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Ryan West, the singer and mandolinist with Canadian country/bluegrass outfit The Lucky Ones, talks to Julie Cruickshank about their debut album, their formation and coping with performing in a Yukon winter.
The Lucky Ones, hailing from Canada's northern Yukon area, have released a self-titled debut album which evokes old-time country and bluegrass through beautiful musicianship and lyrics that tell a story. Pennyblackmusic caught up with The Lucky Ones' singer-mandolinist Ryan West to discuss the formation of the band, songwriting collaboration and coping with performing in "the darkest depths of a Yukon winter".
PB: 'The Lucky Ones' is a wonderful album. Could you tell us a little about how the band formed?
RYAN WEST: Thank you. We had a wonderful time making it and are glad all you folks across the pond are enjoying it.
The band evolved from a few different projects that went by the wayside. I met our banjo player, Aaron P. Burnie, when I first showed up in Dawson back in 2009. He was playing in this folky duo called Three Chords and the Truth, I guess they figured they needed a third chord and asked me to join on mandolin. We cut some demos and toured across Canada, but it was short lived. A year or so later, JD McCallen showed up in town and decided to stick around. JD’s a solid picker, has one hell of a voice, and can spin a yarn as good as any. We ran in similar circles back in the day when in Peterborough, Ontario. There was a pretty vibrant scene back then in Peterborough. You might say JD and I cut our teeth on the same streets. When he came to town it only seemed right to get something going. Him and I started a little trio with Aaron on banjo; Burnie and were the house band at the Midnight Sun Hotel, playing mainly bluegrass and traditional tunes three nights a week in the hotel’s lounge, a real old-timey type place with a little Chinese food restaurant attached to the hotel. It eventually went bust, and so did we.
In the darkest depths of a Yukon winter, one can be driven to make irrational decisions. JD and I had moved down to Whitehorse, and one cold winter night we met Ian 'Boots' Smith and decided it would be a good idea to start a string band. Soon after we met Boots, we were introduced to Kieran Poile (fiddle) who had a little old-timey outfit that was kind of fading away, so we joined forces. The rest is kind of history. Everything fell right into place as it should have, just when it needed to, just like we knew it would.
PB: Tell us who plays which instrument and which of you sings - do you mix it up a lot or just each stick to a specific instrument?
RW: When we’re performing, we tend to stick to specific instruments, but sometimes Ian and I switch it up a little between guitar and mandolin. When we’re just picking tunes together or workshopping songs we’ll shop the instruments around a little. Up until now, three of us have been doing most of the writing and singing - Ian, JD, and myself. Our fiddle player, Kieran Poile, he’s started bringing some great songs to the table and we’ve made a few changes in the line=up since the album came. These days we’re collaborating a little more between the whole band.
PB: There is an evocative mood throughout the history of the Yukon, a very remote area of Northern Canada. Are your song lyrics based on real stories, handed down? If so could you give us some examples?
RW 'Fool’s Gold' is based on the 1898 Klondike Gold Rush. We all know the story…it’s the same boom and bust as the oil fields of Alberta happening today - folks sacrificing basically all they have to make a living while the few at the top line their pockets. It’s one of Ian’s tunes. He wrote it when he first moved up here. I guess he figured as far as songwriting goes in the Yukon, might as well swing for the fence.
'The Old '98' is another tune that’s close to our hearts. The 98 Hotel is one of the few authentic old-time taverns left in Canada. It holds the second oldest liquor license west of Winnipeg and opens at 9 a.m. Usually there’s a little crowd waiting to come in...a real local crowd, with the same regulars coming in day-in day-out. It's got a few rooms out back and technically still serves as a hotel. Most of the band has worked or lived there at some point. That song is about all the kind folks we’ve had the privilege to know over the years… it’s a family kind of thing.
'Waiting on a Paycheque' is based on a true story that happened to a friend of a friend of mine, named me. I was painting houses at the time in Dawson City, just broke and down on my luck. I wrote it walking home from work one afternoon, stopped in the tavern and played it for a beer… That song’s got me drunk a few times!
The rest of the songs are made up, but that don’t mean they ain’t true.
PB: Is the remoteness of the Yukon a problem when it comes to getting together to write, rehearse and perform? Also there is a lot of snow to contend with! How do you manage that?
RW: Yeah, for sure. Technically we’re based out of Whitehorse, but we’re actually pretty spread out across the territory these days. I live way up in Old Crow, a little fly-in community about 800 km north of Whitehorse. JD and Ian both work at a remote copper mine, doing shifts of two weeks in, two weeks out. It can definitely be a challenge for us to get together as much as we’d like to. As they say though, make hay while the sun shines. We keep pretty busy in the summertime with touring and festivals, but come winter we lay low and do a little wood-shedding, play one or two winter festivals, and keep our Thursday nights at the 98 going as best we can. Luckily, we’ve got a long list of musical friends and collaborators in Whitehorse that we’re happy to have sit-in when some of the band can’t make a show. Like I said, it’s a family thing.
PB: How popular is country and bluegrass in Canada?
RW: Good question. “Country Music” is a bit of a contentious term these days. That said, I think traditional music, like country, bluegrass, folk, and blues music will always have an audience. I guess you’d call it roots music. A lot of people refer to us as a bluegrass band, but I don’t think we necessarily identify as that. Sure, we’re influenced by bluegrass, but what we play is more akin to hillbilly music. As we find ourselves increasingly disconnected from our past and living in a digital age, I think folks are drawn to music that hearkens back to old time get togethers like barn dances and kitchen parties. We do our best to recreate that feeling for people.
PB: Which performers are admired by the band, old and new?
RW: Ah, we love it all…Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Martin, Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark, John Prine, Gillian Welch, Fred Eaglesmith, Willie P Bennett, The Band, Del McCoury, Richard Thompson, Warren Zevon, Kathleen Edwards, Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Sturgill Simpson, Stan Rogers, Wu-Tang Clan... you name it.
That Billy Strings is lightning too.
PB: Have you toured outside of Canada, and would you one day like to play in the UK?
RW: Well, the band was just starting to get its wheels when we were hit with a global pandemic, so as a band, we haven’t done any touring outside of Canada. There’s also an issue with a couple members’ past criminal histories, so touring outside the country isn’t really an option for them. The rest of the band is definitely planning to cross the pond in the not too distant future!
Ahh, that ain’t true, I’m pretty sure we’re all allowed to leave the country...we’ve been mixing up some ideas of getting over to the UK for some shows.
PB: What are your future plans for recording and touring?
RW: We just finished recording our follow up album, which we’ll release in January, 2022. We’ve got some little video teasers to look out for that will feature some of the new tracks and some home videos of the band. We’ll also be premiering a couple new music videos with the album and tour it through Western Canada over the summer 2022; then see where it goes after that. We’d love to get over to the UK and some other parts of Europe, hopefully we’ll see that happen before too long. We’ve also got the bones laid out for a third full-length album...seems we’ll be around for a while yet.
PB: Thank you.
Photos by Mark Kelly
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