Pharis and Jason Romero’s Long Gone Out West Blues effortlessly evolves tradition with innovation. Meanwhile, high watermarks like “Lost Lula” simply defy categorization. CMT Edge spoke with the British Columbia-based folk duo about their new album, tracing songs to roots and why vintage instruments are essential.
“I’m always looking for a new, awesome old guitar,” Jason Romero says. “There’s just something in those old instruments, a sound that you cannot get in a modern instrument. It’s the mojo, the color, the smell, the sound. There’s a tone that’s not the same. We both love that era, the clothes, the ideal, the life, the instruments.”
CMT Edge: Explain how Long Gone Out West Blues took shape.
Pharis: Well, there are 13 tracks. Eight are originals or traditional songs that we shaped into a whole other song. They were mostly written specifically for the album — to the point that one, “The Little Things Are Hardest in the End,” was written in the studio while we were recording. We recorded it the next day.
Jason: Yeah, we started thinking about those tunes right after we finished the last album [2011’s A Passing Glimpse]. You start looking at new material.
Pharis: We always do that. After we record an album, it’s not that we fall out of love with the songs on the last album, but we start looking into new directions almost immediately. The album is just a middle point for a time where you focus on the songs, and then we keep moving forward.
How did you go about selecting the traditional songs?
Jason: We spend most of our days listening to really old stuff. We have for years. There are so many great old tunes that for some reason didn’t catch on in the last 70 years. We just came across the Riley Puckett one I had on LP [“Waiting on the Evening Mail”]. I’m totally in love with his singing and guitar playing, so we wanted to do one of his. Pharis found “Truck Driver’s Blues” looking for material for teaching at a camp.
Pharis: I was. That was on an old radio show from Louisville, Ky. Even when we do listen to modern music, if I have even an inkling it might’ve been sourced from a much earlier source, I’ll go back and learn where that person got that song from and on and on and on until I can find the earliest possible version of the song. If I want to learn it, that’s usually where I’ll go.
Jason: It’s a habit we’ve learned from our wonderfully geeky fiddle friends who always want to find the original version of any given fiddle tune.
Tell the story behind writing the title track.
Pharis: I’m the fifth generation of my family to live here in Horsefly, [British Columbia] and my family came out from Quebec in the late 1800s, slowly migrating out various ways — trains and horses. I started thinking about them and their travels and how extreme it would’ve been to go from the mountains and hills to flat prairies and then all of a sudden hitting the Rocky Mountains again when you’re coming through Alberta and how much they would’ve missed loved ones and community.
I brought that song in in very different form, almost singer-songwriter, to Jason, and he took it and ran with it for a little while, and then we turned it into the double guitar [song], more thinking about the early country duet style.
Is collaboration like that typical?
Pharis: It’s usual, but I’d say that one was a little more collaborative, which is why it’s credited to both of us. It’s the only one credited to both of us, but every track on the album has both of our thumb stamps on them or whatever you want to call it, but maybe we didn’t spend that much time separately crafting the tune. We brought it in in pretty finished form and said, “Here, let’s work it up as a duet.”
Who do you draw from as songwriters?
Pharis: I don’t draw from a lot of songwriters anymore, not modern ones, that’s for sure. As a teenager and in my 20s, I listened really intently to tons of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell and Bonnie Raitt. Those gave me a foundation I still sort of go back to subconsciously even though I don’t put on a lot of Joni Mitchell anymore. I’m way more likely to put on, as Jason mentioned, some Riley Puckett.
Jason: I was never a word person. When I hear a song, I hear the sound of it, and then the words will come after. I’m the opposite of Pharis. No matter how the song sounds, she’s listening to the words. I’m listening to how the sound of the song is making me feel. Even if it’s incredibly well-written, if I don’t like the sound of the song, I’m just not gonna like the song. I don’t care how well-crafted the words are.
You guys are a good balance.
Pharis: It is pretty cool. It’s worked out pretty well for us, and we’ve both learned a lot from each other over the years. We’ve known each other five and a-half years now, and I think we’re really starting to grab more and more from each other’s way of doing things all the time. Which is probably why we do a lot more collaborative songwriting together.
Speaking of feeling, Jason, why does “Lost Lula” make me feel so lonely?
Jason: I loved that dog like you wouldn’t believe. It was really hard on me. I probably put a thousand miles on my truck hitting every logging road in this area for a couple months. I had never written a banjo tune, but it was pretty intense for me to lose her. Maybe the combination of how I felt with missing her with 20 years of listening to obscure banjo music, I just wanted to play something simple because I had a good friend who told me, “Keep it simple. Beautiful tunes don’t have to be full of notes.” I’m glad to hear it makes you sad. (laughs) I’m glad in a nice way.
Pharis: Jason knew that dog before he knew me. I met Jason, and he had that dog. They were pretty much best friends.
I’m even more intrigued about that feeling now that I know it’s about a dog.
Jason: Yeah, a lot of it was not knowing what happened to her. The wilderness is so big and vast up here. She was too strong to be taken by a cougar, I think. It could’ve been a pack of wolves. It was a busy weekend, so it could’ve been some mindless RV camper on a hunting trip going, “That looks like a good hunting dog.” She was a retriever. Not knowing made it even harder.
It’s a timeless tune. What’s most appealing about roots music in a digital age?
Jason: I think it’s a direct backlash because it’s such a digital age. After the ’80s and ’90s when things got really techno …
Pharis: It got complicated. People are craving a sense of simplicity now.
Jason: There are a lot of duets out there. Duet’s a hard thing. You’re asking a lot from an audience. You’re asking them to come to you in a way that a big band isn’t. A big band is giving. We’re giving with our music, but we’re asking the audience to come halfway and recalibrate their ears a little bit. I think people are craving more simple music.
Pharis: There was really heavy production on albums in the ‘80s and ‘90s and even into the 2000s. It got clouded by whether it was well-produced or not. I think people are starting more and more all the time to be able to distinguish between that. I think people are opening their ears more all the time right now, partially because of the availability. Every time you turn around, there’s an incredible field recording collection released or somebody took their collection and digitized all their 78s in their basement and put them out for us to be able to listen to. The accessibility to really old, traditional, weird, creepy, cool music is so much more available now.
So, do you only play records, or do you have iTunes and all the usual stuff?
Pharis: Oh, heck yeah. We pretty much go across the board. We’re not purists by any means. I doubt we’re ever gonna put a record out on 78. (laughs) We’re just not, even though we know folks who do, and we love the idea. I would hate to restrict the music I could access and listen to and be inspired and learn from by only listening to it available in one format. That would be sad.