Alt-country for bold men

A Hank Williams and Arcade Fire lovechild, New Country Rehab are taking steps to bridge gaps and add versatility to Canada’s musical palette

Before New Country Rehab banded together the guys played alongside Canadian talent like Amy Millan, Justin Rutledge and Brandi Disterheft.
Before New Country Rehab banded together the guys played alongside Canadian talent like Amy Millan, Justin Rutledge and Brandi Disterheft.
Credit: 
Supplied

“Was it The Wailin’ Jennys that said country music is the white man’s blues?” New Country Rehab’s upright bassist and backing vocalist Ben Whitely asked rhetorically over the phone. With John Showman on lead vocals and fiddle, James Robertson on acoustic guitar and effects and Roman Tome on percussion, the group is re-hashing what it means to play country music in 2011. Though they stick to a golden age country formula of honest storytelling and a folk vibe, they’re adding an outlaw indie sound that comes with the sprawl of genres the members come from.

How is it in Halifax?

Ben: It’s snowy, it’s beautiful, blue skies, we’re ready to rock.

John: We just flew in last night.

How have things been since the release of the record?

Ben: Our lives have changed completely … no, it’s one of those things where you work and you work to get the record out in people’s hands to hear it, and were always just sort of … we like to work, we always have our heads down to figure out what’s next…as this record’s coming out we’re focusing on going down to Memphis in February so that’s sort of the next thing in our minds … we’re playing a bunch of festivals and touring in the summer so we’re all just sitting back and enjoying the moment.

John: We’re not rich enough to sit back and enjoy things too much though, it’s nice to feel the accomplishment of having a good record on our dossier if you will, but the fact is that there’s a lot of great music and the real distinction for a band like us is having some planning and knowing where we want to go with it. That’s always a driving force behind our moods, which tend to be pretty good in this band. We have fun with it.

You’ve all played with successful Canadian acts like Amy Millan, Basia Bulat, Justin Rutledge, Ken Whiteley and Brandi Disterheft, how’d this band come together?

John: I’ve been playing bluegrass and I guess country music for a long time and I was doing something where it would be a little outside that, we’d take some of the ideas from bluegrass or country music and throw in different elements. I needed to find a few guys that would really be into creating that with me and match the mission. Ben and Roman and James came to mind immediately and they were all into it and they were the first people I asked and they said yes and so we kind of made this thing, I guess it’s been two years now. The first time the four of us played together was maybe February 2009 in Roman’s living room.

Do you find it difficult to describe your sound?

Ben: It’s funny you say that because a lot of people are like, ‘we’re totally unique and we’re the most original shit ever!’ But ultimately what we’re doing is … our music is very drawn in, in the old school country tradition of the lyrics, the storytelling and a lot of those song forms and what we’ve done is we’ve taken those song forms and that idea and expanded it in our own way. So you could say we’re alternative country but not in the way people think. We’re “alternative II country.”

John: I think we’re alt-country in the way that we base our music on forms that have been around a long time. To me, what I like about what we’re doing in this band is that we’re playing folk music in a lot of ways, especially lyrically and just thematically. We’re playing ballads. It’s mostly storytelling songs, songs about love, loss, death, spirituality, tough choices, crime … most old country stories are about tough themes, you know it’s sort of sad music, like the blues.

You sing about tough themes that affect people’s lives and bring them down but you sing about them in a way that you exorcize those feelings, that’s kind of what we’re doing but we’re framing those themes musically in a way that is our own, but it’s definitely not without precedent.

Ben: And John was saying he wanted to play with players that didn’t just come from the traditional bluegrass and country setting. All four of us, James and I particularly, come from playing in rock bands, Roman too. There’s definitely this strong influence and sensibility that comes from playing pop music and from playing rock music that shapes those ideas.

New Country Rehab play The Mansion tomorrow night with Entire Cities and Corin Raymond at 10 p.m.

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.