Chris Duncombe, David Roberts and Aaron Grain of The Washboard Union.
When: Sept. 1, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Fort Langley National Historical Site, 23433 Mavis Ave.
Tickets and info: summersetfestival.ca
The Washboard Union was the first country band in Canada to ever take home a Juno award as Breakthrough Group of the Year. By the time they picked up that honour, the trio of David John Roberts and step-brothers Aaron Grain and Chris “Dunner” Duncombe were already certified gold in Canada. And it would take too much space in this story to mention all the other awards to their credit.
Nobody would be surprised if these crossover road warriors had some serious swagger.
But apparently the trio is still in the “pinch me” phase of living out its musical dream. On Aug. 6, the band posted this on its Facebook page: “This summer you’ve made three boys feel like they’re dancing on top of the world. We’ve got the best fans a band could ever hope to have. Thank you for all the love you show us night after night and for letting us live out our dreams on stage.”
And that bit of aw-shucks-ery comes on the heels of a summer spent criss-crossing the country to play for fans that the band has made in every corner of Canada. Among the highlights so far was a singalong with 25,000 fans at the Cavendish Beach Music Festival in Prince Edward Island on July 7. Now the group is primed to play the closing night of the Summerset Fest (Aug. 30 to Sept. 1) at the Fort Langley National Historic Site on a bill with Paul Brandt, Kadooh and The Wild North.
Coming back to B.C. to play for the folks who followed the evolution of the group from its roots in Run GMC to The Washboard Union puts smiles on everyone’s faces. As it’s first decade together looms, this crew is on a high.
“It astonishes us now that, in a time period of the past year or two, the crowd has gone from singing along to the one or two songs that they knew to the whole set,” says Duncombe. “It’s such a crazy change. You write these songs in some tiny little place and then someone invests the time to learn them front to back and sing them to you and I don’t know of a greater gift you could receive as an artist.”
The removal of the barrier between stage and audience is key to an artist’s longevity. In an industry that loves nothing more than to stale-date a veteran performer only to repackage them with an identical younger model purely for sales, the relationship you build with fans is your lifeblood. The Washboard Union live experience is where you see what happens when catchy hooks, good natured humour and solid chops come together.
“Because of the fun we have onstage, it’s infectious and we get that feedback from the fans, and that symbiotic relationship that jumps back and forth just keeps spiralling upwards,” says Grain. “The Washboard live experience is building faster and stronger than we can keep up with now. It’s a really interesting point from all the time in the past spent just trying to get people to give it even a little bit of a listen.”
Music has run in the veins of the members since they were in their teens. Duncombe has a long history in radio. From playing a role in giving Vancouver fans a place to hear Warped Tour era bands when they weren’t being broadcast to the commercial sounds of CFOX, he has always had a keen ear. Grain and Roberts were right there too and all of them realized that a country crossover sound best suited their talents. Not only does it work here, it’s taking the group to Ireland and France and they are off to Spain later this summer.
“It’s great going over to one of these country music festivals in France and instead of seeing hotdogs, food trucks and hamburgers, you see fresh-baked brie and prosciutto on a baguette with sparkling wine in stemware instead of solo cups,” says Roberts. “But if you look at the roots of where it came from, it comes from the Highlands of Scotland and all that Celtic music that came with the travellers and morphed into bluegrass to country. Now it’s just getting kicked back across the pond and, trust me, country music is a real thing over there now too.”
Which means that Washboard Union has new markets to sell 2018s What We’re Made Of as well as its earlier self-titled debut and In My Bones EP. Obviously, with the amount of touring the band does it’s probably due another EP at the least.
“Yes indeed it is, and we’ve already got somewhere around 20 new songs we’ve worked on,” says Duncombe. “There will be a new project coming and some new music coming in the fall.”
“Given all the touring, we’ve been blessed that radio has supported us and our songs stay on there for a long time,” says Aaron Grain. “Being in a band, you are always in these cycles of promoting a new record, touring a new record, writing a new record or recording a new record. Each one is a different mind space and we love all four equally.”
While they didn’t come into being in the Washboard Union entirely raw and Duncombe’s broadcast years meant he had some knowledge of the music business and a few numbers to call, the trio liken their career to working toward a degree.
“I think I knew a little bit, but from an artist’s perspective it’s so completely different,” said Duncombe. “I feel like we’ve been in university or college since we started and we’re learning more and more as we go along. I would never say we had anything figured out coming in.”
“Timing is everything, and I think that 10 years ago Washboard probably wouldn’t have had a good chance of getting on the radio, probably not,” said Roberts. “We just came out at a time when country was really changing and were really fortunate that bands like us are being way more accepted. There seems to room for everything now and that’s great.”