(For Penguin Eggs magazine)
Chris Coole often comments during shows that the Lonesome Ace Stringband—a trio that includes John Showman (fiddle) and Max Heineman (bass)—formed out of a brunch gig. There’s some tongue-in-cheek in that, though there’s some truth in there as well. The three did actually start playing formally together for a brunch gig at the Dakota Tavern in Toronto, something that continues, many weeks, to this day.
That said, that’s only part of a much larger origin story. They’re all part of a Toronto music scene that’s been thriving for decades, starting in the early ’90s. Coole says that “it was almost like a club, though not an exclusive one. We had that Silver Dollar gig”—a perpetual bluegrass night at the club also famous for being in the movie Adventures in Babysitting—“that went for almost 20 years. It had a rotating cast and everyone knew if you played that gig you’d see your buddies there. So there was a real social aspect, and it grew out from there.”
The extent of that growth is hinted at in the liner notes to the latest Lonesome Ace album, When The Sun Comes Up. There are the usual Toronto suspects—Andrew Collins, Arnie Naiman, Chris Quinn—along with people from farther afield, such as banjo player Craig Korth. The relationships have taken years, and thousands of road miles, to accrue.
“Craig and Julie run the Nimble Fingers camp that many of us teach at out in B.C.,” says Coole. “Through that camp we got hooked into the sort of Alberta/B.C. scene, and then teaching in Saskatchewan at the Northern Lights camps…it all spreads and it all becomes a part of a larger community. It’s extremely important. And that’s a real community, it’s not an online community. And I think that is so important now.”
It is important, though he admits that it can be hard to adequately express why. One reason might be that a rising tide floats all ships, something that was borne out at Merlefest this past April. The festival, long associated with Doc Watson until his death in 2012, sits at the heart of Appalachian musical culture, both literally and figuratively. The Canadian community was strikingly well-represented there—acts included Andrew Collins, Hannah Naiman, Arnie Naiman, and Sarah Jane Scouten, among others. The way the schedule laid out, attendees could easily have spent most of the Friday seeing and hearing nothing but Canadians.
Travelling to that festival is to travel into the heart of old-time music, which Coole admits can be a bit daunting. Many in Toronto, including a majority who happily and regularly attend those bluegrass brunches, weren’t raised on this music, and don’t have the kind of musical vocabulary that those in rural North Carolina might, and do.
“That last tour we did was really exciting,” Coole says of that latest trip south, “because we were playing for audiences that were packed with people who play this type of music. And I was nervous to see how they would like our music. And I was really pleased that a couple of them came up after, and really liked what we were doing. That was very gratifying, and I’d be lying to you if I said it hadn’t been on my mind.”
The members of Lonesome Ace know the old-time canon up, down, and sideways. One of the things that has remained throughout is a desire not to solo or play licks in a true bluegrass sense, but rather—and this is something that has long been at the very heart of old-time playing—to bring the ensemble forward.
Much of the freshness in their sound comes from the quality of musicians themselves, all of whom are A-listers. Were this a product of the pop world, we’d talk about Lonesome Ace as a power group. All three are really as good as it gets, and not just for Toronto but for anywhere, something which in itself draws audiences. Because all three are impressive vocalists, there is also a variety to the material that other trios wouldn’t be able to create.
“We’re happy to try different things, and it’s all going to come out in our own style,” says Coole, something that is also endemic to the instrumentation. Namely, there’s no guitar, something that many may not notice right away, but is nevertheless remarkable.
To compensate, Coole has adapted his banjo style to fill in the spaces that would normally be the purview of the guitarist, while also leaving a lot of air in the mix. “I just found such freedom playing without the guitar…we could play some fairly dense music, yet it didn’t become a muck. And that developed our style.”
The band works with an express intention to avoid sounding clever, just letting the writing come naturally, and serving the narrative, while also bringing the format, and their unique voice, front and centre.
The structure of some songs, such as “O’Grady Road,” depart almost subliminally from the three-chord format, adding a kind of freshness that, while not announcing itself, is nevertheless there. While there are lots of old-time sounds on this album, only two of the 14 tracks are traditional. Some sound older than they are, as with the brilliant “Pretty Boy Floyd”; a majority, including that one, were written for this project.
The audiences at Merlefest were attracted not just for what Lonesome Ace was doing—the faithfulness and facility with the old-time repertoire—but also all those things that they were adding to it. “Fresh” and “old-time” are not concepts that, perhaps, we’d readily associate, though that’s what Lonesome Ace is really bringing to the table, over brunch and beyond.