THEY PLAY
ACOUSTIC GUITARS: Pharis plays a 1937 Martin 00-18. Jason plays a 1941 Martin 00-18 on their recordings but recently acquired a vintage Gibson 1-00. He builds and plays his own wood-bodied resonator guitars.
BANJOS: A variety of fretted and fretless instruments from the J. Romero Banjo Co.
PICKS: Pharis uses Blue Chip flatpicks and Jason uses the J.D. Crowe Blue Chip thumbpick together with brass fingerpicks on his guitars. He uses bare fingers on the banjo-fingerstyle or clawhammer.
CAPOS: G7th for Pharis and Kyser for Jason.
STRINGS: John Pearse phosphor-bronze medium or medium-lights for the guitars and resophonics, custom sets for the banjos by D'Addario.
AMPLIFICATION: The Romeros prefer performing with mies, but Pharis's Martin is fitted with a Pick-up the World pickup, which she runs through a Red-Eye preamp.
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